Can Democrats Spell D-i-s-c-o-n-n-e-c-t?

Now that worked well.

Leading Democrats had a plan: Vote in favor of the resolution authorizing George W. Bush to attack Iraq whenever and however he sees fit, and take the knotty issue of Iraq off the table in time to promote more Democratic-friendly topics before the congressional elections. And with less than three weeks to go to what will likely be another Election Day with a small turn-out (that post-9/11 patriotism has really caused an upsurge in civic activity), the national political debate is dominated by talk of pension fund reform, corporate responsibility, and extending unemployment benefits. That is, when the discussion has not focused on the Washington-area sniper, North Korea's nukes (how dare Kim Jong II upstage Saddam Hussein -- and leap ahead of Iraq on the list of threatening nations with weapons of mass destruction -- while the U.S. was drawing up invasion plans), or the war on Iraq.

In other words, the voting-for-cover Democrats created little, if any, political space for their party's favorite subjects by essentially amending the Constitution to permit the President, rather than Congress, to declare war.

What is nearly laughable is the reasons several Bush-backing Democrats gave to justify their vote for the use-of-force resolution. Many praised their own role in the debate, claiming that the questions they raised and skepticism they expressed had forced the White House to drop its original demand for an over-the-top blank-check and agree to a mildly more modest blank-check. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle exclaimed, "As a result of Democrats' efforts over the last several months, President Bush now has to spell out, before using new force in Iraq, that diplomatic means have been exhausted and that any effort in Iraq will not negatively impact the overall war on terrorism."

Does Daschle not get cable? The so-called compromise measure does force Bush, should he invade Iraq, to certify to Congress that he has tried every diplomatic means before turning to war. But -- and what a "but!" -- he can send this certification to Congress two days after he has initiated hostilities. What good does that do? When American troops are on the line -- and the nation is rallying around the commander-in-chief -- how do you expect Congress to respond if this certification is phony? In Daschle's South Dakota, do farmers who buy a pig wait two days after the sale to inspect the animal?

On the Senate floor, Daschle practically tried to cast his aye vote as a nay. He noted that there are several "crucial steps the Administration must take before any final decision on the use of force in Iraq is made," including being "honest with the American people" about the benefits and costs of a war, making it clear to the world that the goal of the war is disarmament not regime-change, and preparing adequately for a post-Saddam Iraq. Daschle asserted that so far the Bush White House has done none of this, and he cited several news reports claiming that the administration had misled the public on such matters. So even though Daschle argued that the administration has failed to establish the appropriate foundation (and level of trust) for waging this particular war, he still voted to hand Bush the power to start the war. Was this an act of optimism and naivete or one of cynical political calculation? You make the call.

Hillary Clinton, too, took a Daschle-like approach to this important vote. As she prepared to provide Bush the authority to kick-start a war, she declared, "I will take the President at his word that he will try hard to pass a U.N. resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible." Do you really think Clinton accepts Bush's word on anything, especially on this issue? It is true that Bush says he views war as a "last resort." Yet he has not proposed any other course of action. He has instead chided the United Nations to do something, but without specifying what it specifically ought to do. Bush has allowed his most senior advisers -- mainly Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- to loudly dismiss the effectiveness of a new round of more aggressive and intrusive inspections. It has not taken this administration a long time to reach the last resort. Clinton must know that, but she is unwilling to confront the obligations of such knowledge.

She also proclaimed that her vote was not "a vote for any new doctrine of preemption, or for unilateralism, or for the arrogance of American power or purpose -- all of which carry grave dangers for our nation, for the rule of international law and for the peace and security of people throughout the world." That's like giving a case of beer to an alcoholic and claiming that the act is only meant to promote the responsible consumption of alcohol. The power Clinton and her colleagues were granting to Bush did not come attached with any conditions against unilateralism or arrogant misuse.

