In Failing to Denounce Durbin, Democrats Put Politics First

Posted June 20, 2005 at 6:26pm

Few leaders understood history better than Winston Churchill. He said, “It is not enough to collect and establish facts, it is not enough to have them checked, corrected and commented upon by experts. What is … of supreme importance is how you present them.” When Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) took to the Senate floor last week to compare the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay by the American military to the most brutal, murderous regimes in history, his irresponsible statements went far beyond run-of-the mill political posturing.

Incredibly, he put the treatment of these detainees on the same scale as the actions of Nazi Germany, which left 11,000,000 dead, Pol Pot’s regime and its 2,000,000 dead, and the atrocities of the Stalin era, where as many as 25,000,000 died. Based on the rate of civilian and military deaths to date in Iraq (there have been no deaths in Guantanamo), it would take somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 years to reach Stalin’s homicidal record. Only the most crass of political motives can explain Durbin’s total lack of scale and proportion; logic certainly can’t.

With his over-the-top remarks, Durbin not only set a new low for standards of political civility and discourse, but more important, he armed the propagandists of Al-Jazeera and their ilk with a new weapon in their arsenal — a U.S. Senator, a national leader, giving credibility to the fallacious claims of anti-American elements abroad who would see us fail in Iraq.

Amnesty International no longer needs to make its case for American brutality. Durbin has done it for them; and, unfortunately, the rest of the world, particularly the Arab world, took note. A trip to Al-Jazeera’s Web site on Monday saw the Durbin story highlighted as one of the network’s most e-mailed stories.

If Durbin had uttered his remarks in the throes of a heated debate and then quickly apologized, this episode might have gone down as just another twist in the downward spiral of political discourse that characterizes Washington today. But this was no accident. Durbin read from a prepared text.

When the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate makes a willfully incendiary statement of this magnitude and it goes unchallenged by members of his own party, what is one to conclude?

The deafening silence on the Democratic side of the aisle this past week, the fact that no major Democrats in either the Senate or the House have disassociated themselves from Durbin’s dangerous statements, is damning evidence of their unwillingness to condemn even the most extreme comments in the pursuit of political advantage.

Not that they haven’t had plenty of opportunities to denounce Durbin’s inexplicable comments.

When Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) spoke on the Senate floor last week after the Durbin diatribe, he could have distanced himself and his party from the remarks and said to the world that Americans are unified in supporting the troops and finishing the mission in Iraq. He also had the chance to step back across the boundary, crossed by Durbin, of civil discourse in the Senate.

Instead, he called criticisms of Durbin “attacks by the very noisy noise machine of the far right” and “a distraction by the White House.” On Thursday, the Republican leadership in the House wrote Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asking to her to “publicly renounce Senator Durbin’s comments,” which they said “send the wrong message to our soldiers.” As of Monday, they were still awaiting a reply.

On “Face the Nation” on Sunday, when asked about Durbin, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) could have taken a statesman’s path by denouncing the comments. Not only did Biden refuse to condemn Durbin, he also couldn’t manage to summon even a small criticism.

Following the old political maxim “when your position is indefensible, change your position or change the subject,” Biden chose politics over principle and attacked Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) for his effort to save the life of Terry Schiavo. Most of us have come to expect better from Biden.

As ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, he understands the effect remarks like Durbin’s have on our troops and the boost they give those working against us around the world.

Yet, when it came to Durbin, he carefully parsed his words, painfully so, and kept silent as most Democrats have done. In 1918, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “Political expediency is right enough in its place; but not when it conflicts with vital national interest.”

While all the damage cannot be undone, by holding one of their own accountable for comments so clearly contrary to U.S. interests, Democrats could send a different signal to the world and to our troops. In the past, when others have made ill-chosen, but far less serious, comments, Democrats led the call for their heads. It is time they apply the same standards to themselves and their leadership.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.