Return of the San Francisco Democrats

Posted: Oct 01, 2002 12:00 AM
In 1984, Jeane Kirkpatrick gave expression to a feeling of revulsion experienced by many of her fellow "Reagan Democrats" about their political party. Reflecting on the locus of its national convention that year, she described the party's dominant, liberal wing as "San Francisco Democrats" who were inclined to "blame America first." It took the Democratic Party eight more years to learn that most Americans found this coloration objectionable. The party only regained the White House when Bill Clinton and Al Gore ran as "New Democrats" on a platform that was consciously centrist and, in particular, sharply critical of the then-incumbent President, George H.W. Bush, for his handling of Saddam Hussein. Although the Clinton-Gore Administration's foreign policy failed to deliver on the promised improvement over its predecessor's, in succeeding years, Democratic leaders have by and large eschewed public embraces of the sorts of policies that drove Dr. Kirkpatrick and so many others to vote Republican. Until last week, that is. The Democratic Party's apparent reversion to form began with a speech given by former Vice President Al Gore -- delivered, appropriately, in San Francisco. As the crowd hummed "Hail to the Chief," Mr. Gore denounced President Bush for dealing with what the one-time-Veep believes is a less-than-immediate threat from Saddam Hussein in an unduly hasty, unilateral and politicized fashion. Al Gore's sudden transformation from one of the few Democrats who bucked the San Francisco wing to vote for Desert Storm to their standard bearer vis a vis Iraq sent shock waves through his party's political firmament. In short order, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle caved to pressure from liberals in his caucus opposed to quick and favorable action on a war resolution against Iraq. He took to the Senate floor to deliver one of the most emotionally overwrought political appearances since 1972 when Senator Ed Muskie -- another darling of the Democratic left -- destroyed his presidential candidacy by weeping while campaigning in New Hampshire. The Majority Leader joined Mr. Gore in questioning whether President Bush was politically manipulating and exploiting the issue of war with Iraq. Not to be outdone, the senior congressional champion of the Democrats' left-wing, Senator Ted Kennedy, took up the baton on Friday with a speech at Johns Hopkins University. Like Messrs. Gore and Daschle, the Massachusetts legislator wants it both ways, averring that Saddam is a menace, but declaring himself unpersuaded that the Iraqi despot is an imminent one. If the United States acts without the UN's blessing and cooperation, he suggests, the world will be justified in joining the San Francisco Democrats in blaming America. Then there was the spectacle of three Democratic Representatives assailing Mr. Bush from Baghdad via Sunday television programs and other media outlets. Exemplifying what can most charitably be called the naivete of their wing of the party, Reps. David Bonior, Jim McDermott and Mike Thompson are confident that this time Saddam will live up to his promises of access for inspectors, obviating the need -- and foreclosing the opportunity -- for U.S. military action any time soon. In a vintage display of blame-America-firstism, Rep. McDermott went so far as to declare: "I think the president would mislead the American people" about the justifications for going to war with Iraq. Taken together, these bellwether events suggest that the long-dormant, but never extinguished, left-wing of the Democratic Party has decided to make its bid for renewed dominance in the shadow of the 2002 mid-term elections. Al Gore is evidently going to run for President in the months that follow by positioning himself to appeal not only to his audience last week in San Francisco but to the leftist peace activists, Council of Churches types and environmental extremists that Jeane Kirkpatrick associated with that city for all time. Other Democrats with national aspirations are clearly tempted to follow suit. There are, of course, Democratic leaders who have, thus far, resisted this temptation. At this writing, their numbers would include: Joseph Lieberman, Zell Miller, John Breaux, John Edwards and Evan Bayh in the Senate and Dick Gephardt in the House. It remains to be seen whether their centrist views are the product of conviction, rather than calculation and, if so, whether they will be punished for deviating from the party line the current San Francisco Democrats will try to enforce on Iraq -- as Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson was for his apostasy on Vietnam a generation before. Alternatively, maybe the majority of the Democratic Party will finally conclude that aligning themselves once again with the blame-America-first crowd is not only bad for the national interest but bad for the party's bids to be entrusted with control of the Congress, let alone the White House. Until the Democrats sort it out, President Bush would be wise not to make concessions to the San Francisco crowd -- either in Washington or at the UN -- in the hope of creating the appearance of broad bipartisan support. While such support would be nice to have, it must not be obtained at the expense of clarity of purpose and objectives on matters of war and peace. Let the "Loyal Opposition" declare itself publicly on the need to deal swiftly and decisively with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Then let the chips fall where they may.