Why won't anyone listen to Gary Hart?

The former, and possibly future, presidential candidate says he pushed a resolution that could have kept the U.S. out of war. But no Democratic leader wanted to hear it.

Published April 4, 2003 12:37AM (EST)

"I don't think they've shown a lot of leadership" on the war in Iraq, former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., says of congressional Democrats. "They got caught -- they didn't want to be on the wrong side of the war. And when they voted for it, it tied their hands."

At a forum last Friday at Dartmouth College, Hart -- who ran for president in 1984 and 1988 and who has not ruled out a bid in 2004 -- told the packed house and two overflow rooms of an alternative to President Bush's war resolution that he suggested to Democratic leaders last fall. He is firmly convinced that it would have disarmed Saddam Hussein, it would have prevented war, it would have received the backing of the United Nations, and it would have helped the Democratic Party.

"It would have called for the permanent intrusive occupation of Iraq for the purposes of disarmament," Hart said. The number of United Nations inspectors would be tripled or quadrupled and accompanied by a U.N. force. A nationwide no-fly zone would be enforced, and everything coming in and out of the country would be inspected. "That would have passed the U.N.," Hart asserted.

In a subsequent interview with Salon, Hart elaborates on his unheeded suggestion. In discussions with Senate Democrats -- the only one he'll name is presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a potential rival for the 2004 presidential nomination -- Hart was adamant that the Democrats step to the plate.

"I told them, 'Don't get into a situation where you have to vote up or down on his war resolution; propose an alternative,'" Hart says. "If the United States had offered that in the U.N. after Resolution 1441, the Security Council would have bought it. As an alternative to war it would have been very attractive. And it would have completely tied his hands."

He means Saddam's hands, but he could just as well have been talking about President Bush's. As Hart mulls another presidential run, his suggestions for the Democratic Party seem to be slowly but surely morphing into criticisms. Since he ignominiously exited the political stage in 1988, Hart has kept quiet -- if fairly busy. The Dartmouth panel (which this reporter also sat on) was actually just a few yards away from the Hanover Inn, where journalism and politics were changed forever when Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor asked Hart in 1988, "Have you ever committed adultery?" But given questions about the personal behavior of our current and previous presidents, charges of overcautiousness against the current flock of Democratic candidates, and Hart's national security bona fides as the unheeded coauthor of a pre-9/11 national terrorism alert, there are those who will no doubt find his candidacy appealing. Before his Dartmouth appearance, veteran aides from his previous campaigns warmly greet him in the hallway.

And while other Democrats find themselves mum on the subject, or put in awkward positions, the war is a major talking point for Hart these days. Ever the scholar, he ruminates on international law, what "the Bush doctrine of preemption" means, and how, regardless of official denials, somewhere in the Pentagon is a list of estimated U.S. casualties for best- and worst-case scenarios. The campaign manager for Sen. George McGovern's 1972 presidential run, Hart admonishes the Dartmouth crowd to welcome the troops home no matter their feelings on the war.

"There's a tendency to blame the military," he says, adding that that was a mistake made during the Vietnam War. "No person in this room, no person in this state, no person in this country should blame the military." The crowd needs to welcome the soldiers back, he says to much applause, "Whatever goes wrong over there isn't their fault."

But as he expresses his concerns about the war in Iraq, Hart also offers an implied critique of Democrats who voted for it. The joint congressional resolution that President Bush wanted and got, after all, is fairly open-ended. It authorizes the president "to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to -- 1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and 2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."

Obviously, Senate Democrats didn't take Hart's advice, and the president's war resolution passed the Senate 77-23 on Oct. 11. For this, Kerry and almost all of his fellow presidential aspirants have been criticized -- particularly by Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont who opposes the war. Kerry could not be reached for comment. But his press secretary, David Wade, says that Hart and Kerry have a close relationship, and notes that Kerry endorsed Hart for president in 1984.

Hart, who served in the Senate from 1974 until 1986, says that the whole war resolution episode "reminded me of the 1980s, back when [President Ronald] Reagan was popular."

Hart recalls that early in Reagan's first term, Democrats embraced his tax cuts, his economic plan, his military buildup and "kicking dust in the face of the Soviets." When Reagan came up for reelection in 1984, "They were tongue-tied." How could they challenge Reagan when they'd been agreeing with so much of his agenda? The '84 Democratic nominee, former Vice President Walter Mondale, was not in the Senate during that era, Hart acknowledges. "But he didn't say much in '81 or '82. He was pretty much like Al Gore in the last two years; he pretty much kept quiet."

Hart would have voted against the Bush resolution, he says, and introduced his own. He also would have opposed the Democratic alternative resolution offered by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, which would have required President Bush to get the U.N.'s approval before committing U.S. forces. "I don't think it was very tough," Hart says.

After all, Hart doesn't belittle the threat; he's confident that coalition troops will ultimately find weapons of mass destruction. "Not many," he says, "but we'll find some. They'll be highly degraded and not deliverable," and somewhere "in the red ring around Baghdad."

He notes that the longer the war goes on without any discovery of weapons of mass destruction, the more "the president's rhetoric has shifted to the liberation of the Iraqi people." "It's an amazing thing this administration has done; they keep changing the target," Hart says. "From disarmament to regime change ... then the [Defense Deputy Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz/[Defense Department advisor Richard] Perle ominous doctrine of using the country as a platform for exporting democracy."

Has he since talked to Kerry about not heeding his advice? No, Hart says. "He cast his vote. So what am I going to say? 'You made a big mistake'?"

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------