Originally Published: September 15, 2002 10 a.m.
WASHINGTON – Any political advantage in the general election debate over President Bush's plans to topple Saddam Hussein won't go to the Democrats.
With little more than seven weeks before Election Day, the Democrats can ill-afford to have the national campaign dialogue waged largely on the GOP's strongest ground: national security.
Worse, the Democrats cannot have the news media focusing week after week on the prospects of war in Iraq, drowning out the Democrats' domestic campaign offensive on enacting prescription drug benefits, preventing Bush and the Republicans from partially privatizing Social Security, the economy and a host of other social welfare proposals.
Yet, this is the campaign scenario that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe fear most. They had plans to pound the administration on its domestic policies, but that strategy becomes problematic now.
Instead, they face weeks of debate in both houses of Congress and on the airwaves on a resolution authorizing military action to deal with` Iraq's threat to America's security.
Democrats weren't getting much political traction on their issues anyway. No matter how hard they tried, they have not been able to turn the stock market's decline, the economy's anemia, the corporate accounting scandal or the budget deficit into cutting issues that moved blocs of voters. Democrats spent much of their campaign money early this summer on TV ads in key Senate races, but "their numbers didn't move," said Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, chairman of the GOP's Senate campaign committee.
The White House denies any political motivation is involved in the well-timed move to ratchet up the debate over Iraq in the midst of one of the closest contests for control of Congress in decades. But the administration cleverly kept up a steady drumbeat of war rhetoric that forced Democratic leaders to demand that the president seek Congress' approval before taking any military action.
The White House, after a somewhat feigned reluctance, was only too happy to submit to weeks of debate on a war resolution that it knows it will win. Polls not only show strong public support for military action to oust Saddam (up to 64 percent in recent surveys), but even early support among some Democrats who are facing tough Republican opponents.
"The Democrats demanded this debate (and) they got what they demanded," Republican pollster Frank Luntz told me. "You can only talk about one thing at a time. It obviously blurs the Democrats' efforts to focus on domestic issues."
Democrats, too, are worried that spending much or most of the election season on Iraq will wipe the party's domestic issues off the political radar screen. "Politically, it's very dangerous if that's all they talk about," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.
"Surely the Democrats can chew gum and walk at the same time," Al Hunt complained in his Wall Street Journal column about their reluctance to challenge Bush more aggressively on a war with Iraq.
Thus far, Democratic leaders have been reluctant to charge Bush with playing politics on the issue. But not pollster John Zogby.
"Why now? Has there been an audacious move by Hussein that has caused the president to come out now? Have they found new evidence of chemical weapons? They haven't said so. Would I suggest a political motivation? Sure, I'd suggest it," Zogby told me.
In fact, the administration does have additional evidence of Saddam's efforts to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Some of this new evidence will come out during the ensuing debate, either announced or leaked to the news media. Some cannot be made public because disclosure would compromise U.S. intelligence sources.
But the big question facing the Democrats now is, how will they respond to Bush's war policy toward Iraq?
Daschle does not want to be on the losing side of another debate over national security, especially one that is intrinsically tied to the larger war against terrorism.
He well remembers a similar Senate debate in 1991 over whether to go to war in the Persian Gulf to drive occupying Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Daschle's mentor, then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, was fiercely opposed to the war and wanted to give U.S. economic sanctions more time to force Saddam's hand.
Daschle voted with Mitchell. So did then-Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the Democrats' leading defense expert, who later said that his vote against the war resolution was "the worst mistake" he had ever made.
Polls show that two issues have remained among the voters' top concerns since Sept. 11: the economy and national security/homeland defense. The economy is clearly recovering, but homeland defense has turned into a daily struggle against an unseen enemy who can strike anywhere and at any time.
In this kind of dangerously unpredictable environment, the Democrats cannot afford to make another mistake.
Copyright 2002, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.