Before the vote, Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and Vietnam War hero turned anti-war protester, had been a tough skeptic on the need for a war against Iraq. Then he went soft. Kerry, an undeclared candidate for the 2004 presidential contest, hailed what he called a "shift" in the Bush approach toward Iraq. By that, he meant the White House's increased emphasis on disarmament as a rationale for striking Saddam. But Kerry, no dummy, knows that Bush was using spin for the benefit of Congress and the U.N. (Even in his Sept. 12 speech to the U.N., Bush made it sound as if he believed Saddam should be taken out just for being a ruthless dictator, regardless of whether he possessed weapons of mass destruction or not.) Kerry, like Hillary Clinton, asserted that Bush "recognizes that war must be our last option," and that Bush has stated that he opposes "a unilateral US war against Iraq unless the threat is imminent and no multilateral effort is possible." But, like the Senator from New York, he approved letting Bush decide on his own whether either of these conditions is true. This J.F.K. is no profile in courage.

Enough of this torture, you say. But at least two more Democratic Senators deserve our notice. Senator Dianne Feinstein has been a reasonable critic of U.S. intelligence and has questioned the administration's overly dramatic assessment of the threat posed by Iraq. She said, "I continue to have serious concerns that there are those in this administration who would seek to use this authorization for a unilateral, preemptive attack against Iraq. I believe this would be a terrible mistake. But I am reassured by statements made by the President in his address to the United Nations." Wait a minute, Senator. Bush has never said that he is against a unilateral preemptive strike. And he has not got rid of "those in this Administration" who are known to favor it. Hope does appear to be infinite when a politician wants to avoid a difficult vote.

And there is Joseph Biden of Delaware, a former and perhaps future president-wannabe. Before voting aye, he noted that there is no evidence to support the claim of a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Like Daschle, he discussed the pressing need to incorporate a post-war reconstruction effort into the White House's plan for Iraq. And he praised Bush for having "chosen a course of moderation and deliberation." But it is Bush who has led the administration's effort to link the mass-murderers of 9/11 to Saddam Hussein. And it is his administration that has shortchanged Afghanistan on assistance for reconstruction -- a fact Biden knows well since the Senate foreign relations committee, which he chairs, has made a point of chiding the White House on this front. Yet it was as if Biden were viewing Bush from Planet Rove.

"Concerning Iraq," Biden said, "our first step should be the one the President apparently has chosen: to get the weapons inspectors back into Iraq." Is that Bush's goal? Pressure certainly should be applied on Saddam for unfettered and intrusive inspections, but Bush's actions seem designed to render a new inspections agreement impossible. For instance, the return of the inspectors has been delayed because the United States has insisted -- in the face of opposition from France, China and Russia -- that a new U.N. resolution must demand a tougher inspection regime and must threaten military reprisal if Iraq does not yield immediately. (France and other nations have instead argued for a two-step process: first, pressing Iraq to submit to renewed inspections, and then, if Saddam refuses or dilly-dallies, meting out punishment befitting the crime. If Bush's goal is the re-entry of inspectors -- and not racking up another excuse for war -- why obsess over what to do if and when the inspectors encounter a problem?

My apologies. I should realize that war -- or pre-war -- does not always adhere to logic. But the meta-message of the Dems also is grounded in a fallacy. They argue that Bush cannot be trusted to oversee the U.S. economy. Yet, at the same time, the Democrats -- meaning almost every national elected Democratic leader and 60 percent of the Democratic Senators and 40 percent of the House Democrats -- maintain that Bush can indeed be trusted to precipitate and carry out a war. So, on one hand, Bush is an insensitive, country-club-hanging corporate-lackey who will say anything and screw the middle-class to help out his rich pals. But a wise and outstanding ("moderate and deliberative," as Biden would say) defender of the nation who deserves loyalty and support, on the other. Can Democrats spell "disconnect"?

On Oct. 16, Bush signed the it's-your-war resolution that Congress overwhelmingly approved. Daschle and House minority leader Richard Gephardt, a Democrat who was the main cheerleader for the measure in the House, did not attend the White House ceremony. A senior Democratic official told The Washington Post, "We're simply not going to be used as props as Bush shoves the war down voters' throats. Why play the loyal opposition when he's wielding the war like a political club." True, but it's a club handed to him by the Democrats.

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