Dem. Congressmen Bonior and McDermott Have Shot Themselves in the Foot.
The "Baghdad Demmies" get a pass from the White House.
The war is now well and truly politicized — and the Democrats have done it. I watched the sickening performance of Congressmen McDermott and Bonior from Baghdad last Sunday, and couldn't believe my eyes. Where are the condemnations? Why haven't Democrats openly distanced themselves from these foolish and scurrilous remarks? The truth is, Republicans, including most especially the president, have been almost shockingly quiet about this. What McDermott and Bonior said and did was infinitely worse than the remarks that led to Sen. Daschle's angry denunciation of the president on the Senate floor. It is the president who has shown bipartisanship here. But at this point, honor and honesty demand that Bonior and McDermott be called to account for their actions.
Sen. Daschle's angry outburst at the president for politicizing the war had at least a shred of plausibility. The president did say, "the Senate is more interested in the special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people." Certainly it is wrong to say that the Senate of the United States is uninterested in the security of the American people. But as Republican senator Don Nickles pointed out on the same show where McDermott and Bonior made their outrageous remarks, Daschle both misquoted the president, and took his remarks out of context.
The president took a swipe at the Senate as a whole, and not at the Democrats, as Daschle claimed. And just a few sentences later, the president noted that many good Democrats and Republicans were working together to pass a homeland-security bill. No doubt, the president's earlier remark was too pointed, but essentially he was saying that the interests of the public employee unions shouldn't be put ahead of the need for a Department of Homeland Security. Exaggeration for political effect? Sure. But in context, this was clearly not a serious claim that the members of the United States Senate truly cared nothing for the security of the United States.
It is obvious that Senator Daschle and the Democrats had desperately poured over the president's words to find a way to denounce him for politicizing the war. Many said that Daschle's outburst was the angriest denunciation of a president from the Senate floor in years. That anger was entirely disproportionate to the supposed offense. To be blunt, the incident was trumped up.
Now consider the actions of McDermott and Bonior. They gave credence to the lies and propaganda of a vicious despot in his own capital, while publicly impeaching the word of the president of the United States. I haven't seen it mentioned yet, but I was particularly appalled by Bonior's acceptance of Saddam's rationalization for not wanting coercive inspections — that the Iraqi's don't want to have someone knocking on their door while they're immersed in prayer. Does Bonior really believe the goons who run Saddam's (secular) terror-state are lost in prayer as they guard his stockpiles of anthrax? Would it matter if they were?
But of course, the worst offense was McDermott's claim that the president was lying about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction in order to start a war. McDermott gave absolutely no proof that the president had lied, but only stated his belief that the president has misled, and would again mislead, the American public. The only argument McDermott gave to support his charge was that the president's case for an invasion of Iraq had shifted: "First they said it was al Qaeda, then they said it was weapons of mass destruction. Now they're going back and saying it's al Qaeda again." Here's some news for you Rep. McDermott — it's both.
This shameful collaboration with Saddam, in tandem with an attack on the honesty of the president from the heart of Saddam's capital, was not a clumsy, ill-considered, or slightly exaggerated remark within a larger and more nuanced context. It was a deliberate, unsupported, and repeated accusation. An incredulous George Stephanopoulos explicitly gave McDermott a chance to withdraw the charge that President Bush is lying to the American people to get us into a war. McDermott repeated his charge, and since then, McDermott has shown no remorse. Nor, by the way, did Bonior do anything at the time to distance himself from McDermott's incendiary charges.
Now if the president had denounced Bonior and McDermott with Daschle-like anger, he would have been entirely within his rights. But what did the president do instead? According to the Associated Press, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe "shrugged off the lawmaker's comments." According to Johndroe, "The president welcomes their opinions.... But as he said...he is confident that we will be able to work out with Congress a bipartisan resolution."
