Gephardt's big blunder

The House Democratic leader decided to go along with Bush's Iraq plan, hoping the issue would go away. It hasn't -- and antiwar Dems fear now their protests will be too late.

By Anthony York

Published September 28, 2002 11:28PM (EDT)

In retrospect, it was not the smartest political move.

In June, after House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., endorsed the White House's call for military action to oust Saddam Hussein, some colleagues considered it crass posturing for Gephardt's likely 2004 presidential bid. But House Democrats now say Gephardt told them at the time it was also part of an effort to "take Iraq off the table before the [November] election," according to one antiwar voice in the House.

How would that happen? According to Gephardt's strategy, agreeing with the administration would effectively make Iraq a bipartisan issue. The subject would be neutralized. It turned out to be a colossal miscalculation: The idea that a preemptive U.S. invasion of Iraq -- a subject that has the entire world in an uproar -- could somehow be shoved under the rug was optimistic, to say the least. In any case, many Democrats failed to line up with Gephardt's plan. Stifled, their frustration simmered and, despite Gephardt's efforts, came to a boil last week. The 40 or so Democrats in the House who oppose going to war with Iraq now feel there is no time for debate on the subject. And with the House likely to vote by early October on a resolution to authorize force against Iraq, the Democrats are facing a rancorous period of internal debate.

The fact that the opposition party is finally breaking its silence on what could be one of the most crucial foreign-policy decisions in years may be a sign of civic health, but civic health doesn't win elections. What Gephardt tried to prevent in June will likely come true: Democrats will look like the party that wants to go soft on Saddam. And Republicans have a lively issue to ride into the Nov. 5 elections.

So how did the Democrats get themselves into this fix?

When Gephardt gave his June 3 speech, the Democrats were riding high on corporate accounting scandals with deep Republican ties. Gephardt wanted the public focused on corporate corruption, not on Iraq. Suddenly, Democrats were speaking optimistically about their prospects in the fall elections, hoping to ride a wave of dissatisfaction with the economy to possibly take control of both houses of Congress. Soon, Bush's speeches to Wall Street were broadcast (erroneously) on television and appeared to be driving the market down even as he tried to talk up the economy. Bush and Republicans, for the first time in nearly a year, appeared vulnerable.

But after Gephardt's speech, members of the House's progressive caucus, including Reps. James McDermott, D-Wash., Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Pete Stark, D-Calif., and Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, began to strategize about how to begin an internal debate about war in Iraq. They were repeatedly shot down, both by their caucus and their leader, all in the name of political unity, say liberals in the caucus.

"Some of us felt we ought to address this [in June], because if we don't address this now, we're going to be facing it around the election," Kucinich told Salon. "That's exactly what we were concerned about. But leadership was successful in deflecting it."

"There were three caucus meetings [in July] where this was discussed," said another House Democrat who asked not to be identified. "Finally, it became clear that the leadership was effectively blocking any effort to have a caucus position, but at the same time, behind the scenes, was pursuing a position." (Not everyone agrees with this interpretation. One senior Democratic aide with ties to the leadership denied that version of events. "That's just not true," the aide said. "There were some folks who wanted to have a discussion about this after Gephardt's speech, but in the end, they were the ones who decided they wanted to put it off.")

The infighting among Democrats lasted until August. Then, Congress went into recess and Bush went to Crawford, Texas. But key Cabinet members began floating the idea of unilateral strikes on Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney used two appearances before veterans groups to outline the case against Saddam Hussein, and word leaked to the press about an internal administration dispute between administration hawks and Secretary of State Colin Powell over the need to make the case to the United Nations.

By the time Bush and Congress came back after Labor Day, it was clear that Iraq would be at the top of the White House agenda.

During the week of Sept. 11, when Bush cleverly used the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as an emotional ramp for the Get Saddam movement, Bush made clear he would present an Iraq resolution to Congress within weeks, and that he expected congressional approval for war before the midterm elections. In an address to the United Nations he said he would seek to act through the Security Council, but he made it clear he was ready to take care of Saddam on his own.

The Democratic leadership, worried that attacking Iraq was a mom-and-apple-pie issue, struggled to find its footing. On Sept. 12, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was talking about postponing the vote until after the elections, which he said might taint the Iraq debate. But by the next day, he and Gephardt had invited themselves to breakfast at the White House to work with the president on fast-tracking an Iraq vote.

