Democrats Risk Defeat by Return To Dovish Past

Posted March 14, 2003 at 1:39pm

We’re back to the 1970s and ’80s — Republicans are America’s “hawk” party and Democrats are the “dove” party. Historically, this isn’t good for the Democrats. [IMGCAP(1)]

The only time Democrats have won the presidency on a dovish platform was in 1976. Even then, Jimmy Carter’s victory was more a reaction to the Watergate scandal than to the Vietnam War.

And four years later, Carter’s management of foreign policy — capped by the Iran hostage crisis and his expressed “surprise” at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — resulted in his devastating defeat in 1980.

During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Democrats became enmeshed in the nuclear freeze movement and opposed Reagan’s Central American policies. Their candidates were crushed in 1984 and 1988.

In 1992, Bill Clinton escaped the curse of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis by claiming that he, unlike a majority of Democrats in Congress, supported the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Now, on the eve of another Gulf War, Democrats in Congress are back in the party’s old mold and Democratic presidential candidates are under pressure from the party base to be anti-war, too.

Last October, a majority of Democratic Senators voted in favor of the resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war. Now their leader, Sen. Thomas Daschle (S.D.), gives every sign of opposing the conflict.

He accused the administration earlier this month of “rushing to war without adequate concern for the ramifications of doing so unilaterally or with a very small coalition.”

Despite the fact that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has not fully disarmed as required by the United Nations, Daschle said on March 4, “I clearly believe there has been a different response from the Iraqis over the last week.

“They’re dismantling missiles. And if we can continue to put pressure on them to … destroy their weapons of mass destruction … we ought to give them more time to do so.”

Last month, he asked, “How are our efforts to deal with this threat helped by short-circuiting an inspections process that we demanded in the first place?”

In the House, a majority of Democrats voted against the October resolution and their new leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), has expressed her opposition consistently.

“I do not believe that going to war now is the best way to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction,” she told the Council on Foreign Relations on March 7.

“Before going to war, we must exhaust all alternatives, such as the continuation of inspections, diplomacy and the leverage provided by the threat of military action.”

Among Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) have not backed away from their support for the war, but frontrunning Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) certainly has.

He said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in December, “I will not support the president to proceed unilaterally.” And in a speech at Georgetown University in February he said, “The United States should never go to war because it wants to; the United States should go to war because we have to.

“And we don’t have to until we have exhausted the remedies available, built legitimacy and earned the consent of the American people,” he said.

With exceptions, the leading voices of the Democratic Party basically are vesting the power to decide American foreign policy in the United Nations Security Council — ultimately, in this case, in the hands of French President Jacques Chirac, who is bent on using France’s veto to thwart Bush’s war plans.

The Democrats’ insistence on prolonged inspections and U.N. support led Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard to brand them “Le Partie Democratique,” a stinging characterization.

Clearly what France wants is to extend U.N. inspections past the time when it’s too hot for American forces to fight in Iraq, causing them to be brought home.

That would be a humiliation for Bush, would cause the collapse of the “coalition of the willing” he has put together and would constitute a strategic victory for Hussein.

What’s leading Democrats to do this? The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes makes a devastating case that it’s raw partisanship. He has resurrected quotes demonstrating that Daschle and others were all in favor of using force when Clinton was president, but not now.

In 1998, for example, when Hussein ousted U.N. inspectors, Daschle said, “Look, we have exhausted virtually all our diplomatic effort to get the Iraqis to comply with … international law. Given that, what other option is there but to force them to do so?”

Of course, Democrats knew that Clinton’s idea of “force” was to bomb Iraqi radar installations, not invade. Bush’s policy is real war.

In opposing his policy, Democrats are reflecting the attitudes of their constituents. According to the Washington Post/ABC News poll, only 37 percent of Democrats favor military action without U.N. approval, compared with 86 percent for Republicans.

So, in a sense, Democrats are doing their duty — expressing a strong force-averse and multilateralist view in American opinion and opposing Bush’s pro-war, unilateralist stance.

One side or the other will be vindicated shortly. If Gulf War II ends in a decisive victory and if the United States can begin governing Iraq without casualties afterward, Democrats will be back in their pre-1992 mode, forced to depend only on a bad economy for their political success.

If Bush’s war is a disaster — or if governing Iraq turns into a debacle — Democrats may prosper as a result. But that’s not an outcome to hope for.