Democratic dilemma

Posted: Sep 30, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Rep. Richard Gephardt began his legislative week last Tuesday with a rare exercise of his prerogative as Democratic leader by opening the day's House session with a 30-minute address. It excoriated Republicans for ruining and neglecting the economy, and contained not a single word about terrorism or Iraq. That turned out to be a tree falling in an empty forest -- ignored by daily newspapers and television. Gephardt's unnoticed speech was another manifestation of Democratic frustration that prompted Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's emotional outburst a day later. Gephardt was trying to focus the nation's attention on prescription drug prices and "special interest-driven tax cuts" while supporting President Bush's call to arms against Iraq. The slender fraction of House Democrats who flatly oppose this war believe Gephardt and other party leaders have blundered badly in not becoming the peace party. Herein lies a profound dilemma for Democrats. By giving tacit assent to Bush on Iraq, Democrats submerge the issues they see as needed to win control of Congress on Nov. 5. The alternative course, to play the peace card, is viewed as too risky for most major Democratic figures. Al Gore and Edward M. Kennedy are the exceptions, and are viewed by mainstream colleagues as toying with electoral disaster. Gephardt's 30-minute speech sought the impossible task of restoring "people's kitchen table concerns" to public attention. There is nothing whatever soft about his stance ("The sole passion of House Republicans has been to reward their wealthy political clientele," he told the House), but nobody is paying attention. Gephardt's political lieutenant -- Rep. Nita Lowey, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- has insisted, despite polls and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, that liberal populism trumps war fever with voters. The Gephardt-Lowey illusions are not widely shared in their party. Behind closed doors of the Democratic caucus, senators have badgered Daschle about losing the political game -- and maybe control of the Senate. They complain that Bush political adviser Karl Rove has substituted Iraq for Democratic issues. Daschle has responded with defenses of Bush's sincerity, which may explain his uncharacteristically passionate response last week to the president's accusation that the Senate is not concerned with homeland security. For weeks, a few tough-skinned Democratic liberal outsiders on Capitol Hill -- led by Reps. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Bob Filner of California -- and a few African-American congressmen have been fighting the administration on Iraq. When Kucinich and Filner soon became invited regularly on television, their ranks swelled -- but not that much. No more than 45 out of the 209 House Democrats can be expected to vote against a war resolution. Nor are these the usual suspects. Out of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, only Rep. Hilda Solis of California joins the peace bloc. Jewish lawmakers, once in the vanguard of anti-war Democrats, are among the most hawkish enemies of Saddam Hussein. Peace advocates thought the need for a mainstream Democrat with national liberal credentials might be filled by a critical Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a potentially strong contender for the 2004 presidential nomination. During the last week, however, Kerry backed away. His questioning of Secretary of State Colin Powell at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was nuanced rather than confrontational. That leaves Al Gore, who delivered his anti-war speech in San Francisco the day before Gephardt's non-war address. It was not entirely welcomed by peace advocates hungering for a big-name ally. Gore's credibility is undermined by his having ascended to party prominence as a moderate taking a hard line in foreign affairs, and fellow senators accused him of bargaining his position on the 1991 Gulf War resolution to secure for himself the best speaking opportunity in the Senate. Gore's speech was so blatantly political and his status so low inside the party that it generated few cheers from peace advocates. Kennedy delivered a more sophisticated critique Friday, but the party's mainstream is not prepared to follow Mr. Liberal. In the end, many more Democrats will support war than the 10 who contributed to a narrow 52 to 47 approval for the 1991 war resolution. Democrats see no way to solve their dilemma by Election Day.