Democrats: Profiles in spinelessness

It's time for the Democrats to give up their play-it-safe politics and risk offending a radical minority.

Published May 28, 2003 6:09PM (EDT)

"I a little bit disagree with chairman Roberts on that."

That was Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, kinda, sorta, not really taking exception to committee chairman Pat Roberts' assertion that we've turned the corner when it comes to keeping the peace in postwar Iraq.

But it could just as easily serve as the motto for the whole Democratic Party: "Vote for us -- we kinda, sorta disagree."

The party leaders are so timid, spineless and lacking in confidence that to compare them to jellyfish would be an insult to invertebrates.

Call them the pusillanimous opposition.

These dithering poltroons are so paralyzed by the fear of doing or saying something that could be turned against them in GOP attack ads that they've rendered themselves impotent when it comes to challenging President Bush on the two most important issues of the day: tax cuts and Iraq.

Exhibit A comes from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle who, when asked on "Meet the Press" why the Democrats didn't offer a bold, full-throated alternative to the Bush tax cut plan, including the repeal of the 2001 cuts and a guaranteed balanced budget, timorously explained: "Well, we -- you got to take it one step at a time."

You do -- why? Is this an AA meeting? Bush doesn't take it one step at a time. He's comfortable leading by leaps and bounds. And he's taking us along with him -- straight over a cliff. We're facing a trillion dollars of new debt, incurred by a president with the worst economic record since Herbert Hoover, and the best the leader of the opposition party can muster is a meaningless cliché? Quick, get that man a dose of political Viagra! At least get the blood flowing ... somewhere.

Daschle's trumpet issued an equally uncertain call when it came to the war on Iraq. First, he helped draft the Senate's resolution on the use of force. Then, after sticking his finger in the political wind and catching a zephyr of antiwar sentiment, he blasted the president for failing "so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war." When that comment, made the day before the war started, unleashed a torrent of criticism from ever vigilant Republican attack dogs, Daschle hemmed, hawed and executed another political pirouette, claiming that he "probably would have avoided making the statement" if he'd known we were on the brink of war.

But a quick check of the record reveals this to be an utterly disingenuous dodge: Word of the impending invasion was all over the media when Daschle opened fire on Bush. Maybe the senator's TV -- and his staff -- was on the fritz that day.

It is precisely this kind of craven vacillation that has made possible the triumph of the fanatics in the White House. Democrats are wringing their hands over the "tactical genius" of Karl Rove, and the "brilliant political stagecraft" of his TV experts who always present the president in the best light. Such is the Democrats' fragility that the mere smoke and mirrors of posing the president in profile at Mount Rushmore, or asking the people standing behind him during a recent speech on the economy to take off their ties so they would look more like average Joes, leave them quaking in their boots.

But the Democratic National Committee's Terry McAuliffe needs to stop worrying about the GOP using footage of Bush's Top Gun landing on the Abraham Lincoln in campaign ads and start worrying about finding a presidential candidate who isn't afraid to take audacious and decisive stands on the party's core issues. If they can't compete on style, they should at least give it a shot on substance.

After all, the problem isn't that Democrats are on the wrong side of the issues. It's that they are afraid to make an issue of being on the right side -- not to mention smack dab in the middle of the American mainstream.

For example, only one out of four Americans believe the latest round of tax cuts will significantly reduce their taxes, and just 29 percent think the cuts are the best way to help stimulate the economy. Yet Democrats seem congenitally incapable of challenging a president whose entire domestic agenda consists of more and more tax cuts for the wealthy.

The numbers also favor the Democrats on the foreign policy front. According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 57 percent of Americans are opposed to investing the time and money needed to rebuild Iraq. But the Democrats sit idly by, their thumbs otherwise engaged, while the administration's Iraqi tar baby grows stickier by the day.

And on and on it goes: On the environment, Social Security, greater access to affordable healthcare, gun control and abortion, the majority of the American people are with the Democrats.

Which makes their inability to offer an alternative to the White House juggernaut all the more nauseating. And disgraceful. And tragic.

If this sorry state of affairs is going to change, the Democrats are going to have to jettison their reliance on the consultants who botched the 2002 midterm elections by advising party leaders to avoid taking on the president on tax cuts and Iraq and, instead, offer an unambiguous alternative to Bush's well-crafted image as a straight-shooting man of conviction. It's time for the Democrats to give up their broken play-it-safe politics and risk offending a few vocal members of a radical minority.

They seem to have forgotten the old sports adage that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Well, here's a scoreboard update for Messrs. Daschle and McAuliffe, and the rest of the party leadership: You're down by three touchdowns and the electoral clock is starting to run down. It's time to stop taking things "one step at a time" and start throwing deep.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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