Will it matter politically in the end? Can Democrats take the African-American vote for granted? Perhaps, but it will be interesting to see whether Democrats will be willing to repeat this exercise if Bush were to nominate Clarence Thomas to succeed William Rehnquist and become the country's first black chief justice. The Democrats' performance on the Rice nomination has opened precisely that possibility for the president.
The other political calculation that Democrats have to make -- one that plagued them throughout the election campaign -- is how vigorously to oppose the Iraq War. We are at a critical point in the Iraq enterprise, the most hopeful point since the fall of Baghdad. It's not just the advent of the first free elections in Iraqi history, but the beginning of a real politics with campaigning, coalition building, debate, the construction of political platforms -- all of the rudiments of a representative political system.
It seems particularly inopportune for Sen. Edward Kennedy, for example, to use this moment to call the Iraq policy a catastrophe and a hopeless quagmire. It is possible that history will, in time, prove him right. But how does he know?
To assert with such certainty that the war is lost, especially at such a hopeful time, seems not only to be betting against our side. It presents the political dilemma that faces all war dissidents -- particularly those whose main argument is unwinnability: It tells the brave and committed soldiers on the front line they are fighting in vain.
Regardless of the sincerity of Kennedy's assertion, it carries heavy political risk. Kennedy, however, is long past aspirations for higher political office. The list of 13 Senators who opposed Rice includes some thinking seriously of running for the presidency in 2008. Most prominent of these are Evan Bayh and John Kerry. And Barbara Boxer has clearly used the Rice hearings to raise her national political profile. By using Rice to vigorously oppose the war, they all vie for the 2008 Howard Dean role -- albeit played calm and composed -- of unequivocal antiwar candidate and favorite of the party's activist left.
There is at least one even more prominent Democrat who clearly considers that calculation wrong. Among the list of Democrats who did vote for Rice is Hillary Clinton, steadily moving to the center with her relatively hawkish work on the Armed Services Committee, her recent conciliatory speech on abortion, and now her unwillingness to go over the cliff in opposing the Rice nomination.
Who has the politics of this right? My guess is: Hillary, as usual.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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