The Democrats' campaign blues

Americans are turning against Bush's disastrous Iraq policy. So why aren't they embracing his presidential rivals?

Published November 11, 2003 12:28AM (EST)

Here's how badly things are going for George W. Bush in Iraq: When a reporter asked last week if he could promise there would be fewer U.S. troops in Iraq a year from now than there are today, the president proclaimed it a "trick question" and refused to answer.

This ought to be good news for the Democrats' chances of winning back the White House in 2004. Since the planes hit the towers on the morning of Sept. 11th, the rally-around-the-flag president has appeared all but unbeatable. But with each passing day now -- with each military coffin the administration won't let the cameras see -- Bush is growing just a little more vulnerable. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last weekend showed that a majority of Americans disapprove of the way Bush is handling Iraq. Americans are wondering whether the war was worth it. They're worrying that U.S. troops are getting bogged down, that Bush has started a war he can't finish.

They just don't seem to want any of the Democratic candidates to take his place.

In the zero-sum game of politics, you'd expect the Democrats' stars to rise as Bush's begins to fade. But it's not happening. Bush's approval ratings are dropping fast, but the Democratic candidates aren't rising up to fill the void. In head-to-head polling matchups, Bush beats each of the Democrats now running against him. And even Democrats themselves are in discord as to whether the party should be pushing a fire-and-brimstone anti-Bush guy like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean or an Iraq hawk like Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Why? With Iraq unraveling and Bush on the ropes, why can't the Democrats come together and deliver a knockout punch? There are too many Democrats running for president and not enough serving in Congress. The Democrats in the presidential race can't get their messages out, and the Democrats in Congress can't do anything at all. While the media is game for "gotcha" stories now -- the press ate up the spat over Howard Dean's Confederate flag comment, and the tempest in a teapot over a leaked memo from a Democratic staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee -- little play is given to the substance of the candidates' views. And the public isn't listening anyway.

The result: As the Post explained in describing its poll results last weekend, the Democrats -- in the eyes of the public, at least -- are "virtually invisible as an effective opposition to a president who commands center stage."

"Public confidence is eroding in George Bush, not only in his competence in a difficult foreign crisis but also in his credibility because of the misuse of intelligence to make the case for the invasion of Iraq," says Will Marshall, president of the Democratic Progressive Policy Institute. "The door is open to Democrats, but it's open only if they come in and make their own case." So far, at least, the candidates haven't done that.

You get a glimpse of the problem as soon as you turn on one of the Democrats' debates. Nine candidates perch on stools on a massive arc of a stage. They answer questions in too-fast succession, racing to finish so that the moderator du jour can ensure that a cold-day-in-hell candidate like former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun gets exactly the same amount of airtime as each of the more serious contenders.

It's a disaster before you can even begin processing the words. But then someone speaks -- say, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- and things start to get worse. At a debate in Detroit last month, Edwards began his closing statement by saying: "George Bush's America is not our America, but we have to do more than say, 'I told you so.'"

The trouble is, Edwards can't even say "I told you so" when it comes to Iraq. Indeed, on what is becoming the central issue in the presidential race, Edwards can't credibly claim to have "told" anyone anything at all. When Bush asked for authority to go to war last fall, Edwards said yes. And in the Democratic field, he's not alone: Kerry, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Richard Gephardt all voted for the use-of-force resolution in October 2002. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who appeared to have a clear shot at Bush when he entered the race, ended up shooting himself instead with a bumbling first-day performance when he suggested that he probably would have voted for the resolution and then got so flummoxed by questions that he had to ask his press aide to save him.

Support for the war might have seemed like a good idea for Democrats last fall, when the "United We Stand" aftermath of Sept. 11 had Bush looking invincible on international affairs. The Democratic candidates would fight Bush on the economy -- several of them, including Edwards, voted against the president's tax cuts -- while sticking close by his side on foreign policy. But with the economy finally showing hints of an uptick and the war in Iraq going completely to hell, that strategy suddenly seems exactly wrong.

Democrats who once cozied up to Bush now see the advantage in standing up to him instead. That's easy to do for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has charged to the front of the Democratic pack by blasting Bush early and often. But for Edwards, Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt and Clark, breaking up with Bush is proving hard to do.

