In January, when George W. Bush’s pollster warned that “Enron is a much bigger story than anyone in Washington realizes,” White House political director Karl Rove informed the Republican National Committee that this fall’s election would have to be about national security rather than the economy. Rove wasn’t practicing political rocket science; he was merely echoing the common-sense calculations of veteran Republican strategists like Jack Pitney, who says, “If voters go to the polls with corporate scandals at the top of their list, they’re probably going to vote Democratic. If they go [thinking about] the war on terrorism and taxes,” Republicans have the advantage. Now, with the election that will set the course for the second half of Bush’s term less than two months away, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Rice and every other Republican with a talking-head permit is busy making the improbable case for war with Iraq.
Rove’s sly strategy appears to be working. On September 4, the day Congress returned from its summer break, the Dow Jones average plunged 355 points. Yet the next morning’s headlines talked about how Bush would “put the case for action in Iraq to key lawmakers.” Whether Bush actually believes that the war he’s promoting is necessary–or even marketable–there’s no question that Republican prospects are aided by the fact that he’s talking about Saddam Hussein rather than Enron, WorldCom, Harken, Halliburton, deficits, layoffs and 401(k)atastrophes. There is, however, some question as to why Democrats are allowing Rove’s scenario to play out so smoothly. Along with those questions comes the fear that unless the supposed party of opposition finds its voice soon, Democrats could squander opportunities not only to stop a senseless and unnecessary war but also to hold the Senate and wrest control of the House from the right in November.
So far, however, most of the coherent Congressional challenges to the Bush strategy have been initiated by Republicans worried about the threat a war would pose to the domestic economy (House majority leader Dick Armey) or who actually listen to the State Department (Jim Leach, a key player on the House International Relations Committee). While Bush and Rove have had trouble keeping their GOP comrades in line, they’ve had more luck with Democrats. Only a handful of Democrats, like Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich, have echoed Armey’s blunt criticisms of the rush to war. A few more have chimed in with practical arguments against the Administration line, a view perhaps best expressed by Martin Sabo of Minnesota, who says that “to move into a country and say we’re going to topple the government and take over the government–and I think inherent in that is also ‘run it’–is not something we have ever proved very capable of doing.”
But House Democratic opposition has been muddled by the fact that minority leader Dick Gephardt has positioned himself as an enthusiastic backer of “regime change” in Iraq. One senior member of his caucus says, “You can pin most of the blame on Gephardt. If he hadn’t been so enthusiastic about going to war when the Bush people brought this up in the first place, I think they would have backed off.” Acknowledging that Gephardt’s position could make it difficult to hold off a House vote in October, Kucinich says, “I think it could all come down to how Daschle handles the issue.”
Senate majority leader Tom Daschle is not doing Bush as many favors as Gephardt–Daschle at least says Congress needs more information. But the Senate’s leader has yet to echo likely 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry’s suggestion that a policy of containment would be sufficient to manage any threat posed by Iraq, let alone to express the steady skepticism of Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin, who left a meeting at which Rumsfeld tried to make the case for war and said, “I don’t think [the Administration] added anything.”
Daschle’s caution is rooted in his concern that a misstep on issues of war and patriotism could jeopardize his continued leadership of the Senate. It’s a legitimate worry; his one-seat majority could well be endangered if flag-waving appeals take hold–as they have before–in Senate battleground states like Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Daschle’s own South Dakota. But Daschle’s caution is not making things easier for Democrats in those states. It has simply left him playing Karl Rove’s game when he should be saying what most Americans know: that in the absence of any credible evidence of an immediate and quantifiable threat from Iraq, Congress should not get bogged down in this issue. Moving aggressively to shift the focus from Iraq to corporate wrongdoing and economic instability would be smart politics for Daschle and the Democrats. More important, calling the President’s bluff on Iraq would slow the rush toward a senseless war while freeing Congress to debate genuine threats to America.