Where Democrats fear to tread

Al Gore and John Kerry are criticizing the Bush war effort. Will colleagues dare to follow?

By Anthony York
Published July 2, 2002 10:29PM (EDT)

A reliable political taboo -- criticizing a president's handling of war -- finally seemed to give a little last week when both former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., began to take on President Bush.

Just don't expect the Democratic Party, or any of its candidates in this year's midterm elections, to follow suit.

At a June 28 speech before the Shelby County Democratic Party in Tennessee, Gore launched a new attack on the administration's foreign policy -- sort of. Gore said the Bush political team has tried "to use the war as a political wedge to divide America."

That criticism was a creative one, not directly critical of the president's policies, but of his political maneuvering. But Gore also advanced a campaign cry that will eventually increase over time unless the administration can supply an answer: Where is Osama?

"They haven't gotten Osama bin Laden or the al-Qaida operation," Gore said. "They have refused to allow enough troops from the international community to be put into Afghanistan to keep it from sliding back under control of the warlords."

A similar criticism of the administration's handling of the war came a week earlier from Sen. John Kerry. On "Meet the Press" on June 23, Kerry said Bush's unilateral approach to foreign policy is hurting America's struggle against terrorism. "The United States, frankly, needs to be more involved with our allies, reaching out to more countries, making more friends, because it's on the ground in the intelligence-gathering operation and sharing with other countries that we are really going to succeed in this long-term effort," Kerry said.

Kerry also blasted the administration for committing an "enormous mistake" by sending Afghan forces after al-Qaida fighters in the northern mountains instead of using U.S. troops. "I think the Tora Bora operation was a failed military operation, which resulted then in Anaconda, which also did not do the job," he said. "And the fact is that the prime target, al-Qaida, has dispersed, and in many ways is more dangerous than it was when it was in the mountains of Tora Bora."

Both outbursts follow remarks from another potential White House contender, Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who last week reiterated criticisms he first made earlier in the year of Bush's cowboy promises when the president spoke of bringing bin Laden and al-Qaida to justice. Daschle cautioned against raising expectations of catching bin Laden after the easy defeat of the Taliban.

Way back in January, when Daschle first raised concerns, it was far less politic to criticize Bush at all, and Daschle took a public beating from Republicans. Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., essentially accused Daschle of aiding al-Qaida, saying, "Any sign that we are losing that unity, or crack in that support, will be, I think, used against us." But last week Daschle was just one of a cluster, albeit a small cluster, of Democrats criticizing the White House. Once again, Daschle said the president may have raised expectations too high in promising to get bin Laden "dead or alive."

"We have not been as successful as we hoped we could be," said Daschle, adding that the president has not done a very good job describing his war strategy to the American people.

Perhaps the mild reaction to Daschle's comments is the clearest sign yet of how the political climate has changed since the beginning of the year. "The president is proud of his record on the economy, the environment, foreign policy and education, and the country seems to like what the president is doing," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer Friday, in response to Daschle's comments. "There's a lot of intra-Democratic Party politics going on, and we all understand that."

Hardly a charge of treason.

Nonetheless, Democratic political consultant Joe Cerrell, who has worked on Democratic presidential campaigns dating back to John Kennedy, called statements by the three men "sort of a trial balloon to see if it will take. But it just doesn't have legs. It's just not working, at least not yet."

Cerrell says he sees the wisdom in potential presidential candidates' beginning to find ways to establish themselves as adversaries to the president, but he does not expect it to carry over to Democratic congressional candidates.

Instead, when it comes to homeland security, Democrats would rather change the subject, to domestic issues such as the Social Security surplus, providing prescription drug benefits for senior citizens and expanding the nation's economy.

"The best strategy is still to change the subject," says Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "Democrats have always done well on softer issues, but they have had tremendous difficulty competing with Republicans on areas of foreign policy," he says. "Why have a dialogue on something they own?"

A recent Gallup poll supports Sheinkopf's statement, showing Republicans hold a 32 percent advantage among voters who were asked which party is doing a better job fighting terrorism.