Consider poor John Kerry. The Massachusetts senator ought to be doing quite well at this point in the race. He is experienced, handsome and smart, a domestic liberal and a foreign-policy centrist, and he can say two things about Vietnam that George Bush can't: I fought in the war, and I fought against it. Kerry should have every advantage; thanks to spillover from Boston television, he's even got pseudo-favorite-son status in New Hampshire. It's all good until Kerry has to start firing up his liberal base on Iraq, and then everything gets -- well, it gets a little complicated.

Kerry says that Bush's handling of the war has "put our troops at risk, creating a potential new sanctuary for terrorism and weakening America's leadership in the world." Unfortunately, Kerry, like Edwards, voted to let Bush start the war in the first place. But when Bush asked for $87 billion to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan this fall, Kerry voted no. In debates and on the stump, Kerry has a hard time squaring the votes. As the New York Times noted in a recent article, it took Kerry more than 40 minutes in a conversation with a reporter to arrive at something approaching a coherent theory as to how the two votes could be consistent.

Kerry has explained that he voted to authorize Bush to use force only to provide the president with a credible threat to use in working with the United Nations. Nonsense, says a staffer for another high-ranking Senate Democrat. "It's absurd for anyone to argue that they didn't think the president might go to war," the staffer said. "Everyone had to know that the president was likely to do it and that it might not be done in the way that John Kerry would do it."

Kerry's campaign staff did not return calls for comment. However, the candidate has said publicly that he couldn't vote in favor of Bush's $87 billion Iraq and Afghanistan package because it is "not the most effective way to protect American soldiers and to advance our interests."

Foreign policy expert Coit Blacker accuses Kerry of "tortured logic." Blacker is the director of Stanford's Institute for International Studies, and before that, he was a national security aide to Bill Clinton and an advisor to the Gore campaign. He says the middle-of-the-pack Democratic candidates "are just terrified of ending up on the wrong side of the [Iraq] issue, and they can't figure out which is the wrong side," Blacker said this week. "These guys are slaves to polls. They see the president's job approval rating slipping, but not so precipitously that they're prepared to say, 'We told you so.'"

The problem for Democrats who still have room to maneuver on Iraq -- Dean, Braun, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton have been so strongly against the war that they can't credibly change now -- is that it's so hard to know where to go. Things could change on the ground in Iraq, as they did this week when two U.S. helicopters were shot down and more than 20 U.S. soldiers were killed. And things could change back home, as the polls suggest that they are beginning to do.

"It's just so hard to predict how this is going to turn out," said Blacker. "We don't know where we're going to be a month from now or two months from now or four months from now in Iraq. The numbers coming out now allegedly reflecting how the American people feel about these things -- the war, the casualties, the president's handling of the situation -- those numbers are pretty volatile and not clear. That provides these guys with next to no moorings in terms of how to position themselves."

That's not a problem for Howard Dean, of course. Before the war started, Dean lashed himself hard to an antiwar plank, and there's no letting go now. His clear message has energized the party's liberal base -- he leads in fundraising, leads in New Hampshire and is running neck-and-neck with Gephardt in Iowa.

Dean's campaign says the Democrats will never beat Bush by running Bush Lite. Taking a more centrist approach, the Democrats have lost the House, the Senate and the White House. In the last two months alone, the Democrats have lost three gubernatorial races. Dean's answer is to swing back to the Democrats' more liberal roots. In his stump speech, Dean sometimes envisions Karl Rove "rubbing his hands together and cackling" about the "liberal Birkenstock governor from Vermont who's going to run against us." But ultimately, Dean says, Democrats have to understand that "the way you beat George Bush is not to try to be like him."

For more centrist Democrats, the answer is equally as clear; it just happens to be the opposite one. In their eyes, a rabid antiwar, anti-Bush message spells disaster for the Democratic Party. Indeed, Will Marshall, whose centrist Progressive Policy Institute gave birth to many of the "New Democrat" ideas espoused by Bill Clinton, says that Dean's early success with an antiwar message is already threatening Democrats' chances in 2004. Marshall says the Democrats have to hope that their candidate in November is exactly the kind of candidate having such a hard time catching fire now: a Joe Lieberman, say, or a Dick Gephardt.

