Splintered, disorganized and incoherent

After a series of compromises and miscalculations, the Democrats find themselves with no influence at all in the war debate.

Published January 31, 2003 11:55PM (EST)

Gathering for their annual weekend retreat in Pennsylvania, congressional Democrats will try to draw some inspiration from former President Bill Clinton, who addresses them Friday night, and then sharpen their domestic policies with a series of 45-minute focus-group sessions Saturday and Sunday. But all of those efforts will take place in the shadow of looming war with Iraq, and the Democrats will undoubtedly be searching for a role -- any role -- their party can play in shaping the debate.

Right now, it has none. Divided among themselves, and stuck in the minority without control of either the House or the Senate, Democrats have been reduced to a reactive role with the White House clearly in charge. And without any nationally known figures such as Clinton or former Vice President Al Gore out front articulating a case for the Democrats, they're also battling a diminished public profile.

The result: The party is splintered and disorganized, its message incoherent. At a time when Republicans are nearly uniform in support of President Bush, the disconnect among Democrats has often been jarring. While Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was urging the White House this week to give U.N. weapons inspectors more time and arguing that Saddam is effectively "boxed in," Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman was telling reporters Bush "had made the case quite effectively" for war during his State of the Union address.

Badly outmaneuvered, the party teeters on the brink of irrelevancy when it comes to the question of war. "There is no serious alternative position for Democrats that will have an impact over the course of events," says Thomas Mann, political analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Without a strong center of gravity or access to levers of power, the Democrats' position was perhaps best summed up this week by Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a war veteran who opposes an Iraqi invasion. When asked about the pending U.S. invasion, he told a reporter: "I just hope we know what we're doing."

At the root of Democrats' problems may be polls that routinely show voters trust Republicans to keep America's national security strong, and their resulting caution compounds their division. The Democrats don't want to be labeled obstructionists, nor to be tagged as dovish multilateralists who dither in the face of conflict.

"If they're reluctant to engage on the war," says Mann, "that's clearly a loser for Democrats."

Iraq has caused some fractures in the GOP, too; retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft was only one of the high-profile Republicans to publicly question the Bush administration hawks. But the divisions have been more disabling for Democrats. A strident, antiwar wing lead by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who has labeled Iraq the "wrong war at the wrong time," has clashed with the more internationalist faction, lead by Sen. John Kerry, which voted last fall to give Bush complete authorization to fight whatever kind of war he wanted with Iraq. Not to mention outright Democratic hawks like Lieberman who, within the last year, has argued the U.S. should act unilaterally if need be to overthrow Saddam.

Adding to the confusion are some high-profile Democrats already campaigning in New Hampshire for president and criticizing Bush's actions on the war, particularly his failure to win broader international support. Yet most of them, such as Kerry, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., voted for the congressional resolution for war last year. Now frustrated voters are calling on them to explain their nuanced, "Yes, but" position of being tough on both Saddam Hussein and the White House.

And that's not an easy sell to voters who accuse them of trying to have it both ways on the issue of war. As PoliticsNH.com pointed out, when Kerry and Lieberman were recently asked about their apparent contradictions on Iraq, "it took Kerry seven minutes to answer," while "it took Lieberman nine minutes."

Both Kerry and Lieberman, along with presidential candidates Edwards and Gephardt, support disarming Saddam, but have been critical of Bush's approach. (The two remaining declared candidates, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, both adamantly oppose the war.)

The sad irony for struggling Democrats is that recent polls suggest the party's go-slow approach toward Iraq actually mirrors what most Americans feel, yet the Democrats have little to show for being in step. According to a recent Newsweek poll, 66 percent of the public wants the U.S. to take as much time as necessary to achieve its goals in Iraq before using military force.

"Americans are instinctively internationalists who want a broad international coalition and that's precisely what Democrats forced on this president, because last summer the White House was talking about ignoring both Congress and the U.N," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

Looking ahead, Democrats are still trying, in small ways, to force the president's hand. Some, such as Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are already assuming a successful end to the war and looking beyond, complaining the administration has not done enough to prepare the American people for the extraordinary amount of time and money it may take to rebuild Iraq. "I don't think the American people have been told honestly what will be expected of them and what may be asked of them if things don't go so well," Biden warned in a speech delivered on the floor of the Senate.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-N.Y., who voted against the war resolution last year, tells Salon the only thing left for Democrats to do is raise doubts before the fighting begins. "At this point, there are no more war votes coming our way in Congress," he says, "so the only leverage we have is to ask questions and urge the president to come clear on a whole range of issues."

Democrats are often powerless to get more answers from the Bush White House about those war plans. Returning from a classified briefing on Capitol Hill this week, Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., complained to Salon that the session "didn't contain anything you couldn't read in USA Today."

Beyond the Beltway, there's frustration among some Democratic activists who complain their representatives have ducked the question of war. "There's a certain segment of the Democratic Party that feels Bush is hoodwinking the American public with the war on terrorism and that the Democrats are going along with that," says Dante Scala, a political science professor at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., who has been monitoring early campaign efforts among Democratic hopefuls. "They feel nobody's standing up and fighting for them or going after the president on war issues. And that's led to a real demoralization, which we saw after the 2002 elections."

That dynamic was highlighted during an MSNBC focus group the night of Bush's State of the Union address, when one participant, identified as a Democrat, expressed dismay when she saw Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., spring to her feet to applaud Bush's call to disarm Saddam. "I don't know why she did that," the woman protested.

Meanwhile, some Democrats in Washington are still seething about the authorization Congress passed last fall, which essentially asked that Bush go to the United Nations to build an international coalition, but gave him power to act unilaterally and without returning to Congress if he felt that was not working.

The resolution was the subject of much political jockeying. Weary of having domestic issues get overshadowed, Democratic strategists had hoped a quick vote on the resolution would get it off the table in advance of the midterm elections. Instead, the vote came less than a month before voters went to the polls and handed control of the Senate to the Republicans.

That resolution now looms large for Democrats because it essentially robbed them of their only forum -- congressional debate -- to try to shape the war policy.

The resolution passed the House by a vote of 296-133, and faced even less resistance in the Senate, where it passed 77-23, with every Democratic presidential hopeful voting in favor of it. "It was too broad and it gave away the whole store," complains McGovern. "Bush came to Congress to ask for a blank check to do whatever he wants and we said: 'OK, we'll read about the war plans in the newspapers.' Congress shirked its responsibility." Centrist Democrats disagree. "Voting for the resolution was the right thing to do," says Marshall. "Saddam Hussein does pose a serious threat and Democrats need to support a strong policy to disarm him. Otherwise you reinforce people's doubts about the party's resolve on national security. That's a problem Democrats need to solve, and they can't do it by being reflexively antiwar."

A recent survey by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found that on the issue of national security, the public has more confidence in Republicans by a margin of 54 percent to 16 percent.

For now, Democrats continue to search for a war voice -- but the process can be maddening. On Wednesday, Kennedy announced he would seek a congressional vote requiring Bush to present "convincing evidence of an imminent threat" before initiating military action. Yet as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, pointed out, "The president has all the authority he needs."

No need to remind the Democrats.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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