The dance of the Democrats

Bobbing and weaving around John G. Roberts and Cindy Sheehan -- and complicating matters for 2008.

Published September 23, 2005 1:58PM (EDT)

With his approval ratings stuck around 40 percent and a new poll showing that fewer than half of all Americans believe the United States will win the Iraq war, George W. Bush is the one who ought to be sweating these days. But why are the Democrats in Washington looking every bit as uncomfortable as the president does?

They're having to take sides. The Republicans' flip-flopping charges against John Kerry were often overstated and unfair, but there's a kernel there that's true: Politicians, and not just Democratic ones, don't like getting pinned down too hard on things, especially when there's no easy answer, when political calculations point in two different directions and when the ultimate ramifications of coming down on one side or the other will depend on events outside of your control. And this week in Washington -- first with the votes on John Roberts, now with the Cindy Sheehan's visit to the capital -- Democrats in the Senate are being asked to take sides.

On Sheehan, they're steering clear or hedging their bets. As Knight Ridder reports, neither Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry nor Russ Feingold will attend this weekend's big antiwar protest in Washington. The Village Voice reports that Clinton and Reid did make time to meet with Sheehan in Washington yesterday, but Clinton made sure to sit down with members of the American Gold Star Mothers on the very same day. After the meetings, Clinton said that she has been and remains critical of Bush's handling of the war, but she continues to resist calls to set a timeline for bringing the troops home. "I think it is a much more complicated situation," she said.

Voting on the Roberts nomination has proved to be a little "complicated," too. Democrats are doing a dance. When everyone from Howard Dean to Democratic Leadership Council president Bruce Reed is calling for a no vote on Roberts, you'd think it would be hard for even the most conservative Democratic senator to vote yes. But at least 11 Democrats will vote in favor of Roberts' confirmation -- including Feingold, the only Democrat in the Senate to call for a timetable leading to the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Why is Feingold voting for Roberts? At yesterday's session of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he said that he wanted to set a precedent for Republicans to vote for a "Democratic John Roberts" sometime down the road. But Feingold -- and other Democrats who vote yes on Roberts -- may have a more immediate goal in mind: If they vote for Roberts now, they may think, they'll be better positioned to lead the charge against Bush's next nominee. As for the 12 Democrats who say they'll vote no on Roberts? That list is heavily populated with senators -- Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden -- who are looking to run for the presidency in 2008. You need the Democratic base to get through the primaries, and you can't keep it by voting to confirm a chief justice who may end up trying to reverse Roe v. Wade.

Or can you? As Markos Moulitsas Zúniga explains, Democrats looking for purity from their presidential candidates are going to have a tough time finding it in the 2008 field. Clinton, Kerry and Biden will vote no against Roberts -- and John Edwards says he would, too, if he were still in the Senate -- but they all voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. Feingold voted against the war, but he'll vote for Roberts. Wes Clark doesn't have to vote on Roberts, but he equivocated about the war and now is urging Democrats not to push for a timetable. There's always Dean, who opposed the war from the beginning and has called for a "no" vote on Roberts, but he says he's not running in 2008. What's a Democrat to do? Writing in the New York Post, Deborah Orin says to keep an eye on Al Gore.

By Tim Grieve

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

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