"Democrats are going to have to have a strong case about why they can be trusted to keep Americans safer," Marshall told Salon last week. "They've got to allay public doubts about facing down foreign enemies. And when it comes to using force and persevering through adversity, the obvious risk is that the public will get the impression that too many leading Democrats are calling for bugging out in Iraq."

None of the serious Democratic contenders is suggesting that the United States "bug out" of Iraq now. While criticism of Bush's handling of the war dominates the Democratic stage, Dean, Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt, Lieberman and Clark have all put forth multi-point plans for internationalizing the war effort in order to lessen the risk to U.S. troops and the burden for U.S. taxpayers. With the exception of Clark's plan -- which he rolled out to decent press play this week -- the proposals are the stuff of policy papers buried deep on candidate Web sites, not front-page analyses in the New York Times.

For the campaigns, that's frustrating. "Gov. Dean announced his plan for postwar Iraq in April, and he expounded upon it in August," said Dean spokesman Jay Carson. "He's been talking about it since April. He's focused on the postwar world."

To some degree, it's just too early for the candidates to be heard. But there are other factors at play. The candidates' plans for internationalizing the war are generally vague and disconnected from reality; it's one thing to say that the United States should get the United Nations or NATO more involved, but it's another to explain how that might be done when the most likely U.S. allies have insisted -- repeatedly -- that they will not help.

Norm Kurz, communications director for Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said the candidates are having a hard time getting their Iraq plans across precisely because they are candidates. "As candidates, their views are considered to be somewhat politicized, and they're not given a fair and honest shake," said Kurz, whose boss stayed out of the Democrat race at least in part so he could remain a credible voice on foreign policy issues.

One way for a candidate to stand out would be to step back and look at the war on terror more broadly. The candidates thus far have been generally supportive of the war on terror while trying to carve out the Iraq front. Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, who teaches international relations at Boston University, says that may be the wrong approach. Democrats could be asking whether the right response to Sept. 11 was a war at all. Wouldn't it have been better to treat the attacks as the product of an international conspiracy, and then fight back through law enforcement?

If the Democrats focus on terrorism as an international conspiracy rather than as something to be fought by war, it would be harder for Bush to justify Iraq as the "central front" on the war on terror. Because there is no evidence that Iraq played any role in the Sept. 11 attacks, there's no reason to go after Iraq while chasing the international conspirators. Framing the issue that way, Bacevich said, the Democrats could make "the error of Iraq" appear "all that much greater."

Of course, there are ways the Democratic candidates could focus attention on postwar Iraq more clearly, too. On Thursday, Biden released a detailed proposal for Iraq that could bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality on both sides of the issue. It acknowledges the progress the United States has made in opening schools and hospitals and the like but explains that such progress is for naught if there isn't security to go along with it. Among other things, Biden calls on Bush to put more emphasis on securing ammunition dumps and to go to Europe, "call a summit, and ask -- ask -- for more help."

The Progressive Policy Institute has also put forward a serious counter-vision for the future of Iraq -- and for foreign policy more generally. Given its "third-way" origins, the PPI's "Progressive Internationalism" strategy not surprisingly aims between the "neo-imperial right and the non-interventionist left," arguing that Bush was right to invade Afghanistan and supporting the "goal" of removing Saddam Hussein but calling for much greater emphasis on the use of international organizations and coalitions.

Lieberman is taking the sort of "muscular" approach centrists like Marshall advocate. Adam Kovacevich, a Lieberman press aide, said the Connecticut senator has been absolutely consistent in his statements and his belief that "removing Saddam from power was and remains a good idea," and that "the world is a safer place with Saddam gone."

"There's no question about that," Kovacevich said. "The senator felt that Saddam Hussein posed a significant threat to our security, and without a doubt we're better off that he's gone. To the extent that President Bush is now squandering the fruits of our victory in postwar Iraq, that's why we need a new president."

The trick, of course, is convincing the voters. And for that, the candidates will need not just their own powers of persuasion but the help of their party as well. But with the Democrats so completely out of power in Washington, there's relatively little that the party's leaders can do to help launch a coordinated assault on Bush. With minority status in both the House and the Senate, Democrats can't control the agenda, can't launch meaningful investigations into Bush's misuse of intelligence or the outing of Valerie Plame, can't even demand meaningful compromise on Iraq-related legislation.

