The Magazine

War Is Hell . . . for the Democrats

From the October 7, 2002 issue: Gore and Daschle flail at Bush.

Oct 7, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 04 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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IS IT POSSIBLE for two top 2004 Democratic presidential candidates to knock themselves out of contention on consecutive days some two years before the election? Probably not. But as Washington last week descended into a sour partisanship not seen since the last presidential election, both Al Gore and Tom Daschle may have done significant damage to their chances in the next one.

Gore ripped the Bush administration's war on terror more directly than any Democrat has thus far. In an aggressive speech last Tuesday at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, the former vice president suggested, among many other things, that the war on terror has been a failure, that a war on Saddam Hussein would be a dangerous distraction, and that the Bush administration is politicizing national security. Daschle, not to be outdone, took to the Senate floor the following day and picked up on that last point, offering a furious attack on the administration for campaigning for Republicans on the war. In the space of less than 24 hours, Americans saw the fundamental flaws of the top two Democrats: Gore is too much; Daschle is too little, too late.

Many Democrats, even some on the antiwar left of the party who were delighted to see Bush challenged, say privately that Gore's speech was fundamentally self-serving. Just as congressional Democrats were hoping to put the Iraq debate behind them and change the conversation back to the economy, Gore prominently asserted himself as leader of the opposition, making news on Iraq the only way he possibly could have: by doing what amounts to a reversal of his previous position.

Throughout the eight years of the Clinton administration Gore was, rhetorically at least, a hawkish, no-nonsense adviser to the president on Saddam Hussein. In January 1998, Gore said on CNN that his patience with Saddam Hussein was running out. "Saddam must comply with the mandates of the world community. And if he does not, then the resolutions spell out exactly what he can face," Gore warned. "If he believes that this is an indefinite process, he's sadly mistaken. If he believes that he does not have to comply with U.N. resolutions, he's simply wrong. And he'll find that out."

Gore's transformation last week into the leading critic of a war on Saddam thus came as a particular shock to hawkish Democrats like the editors of the New Republic. "In typical Democratic style," they lamented, "Gore didn't say he opposed the war. In fact, he endorsed the goal of regime change--before presenting a series of qualifications that would likely make that goal impossible."

Aides to Gore suggested his speech would provide a sneak preview of the new, consequences-be-damned, uncandidate. Well, the message may have been new (he reportedly consulted with the likes of Hollywood director Rob Reiner), but the rant was vintage Gore. It was filled with factual inaccuracies and exaggerations. Gore said that those who planned and conducted the September 11 attacks have "gotten away with it." He dismissed the crushing of the Taliban as merely the defeat of a "fifth-rate military power" (not that he was likely to poll well anyway among the Special Forces units who've been enjoying that walk in the park for the last year). He argued that the Bush administration is refocusing on Saddam Hussein because defeating al Qaeda "is proving to be more difficult and lengthy than was predicted." And he noted that all of this is happening in "this high political season."

Gore initially distanced himself from suggestions that he was accusing Bush of being motivated by politics, saying, "I have not raised these doubts, but many have." But moments later, after raising precisely those doubts and detailing what he sees as politicization, he claimed that "all of this [is] apparently in keeping with a political strategy."

Gore's speech has been dissected many times over. But a neglected point that may come back to haunt him was his implicit depreciation of the military--not just in describing the operations in Afghanistan as easier than they were, but in his odd criticism of the Bush administration's objective of "regime change." Said Gore: "In the case of Iraq, it would be difficult to go it alone but it's theoretically possible to achieve our goals in Iraq unilaterally."

Theoretically possible? Does Gore doubt the capability of the U.S. military to carry out its mission in Iraq? He did say, after all, that he is "deeply concerned that the course of action we are presently embarking upon with respect to Iraq has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century."