But changing the subject is not always possible, and Democrats understand that in the nation's first post-Sept. 11 elections, they will be forced to talk about homeland security. And in trying to define the issue on their terms they're having to make some necessary contortions along the way.

According to Sheinkopf: "Democrats should be saying, 'I want to win the war on terrorism and promote American values throughout the world. But at the same time, we need to protect values at home, so that seniors don't have to choose between eating and buying medicine.'"

"That's broadening the argument. What you do is take the patriotism argument away, make it yours," he says. "You can say, 'We are patriotic Americans and we stand by our men and women in the armed forces doing the tough job that they're doing. We want them to come home to a country that's secure economically, where corporations can't get away with stealing pension funds, where Wall Street can't take away our lifetime savings.'"

A version of that pitch can be seen coming from South Carolina Democrat Alex Sanders, who is hoping to replace Strom Thurmond in the Senate come November. "Security is more than just our national security," says Sanders' campaign manager, Chad Clanton. "It also means security in retirement, security in Social Security, security in our budget process to make sure we're meeting our budgetary priorities."

Or this snippet from the stump speech of Tennessee Rep. Bob Clement, the state's Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate: "I am building my campaign for the U.S. Senate around one word: "security" ... That means Social Security, homeland security, the security that comes from affordable health care, pension security, securing a quality education for Tennessee children."

In recent years, Democrats have tried, with varying degrees of success, to reclaim issues that had previously been strictly Republican terrain. Bill Clinton, in 1996, shored up financial contributions from Wall Street not only because he was an entrenched incumbent, but because he had successfully repositioned the Democrats as a pro-growth, business-friendly party. And in 2000, Al Gore tried to reclaim the mantle of "family values" -- long used as a cudgel against Democrats -- by claiming, as he did when he accepted his party's nomination: "Putting both Social Security and Medicare in an ironclad lockbox where the politicians can't touch them -- to me, that kind of common sense is a family value."

But spinning themselves as the party concerned with homeland security is a much tougher proposition. Just last week, after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, Democrats tripped over each other in a rush to wrap themselves in the American flag, fearful that Republicans would be able to paint them as unpatriotic. Daschle called the court's ruling "nuts." Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., went a step further, calling for a constitutional amendment to protect the Pledge.

But Republicans say it won't help mute criticism from Republicans over Democrats' weaknesses on defense and security issues. "The Democrats are hiding behind the flag like it was Mama's skirt," says Republican political consultant Alex Castellanos. "Anything you say pointing out differences on national security, intelligence funding, etc., is viewed as an attack on their patriotism, and it's really just a difference in priorities."

Is there any way for Democrats to discuss those differences in priorities with the Bush administration in a way that may help them politically? The answer is still unclear. The biggest broadside of the administration came from Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who accused the Bush administration of allowing the Sept. 11 attacks to happen because Bush's political allies would benefit from the ensuing war in Aghanistan. Those comments earned McKinney a rebuke from Democrats and Republicans alike, and a tough election fight in the upcoming Georgia Democratic primary.

But others have attempted to out-patriotic their Republicans in a transparent, and not clearly successful, manner.

In Tennessee, Bob Clement recently wrote a letter to President Bush asking him to make federal top security clearance for Tennessee homeland security director Wendell Gilbert a "top priority." Gilbert himself said he was puzzled by Clement's letter, saying, "I don't see this as a problem. If this were a big problem, I'd have gone to the governor and asked the governor to get involved. I don't believe I've been impeded in any way."

Clement went even further, criticizing Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, who Clement isn't even running against, for not making security enough of a priority. "The governor's office is asleep at the switch on homeland security," Clement said in a recent speech. His proof? He cited a recent article in a local paper that said the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency does not have an up-to-date computer system, and would have to rely on radios and fax machines to communicate in the event of a terrorist attack.

"This is ridiculous," Clement said. "We cannot risk the lives of Tennesseans in an effort to balance the budget or simply because no one from the governor's administration could find the time to make the arrangements for a working system. It is amazing to me that Gov. Don Sundquist has not made this a top priority," Clement said.

Sundquist dismissed the attack as "pitiful."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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