When Bush came back to Congress this fall with his request for $87 billion in funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, Democrats attempted to separate the reconstruction funds from the funds needed to support troops. Republicans refused. The Senate attempted to convert some of the reconstruction grants into loans. The House-Senate conferees struck the provision. Together with fellow Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy and Patrick Leahy, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd proposed an amendment that would have withheld some of the Iraq reconstruction funds Bush sought pending further approval of Congress -- approval that presumably would not come unless Bush could show that he was making serious efforts to internationalize the Iraq war and recovery. It didn't make it into the final bill.

Through Republican strong-arming and Democratic acquiescence, members of the House and Senate were left with a final vote on an all-or-nothing, support-the-troops-or-don't proposition. They supported the troops, leaving Bush free to proclaim that he has bipartisan support for his war. Bush got everything he wanted -- plus half a billion more. The Democrats got virtually nothing except political cover.

In Daschle's view, the loss wasn't for a lack of effort. "Daschle argued strenuously that the money for reconstruction was not structured correctly and that the administration doesn't have a plan for moving forward," said Ranit Schmelzer, communications director for the Democratic Senate leadership. But the reality, Schmelzer concedes, is that the Democrats "don't have the votes in the House or the Senate."

As a result, she said, Daschle had no choice but to support the package as it came out of the House-Senate conference. "He feels strongly that because our troops are there, we need to provide them the resources that they need," she said.

Defeated and probably a little embarrassed, the Democrats let the final version of the $87 billion package sail through the Senate on a voice vote Monday. Many Democratic senators weren't even there; only Byrd was heard to shout out a "No."

And even when the Democrats start to get some traction on Bush's foreign-policy failings, something always seems to get in the way. Over the last several weeks, the media has begun to report on the difficulties that the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission has faced in wrangling necessary documents out of the White House. The White House was beginning to look defensive, like Bush might be hiding the answers to those "what did he know and when did he know it questions" about pre-attack intelligence.

But just as those stories began to take hold, the Republicans fired back with one of their own. Somebody found -- or stole -- a memo in which a staffer for a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee talked about ways the Democrats could use the committee to underscore questions about Bush's misuse of prewar intelligence on Iraq. The memo was leaked to conservative commentator Sean Hannity, and within hours the Republicans were in full attack. Never mind that the memo had apparently never been distributed. The Democrats -- not the Republicans -- suddenly stood accused of playing political games with intelligence.

The Democrats were distracted and -- once again -- frustrated. "People in the country are concerned about the fact that maybe they didn't get the whole picture going into Iraq," explained a staffer for a senior Senate Democrat. "But now what we're hearing about is a manufactured issue, a smokescreen by the Republicans."

Since the days of Newt Gingrich, the Republicans have become skilled at getting the goods on the opposition party and then dishing them out to the O'Reillys and Limbaughs of the world. The Democrats have never been as good at the art, and they don't have the same kinds of friends in the media willing to go 24/7 with the Republicans' flaws. As former Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart told The Hill this summer, "the conservative right does a much better job of feeding the media beast facts and arguments that make their case."

The Democrats are trying to remedy that. Former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta has been working with other Democrats to create platforms and positions that make sense for Democrats -- and to open a new think tank, the American Majority Institute, that would help feed the press and the public a more steady diet of progressively oriented facts and views.

It remains to be seen whether voters -- or enough of them, anyway -- will be interested. If Sept. 11 brought the country together, events since then have torn it back apart. A "report" released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows Americans are more polarized along partisan lines than ever before. The Pew polling revealed that "political polarization is now as great as it was prior to the 1994 midterm elections that ended four decades of Democratic control in Congress." Worse still, the Republicans and Democrats among the electorate have become "more intense in their political beliefs" than they were then.

For Democrats who need to appeal to their party faithful, carve away at the president's poll numbers, and then put together a winning message in 2004, the polarization of the populace makes a difficult task even more daunting.

"There's been a ratchet toward the antiwar left in Iowa as a result of the Dean surge, but the good news is that a lot of the swing voters and moderates aren't paying attention yet," said the Progressive Policy Institute's Marshall. "But the candidates have got to be careful, because you can't say one thing now and then strike a diametrically opposed position next November."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Democratic Party Howard Dean Iraq John F. Kerry D-mass.