"I think Daschle panicked a little bit," said one Democratic senator. "Republicans were starting to bring up Iraq in some races like South Dakota" -- Daschle's home state, where his colleague Sen. Tim Johnson is up against a tough opponent, Rep. John Thune, who is heavily endorsed by Bush -- "and that made some people nervous."

Over on the House side, with Gephardt a stronger advocate for war in Iraq than Daschle, Democrats were even more timid about starting a debate about Iraq. But Kucinich said he was surprised to hear that Daschle and Gephardt were heading to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to work out a deal with the White House over an Iraq vote. "We didn't know until we heard it on the news that the leadership had met with the White House," Kucinich said. "That's how we found out."

That White House meeting motivated the fledgling antiwar movement within the caucus to mobilize. On Sept. 19, 19 members of the House had signed a resolution announcing their opposition to a war in Iraq. That number has since blossomed to about 40, according to Democrats inside and outside the House's progressive caucus.

Some in that caucus say Gephardt's public support for a war in Iraq has made it harder for them to find a way to get the antiwar message out. "It's harder when you're battling your own leadership, no question," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash. "But these kinds of disagreements with leadership happen on matters of conviction sometimes. I think our frustration has just been trying to get our message out."

Kucinich said that even last week, many in his caucus were reluctant to voice opposition to the war, again in large part for political reasons. "On one hand, it was 'don't talk about it' back in the summer, and then it's 'oh, get it out of the way. Just vote on it,'" he said.

Publicly, at least, Democrats say negotiations with the White House are ongoing. "Our sense is there's still a lot of negotiating to be done," said Gephardt spokeswoman Kori Bernards. "The president has asked us to act with one voice. Gephardt is still intending to do that, and is working toward getting broad, bicameral support for the resolution."

Now that a second draft of the resolution has been completed -- a slightly narrower version, addressing concerns that the original gave the White House a mandate to take military action anywhere in the region -- the White House and Republican leadership in Congress have said they don't want to tinker with the resolution again. Senior Republican staff members have told Salon they are confident that ultimately, Democrats will be forced to go along with whatever the White House comes up with.

Privately, Democratic negotiators acknowledge the Republicans are right. That frustration, Democrats say, may have played a part in Daschle's decision to lash out at the White House from the Senate floor Wednesday. Daschle attacked Bush for politicizing the Iraq issue, angrily citing a speech in which the president said the Senate wasn't concerned about national security.

"I think Sen. Daschle was very measured, and gave voice to what a lot of us have been thinking about this entire process," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "You try to give the White House the benefit of the doubt, but it's become increasingly more difficult to do so. There's increasing frustration with the way this is going."

After Daschle's outburst, and an appeal from the White House to turn the temperature down on the debate, some Democrats sensed an opening to possibly delay the Iraq vote. Kucinich and Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., a centrist Democrat, circulated a letter among their colleagues calling on the caucus to call upon the White House to delay the Iraq vote until after the election. As of Friday, Tauscher said she was confident that they had enough signatures to bring that up as a topic of conversation when House Democrats meet on Tuesday.

But even as these efforts to delay the vote were underway, and another group of moderate Democrats was pursuing a possible "Democratic alternative" to the White House plan, some say Gephardt was undercutting them by encouraging some House Democrats, including Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., to appear alongside Bush on the White House steps Thursday. Just hours after the Daschle outburst, those Democrats joined Bush to call for quick passage of an Iraq resolution.

Gephardt's spokeswoman Bernards said her boss "does not tell the White House which Democrats to invite to the White House and when." But when asked about the decision to go to the White House, Berman told Roll Call that Gephardt "wants me to do this, and I'm doing it."

Vice President Al Gore's speech Monday seems to have encouraged other prominent Democrats to speak out against the war. Friday, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., joined the fray at a speech at Johns Hopkins University.

"America should not go to war against Iraq unless and until other reasonable alternatives are exhausted," Kennedy said. And anticipating Republican attacks on Democrats' patriotism, Kennedy said, "It is possible to love America while concluding that it is not now wise to go to war."

But most liberals seem resigned to the fact that their opposition to the war will do little to slow passage of a sweeping authorization of force. And with that comes a certain frustration with Gephardt.

"They said, 'Let's not talk about it. We don't want to divide the caucus,'" Kucinich said. "Well, guess what? The caucus is divided."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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