Democrats Shy About Saying ‘Bush’

Posted July 16, 2003 at 6:49pm

As Senate Democrats ratcheted up the pressure on President Bush this week for using questionable intelligence to build his case for war against Iraq, lawmakers acknowledged that accusing the commander in chief of willfully misleading the public could backfire on them.

With that in mind, many Democrats have chosen to direct their criticisms at the “White House” or the “administration” — faceless institutions that do not elicit the same patriotic support as a popular wartime president.

“You don’t need to personalize it, because I think people tend to resent it,” said Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). “He is liked as an individual. He is liked as a person. People respect him.”

Still the endgame is the same for Democrats as they seek to score quick political points on an issue that Bush has owned since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“It has been very difficult raising questions about the administration in any area of security, and I think that is why people are making a distinction here using the term ‘administration,’” said Senate Democratic Policy Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.). “It is his administration and yet it seems to me that using the word “Bush” personalizes it in a way that probably is not helpful, and using the administration accomplishes the purpose.”

The most notable example of walking this fine line came when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) Tuesday called for a bipartisan investigation into the handling of intelligence concerning Iraq’s attempts to build weapons of mass destruction.

“We have become more and more confused over the course of the last several days with regard to the conflicting information provided by the administration on these and other key questions,” Daschle said.

A Daschle spokesperson disputed the suggestion that the Minority Leader was trying to criticize Bush without actually uttering the president’s name.

“It is not about personalities,” the spokesperson said. “It is Senator Daschle’s style. It is the way he speaks.”

Still, Daschle is among nine Democratic Senators seeking re-election next year in states that Bush won in 2004. Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Policy Chairman Dorgan also must court voters in states that Bush carried in his first election, a fact not lost on Republican Party officials.

“They recognize that most people support the president and support our troops,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.). “You can get going too far in a lot of this partisan bashing, and it can come back against you as far as the views of the citizens in your state.”

A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said there has been no advice dispensed by campaign officials to candidates about how to address Bush’s handling of intelligence data.

“They are going to make their own decisions on how best to handle this because they know their constituents [and] they know their states and are very attuned to the issues,” said Michael Siegel, a DSCC spokesman. “But make no mistake, we will hold incumbent Republican Senators accountable for the policies of this administration.”

Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nomination, however, have been more than willing to directly criticize the president by name.

“Just as President Bush did not have a viable plan for Iraq after the capture of Baghdad, today he still does not have a real plan and enough resources for preparedness against a terrorist attack,” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a speech delivered yesterday in New York.

Democrats are also reckoning with how best to investigate the intelligence that they were presented before they voted to grant Bush use of force against Iraq. Already, Democrats on the Armed Services Committee are pursuing their own investigation after Republicans declined to participate, while Democrats on the Select Intelligence Committee met privately yesterday to discuss launching a similar partisan inquiry.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said he is not sure he can support such a concept now, but is “hopeful” that Democrats do not have to launch their own investigation. But he would not rule it out.

“Who knows, we may very well end up with a Democratic, minority inquiry,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said so far the Democrats “have laid out what we have to do,” but pledged his inquiry is going to be “bipartisan.”

“We are going to keep them informed when we are interviewing witnesses [and] when we are seeking documents so that the Republicans can join us as I hope they will at whatever stage they want,” Levin said.

Democrats failed yesterday on two legislative attempts to force Bush to answer questions about his past handling and post-war plans for Iraq. Last night, Senate Republicans beat back an attempt by Democrats to create an independent commission to investigate the use of intelligence regarding Iraq. Earlier in the day, Republicans successfully defeated an amendment that would have required Bush to put a price tag on the cost of future military operations in Iraq.

Still, a Democratic Senator who hails from a conservative state, cautioned that his Democratic colleagues should be careful in criticizing a still-popular president.

“I think you can make the case without inflammatory remarks,” said the Senator. “Some people will rally to the defense of a president when he is attacked.”