Let me see if I've got that straight. The president was handed an opportunity on a silver platter to politicize the war, yet instead said that he "welcomed the congressmen's opinions," and hoped to work out a bipartisan resolution on the war. I am confident that had the president pulled a Daschle after Bonior and McDermott's remarks, the press would be filled at this moment with the ongoing furor. The Democrats would be on the defensive, and the Republicans would have gained a significant leg up in their neck-and-neck struggle for control of Congress.
But instead of taking partisan advantage of a real and serious offense (not just a personal offense, but an act of collaboration that raises entirely legitimate questions about the reliability of the Democratic party on defense issues) the president chose to dismiss the matter, so as to hammer out a bipartisan resolution on Iraq. That act was in character for a president who has refused to use his veto power, and who genuinely prefers to avoid conflict and work with opponents.
More than that, I am certain that the real explanation of the president's political forbearance is his determination to get a strong congressional resolution in support of the war. The president could have gone on the attack and shamed Bonior and McDermott for their words and actions, thus throwing the Democrats on the defensive weeks before a virtually tied election. And if, as a result, fewer congressional Democrats voted in support of the war, that vote could have been held over the heads of the doves for years after, just as with the Gulf War vote. But instead of attacking when the Democrats were vulnerable, the president threw away the partisan opportunity of a lifetime, in exchange for an attempt to forge a genuine national consensus about a war that he knows is necessary.
George Bush's very forbearance refutes Jim McDermott's scurrilous slanders. If the president had cooked up a bogus threat from Iraq to fight a war that would yield him partisan advantage before an election, he would have jumped on McDermott's slurs like a duck on a June bug.
The president's restraint at this critical political moment is admirable. But in truth, it is more than the Democrats deserve. The Bonier-McDermott incident is not a fluke. It reflects a deep and troubling reality about the Democratic party, and the problem takes two forms. On the one hand, many Democratic politicians are more antiwar than they dare admit. On the other hand, Democrats without strong views on war and peace are being pushed by their left-leaning base into an antiwar stance.
You could hear all this in NPR's analysis of the McDermott-Bonior incident. (I take NPR as the ultimate authority on antiwar sentiment within the Democratic party.) By the way, while NPR introduced their analysis by saying that McDermott had "questioned the president's motives" from Baghdad, they did not tell listeners that McDermott had also questioned the president's honesty. In any case, Cokie Roberts pointed out that Bonior, having resigned from the House (where he was the second-highest-ranking Democrat), was now free of pressure from his blue-collar constituents, and could therefore return to his antiwar "roots." At the same time, Roberts pointed out that many Democrats were shifting toward a dovish position in response to the strong antiwar tilt of the party's activist base.
So there you have it. The Democrats have reverted to their antiwar roots. Some congressmen and senators are hiding (for now) their deeply held antiwar feelings, while others are trapped by the Vietnam syndrome that continues to afflict their core constituents. And of course, that is exactly why even a historically strong-on-national-defense Al Gore turned on a dime and started criticizing the war.
What all of this means is that the Democratic charge against the president is exactly wrong. The president is not politicizing a war that the Democrats in fact support. In reality, the president has thrown away a golden opportunity to defeat unsupportive Democrats, precisely because he is more interested in uniting the nation behind the war than in partisan advantage. Of course, the president believes that his party is better on defense than the Democrats, and surely hopes that public will see it that way too. Certainly, he tries to push perceptions along in that direction when he can. But George Bush has clearly subordinated that political fight to the larger need to unite the country behind the war.
The problem is, the Democrats are not, in fact, united behind the war. Many oppose it secretly, others openly. Some, like Bonior and McDermott, oppose it shamefully. The strength of anti-war sentiment in the Democratic party is a vitally important fact — the very fact senator Daschle's anger was meant to disguise. The president should be commended for his restraint, but the country deserves to know that the Democrats cannot in fact be trusted to deal with the threat of Saddam Hussein. Even if they wanted to support the war — and many of them don't — the Democrats, including their 2000 standard-bearer, are being drawn into naive pacifism by their own core constituency. The country must repudiate them this November.
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