Posted on March 03, 2003 in Washington Watch

Last week, Democrats debated the Bush Administration’s plan to go to war. The scene was the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee (DNC)–the governing body of the party. In attendance were 400 Party leaders from all 50 states and seven of the eight Democrats who are announced presidential candidates.

Four of these 2004 presidential aspirants (former Vermont Governor Howard Dean; Congressman Dennis Kucinich; former Senator Carol Mosley Braun; and civil rights leader Al Sharpton) denounced the unilateral war effort with fiery speeches that were vigorously applauded by the assembled party leadership.

The remaining three Democratic candidates (Senators Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards and Congressman Richard Gephardt) were somewhat supportive of the war plan. It was fascinating to observe how these speakers were received. When these three addressed domestic issues and opposed various Bush Administration programs, they were applauded. Their expressions of support for this war, on the other hand, were greeted with dead silence. It was clear that this was the wrong audience for a pro-war speech.

In fact, it was Howard Dean who won the most support and captured the next day’s headlines by opening his address by questioning, “Why in the world the Democratic leadership is supporting the President’s unilateral attack on Iraq?” The Party leaders roared in approval. Kucinich, the leader of the progressive caucus in the Congress, also received applause for his efforts to mobilize Democratic opposition to Bush’s congressional war resolution.

The fact is that not only Democratic Party leaders, but also the grass roots of the Party are strongly opposed to this war. A recent poll, for example, showed a wide gap between Republican and Democratic attitudes. For example, when asked whether the U.S. should take military action soon against Iraq or wait and give weapons inspectors time to do their job–over all only 36 percent of Americans want war soon, 62 percent want to give inspectors a chance. Among Republicans, however, 58 percent say yes to going to war soon, while 41 percent approve of waiting. For Democrats the numbers are dramatically different with only 25 percent wanting war now and 74 percent preferring to continue inspections. Similar results are found when voters are asked whether the U.S. should go to war without UN approval. Overall only 31 percent agree while 64 percent say the U.S. should not go to war unless the UN first agrees. Republicans are evenly split on this issue with 46 percent saying yes to war without the UN and 47 percent wanting UN support for such an effort. Democrats on the other hand, are more than 3.5 to 1 opposed to a war unless the UN approves.

Given this sentiment, the Democratic candidates who oppose the war were very much at home at the Party’s winter meeting. Even the supporters of the war find it necessary to tailor their message to win any support. They, in effect, were “hedging their bets” supporting the President in an effort to remain viable among pro-war voters, while criticizing Bush for “going it alone” and isolating the United States from many of its important allies. This was the approach taken by Lieberman and Gephardt. It appears that their goal was to protect themselves against the eventual Republican charge that Democrats are “weak” on national defense–while providing enough qualifications to their support for the President to maintain Democratic support.

The Dean, Kucinich and Sharpton attack took a different approach. They believe that not only Democrats, but independents and many Republicans are against this U.S. go it alone war and they are challenging their Party to take a stand and give voters a choice.

Although it is quite early in the election cycle, the debate is intense and serious, and is being repeated almost nightly as these candidates travel to key states to win early support for their 2004 campaigns.

Not only the Democratic candidates confronted the war issue, Party leaders did as well. Concerns that this critical issue might not be on the winter meetings agenda–since the Party leadership did not want to show favoritism for one side or the other–I decided to present a challenge of my own. Three days before the meeting I published an editorial in a number of major U.S. papers. Under the headline “Democrats must raise questions about war,” the article reminded Democrats that they surrendered to the White House last year and lost. This year, I noted, the party needed to challenge the President on this critical question or “risk losing again”.

The very next day, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and I publicly presented a resolution we intended to raise at the winter meeting.

After some negotiations, it was decided to debate the issue at the Party’s executive committee meeting, issue a summary of the points of concern, but let the press focus remain on the candidates’ debate.

What was clear at the winter meeting was that Democrats want to challenge this war. They want to discuss it and get answers that the White House has still not provided (on cost, consequences and the nature of the long term U.S. goals and commitment). They, and, as the polls show, most Americans fear that the President is over committing the United States to a “war without end”, with consequences that will be dangerous for Americans and for American allies in the Arab world. Given that, they want the President to operate in the context of a UN supported effort and not act unless there is broad international support and legitimacy for any action.

And as the winter meeting showed, Democrats want their candidate for 2004 to challenge the President’s unilateral war. As I noted in the DNC Executive Committee Meeting, “raising the right questions, demanding answers and winning allies to your case is not being weak on defense, it’s being smart on defense.”

The debate has now begun in earnest.

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