By Richard S. Dunham As war fever builds in Washington, news reports are again reminding Americans that Vice-President Cheney has been spirited off to a "secure, undisclosed location." But also largely missing in action is another group: the Democrats. Maybe they've joined the Veep in his bunker.
Fourteen years ago, Senator Edward Kennedy famously asked a question about another Bush, who, Kennedy claimed, was AWOL when controversial White House decisions were being made during the Reagan Administration: "Where Was George?" Kennedy said of then-Vice-President George H. W. Bush. Now, as crucial decisions are being made about a possible war with Iraq, it's fair to ask the same question about the Democrats who hold positions of elected and political power.
War with Iraq is a deadly serious issue, one that could place tens of thousands of American lives on the line, yet many top Democrats seem to be ducking for cover. Not all of them, though: Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) have come out in support of Bush's Iraqi policy. But it's time for other Democrats to state their positions, too.
ONLY ONE DEBATE. To be fair, Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.) and Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), a hopeful for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination, have raised plenty of questions -- some good -- about the possible U.S. military assault on Iraq. But they haven't said how they would handle Saddam Hussein. Similarly, the normally loquacious Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe has issued five statements this month on topics ranging from Florida's election snafus to Rush Limbaugh, but nothing on Iraq.
As a result, the Bush Administration has framed the discussion. Indeed, the only true debate that has taken place is an internal one among Republicans. Where does Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic Presidential nominee, stand? He's eying a rematch in 2004. He should speak out.
Daschle summed up the typical Democratic approach on Sept. 12. Responding to President Bush's tough talk at the U.N. about Saddam's record of keeping -- or not keeping -- promises, Daschle gave Bush credit for "a strong speech." Then he added: "There are a number of questions that remain about this effort and about our chances for success." In rapid-fire succession, Daschle asked seven. But a key one -- never raised -- is: Where do Democrats stand on war with Iraq?
UNCONTROLLABLE AGENDA. The Dems have reason to fear a debate over sensitive military issues, particularly this close to a midterm election. A Gallup Poll conducted Sept. 5-8 found that voters overwhelmingly believe Republicans are more capable of protecting the U.S. from international terrorism and military threats. Democratic strategists know that they'll fare better on Election Day (Nov. 5), if voters are focused on domestic issues -- particularly the sour economy -- than on foreign enemies.
Unfortunately for the Dems, you can't always control the agenda. After all, a little more than a year ago, who would have thought "homeland security" and Osama bin Laden would be talked about more in Washington than tax cuts and Alan Greenspan?
A number of Democrats privately grumble that President Bush and his political advisers are scheduling a crisis with Iraq to wipe the bad economic news off the front pages. Occasionally, that sense of cynicism finds it way into public discourse, as when the top staffer for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently suggested that "General Rove" (referring to the President's chief political strategist, Karl Rove) was preparing to unleash the dogs of war in October.
AGGRESSIVE "MARKETING." Democrats also have reason to openly doubt the Bushies' motives. After all, it was White House Chief of Staff Andy Card who told The New York Times that the Administration had consciously waited until the President returned from summer vacation to ramp up the anti-Saddam rhetoric. "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August," he was quoted as saying.
That new, improved product was rolled out this past week -- along with an aggressive White House marketing campaign for a quick congressional vote of support for the Commander-in-Chief. But in response, the Democratic strategy seems to be one of delay. Leaders appear eager to put off a vote until after the election...after U.N. resolutions...after U.N. inspections teams can examine Iraqi sites...after a new round of sanctions.
This approach is born from a realization that some Dems don't want to be forced to cast a vote authorizing military action in Iraq. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, the most liberal Democrat in the Senate, likely would vote against a Bush-backed war resolution -- a vote that could haunt him in his very close reelection race with Republican moderate Norm Coleman, who stands behind the President.
And if Wellstone sides with Bush, some alienated liberals almost certainly would bolt to the Green Party candidate in the race. That's a lose-lose proposition for Wellstone. No wonder Daschle would like to find a way to delay the final showdown for a couple of months.
"WHAT'S BEST?" That's the wrong approach. The Democrats' efforts thus far have appeared feeble. Daschle says a U.N. vote before a congressional tally "would be very, very helpful....I think a lot of members are looking for some indication of the degree of support we can expect from the U.N., from the international community, prior to the time we commit resources and troops to this effort."
The President's response? Without a unified America, the U.N. is less likely to act. "I can't imagine an elected member of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives saying, 'I think I'm going to wait for the U.N. to make a decision,'" he said on Sept. 13. "It seems like, to me, that if you're representing the U.S., you ought to be making a decision on what's best for the U.S. If I were running for office, I'm not sure how I'd explain to the American people -- say, 'Vote for me, and, oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I think I'm going to wait for somebody else to act.'"
That's how most Americans are likely to perceive the delaying tactics. Democrats better wise up. It's time for them to join in the ongoing debate, offering their own solutions that advance the interests of world peace and security. Here are their options:
Like Lieberman and Gephardt, endorse the President's approach. Call it multilateral unilateralism. Bush knows his course of action. He'll create conditions so strict that Hussein's regime won't agree to comply. And by thumbing his nose at the U.N. and the international community, the Iraqi strongman will give the U.S. and Britain (and any other nation wishing to join) the excuse to invade.
Bush runs plenty of risks here. American casualties could be high. Iraq could retaliate against Israel. The war could spread across the region. The U.S. could become an international pariah. Of course, the operation could also be a tremendous success. In the short run, it has broad popular support with voters.
Continue and strengthen the American policy of containment. It was good enough for the first President Bush and the Clinton Administration. The idea is to keep Iraq's regime weak through enforcement of no-fly zones and strict U.N. sanctions. Now, Bush II says that policy is dangerous because Saddam is trying to develop nuclear weapons. The Democrats could challenge Bush to prove his assertion and advocate stronger enforcement. At least it's a substantive policy choice.
Call for coercive inspections. This is the U.N. approach: Allow armed troops to accompany international weapons inspectors. If Iraq refuses to allow the inspectors unfettered access to anything they want to see, they'd be authorized to use force to get their way. The Bush Administration views this as an unacceptable abdication of American leadership. But it could give the world a better idea of what Saddam's military scientists were up to -- and do so before a U.S. invasion.
Daschle and his Democratic friends keep asking a lot of questions. But the American people want some answers, not just from the Administration but from Democrats, too. The party should realize that this isn't a game of 20 Questions. Eventually, Americans will ask the Dems one simple and legitimate question: Where do you stand on Iraq? Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online