The Democrats' Backbone Implant

For most of September, Democrats in Congress seemed to view confronting President Bush over Iraq as too risky. Better to support a war resolution, get the issue off the agenda, and shift the focus to domestic issues, their reasoning seemed to go.

Then several leading Democrats stood up to the president. It started on September 23, when former Vice President Gore issued a challenge to Democratic leaders in Congress: "Congress should establish why the president believes that unilateral action would not severely damage the fight against terrorist networks."

Democratic strategists groaned: "Oh, no! He's turning the Democrats back into the 'peacenik' party of the '60s! He's opening up a debate that Democrats can't win. Why is he doing this to us?"

Yet Democrats had been privately seething for weeks about what they regard as the White House's effort to politicize the Iraq issue. Gore brought that complaint into the open: "The president is on the campaign trail two or three days a week, often publicly taunting Democrats with the political consequences of a 'no' vote."

Other Democrats quickly got a backbone implant. Normally soft-spoken Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., thundered, "That is outrageous! Outrageous! ... We ought not politicize this war." Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., insisted, "America fights wars, but America does not begin wars."

On September 27, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., wrote in The New York Times, "If Mr. Bush and his party continue to use the war as a political weapon, our efforts to address the threat posed by Iraq will fail." Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., offered a provocative comparison with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis: "The United States prevailed without war in the greatest confrontation of the Cold War. Now, on Iraq, let us build international support, try the United Nations, and pursue disarmament before we turn to armed conflict."

Democratic leaders are under pressure not to let Bush roll over them on Iraq. Actress and Democratic activist Barbra Streisand, who headlined a big Democratic fundraiser last weekend, said in a letter to Gephardt, "The Democratic leadership must not continue to take this lying down."

Most Democrats oppose sending U.S. ground troops to remove Saddam Hussein from power, according to the Gallup poll. And two-thirds of Democrats oppose giving Bush unlimited authority to take military action in Iraq.

It wasn't so much that Democratic leaders rallied their party against a war. It was more like Democrats were an audience waiting to be rallied. Gore led the way. He used to be a hawk. Now he's the darling of the doves. He used to be cautious. Now he's a risk taker. Gore has reinvented himself—again. Being the person who says what Democrats are desperate to hear is a pretty good way for Gore to set himself up for a presidential bid in 2004.

But that's just Gore. Is there any political rationale for other Democratic leaders to take up this issue? Yes, as the debate over the war intensifies, war anxiety has been rising.

In early September, when Gallup asked Americans which issue was more important to their vote for Congress, the economy overshadowed Iraq, 57 percent to 34 percent. By late September, Iraq had moved on top, 49 percent to 42 percent. But voters who put the Iraq issue first were equally divided between the two major parties.

Concern about Iraq has been rising fastest among Bush's critics. Take doves, people who oppose sending U.S. troops to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The number ranking Iraq as their top concern doubled from early to late September (from 24 percent to 46 percent). Concern increased among hawks as well, but not as much (from 40 percent to 52 percent).

Gore is not exactly a dove on Iraq. He supports the Bush administration's goal of "regime change," and he is willing to use force to achieve it. In his September 23 speech, Gore articulated the two concerns that most Americans share about Bush's policy on Iraq—that the United States should not go it alone and that Iraq may distract this country from the larger war on terrorism. Gore linked those concerns, saying, "Our ability to secure that kind of multilateral cooperation in the war against terrorism can be severely damaged in the way we go about undertaking unilateral action against Iraq."

Like Gore, most Democratic leaders don't want to be seen as soft on Iraq. This time, unlike in January 1991, a majority of congressional Democrats will probably vote in favor of a war resolution. But they still share the anger of rank-and-file Democrats, and the anxiety of the larger public, that Bush is not going about this the right way.

In early September, Democrats felt a political imperative to avoid a debate on Iraq, especially since Republicans seemed to be having a pretty good debate within their own ranks. But as Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, writes, "Today's polls agree on one point: A conflicted public would welcome ... airing of the pros and cons of the Bush administration's Iraq policy."

The White House seems to want to shut down the debate. Democrats feel a political imperative to demand one, even if it risks distracting attention from domestic issues.