The Magazine

The State of the Democrats

Oct 21, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 06 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

And it is reassuring, we further suppose, that Kennedy's point of view seems not very widely held. Neither he nor any other senator so much as bothered to introduce an alternative measure that would have blocked the president from conducting a renewed assault in the Persian Gulf. Over in the House, 70 Democrats, a third of their party's caucus, did vote "aye" to such a proposal: a substitute amendment expressing support for an exclusively "diplomatic" solution. But nearly twice that many House Democrats directly rejected this diplomacy option. And an even larger number of them cast approving votes for the "Spratt amendment," which blessed near-term U.S. military participation in a renewed U.N. disarmament campaign--and held open the possibility of unilateral American force should such a campaign be thwarted or fail to materialize.

Here things get tricky, though. The Spratt amendment, like the "Multilateral Use of Force Authorization Act" introduced by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin in the Senate, was a dodge--cowardice all over again. Both measures encouraged the U.N. to authorize and sponsor an armed, forceful effort against Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, thereby implying that such an effort is urgently required. At the same time, neither proposal would have authorized unilateral American action, except in the event an "imminent" Iraqi threat should arise, presumably against the continental United States. Which implies no special urgency whatsoever. Democratic votes for the Spratt and Levin amendments, in other words, were Democratic votes for nothing in particular. That a majority of House Democrats came out this way (and voted against the relatively unrestricted use-of-force resolution that eventually passed) is no surprise. But it's a serious disappointment, just the same.

We note, however, that a fair number of veteran House Democrats who 11 years ago voted "no" to the first President Bush's Persian Gulf War--some 15 in all, minority leader Dick Gephardt among them--have switched their votes to "aye." Gephardt, indeed, unambiguously calls his 1991 vote a "mistake." We note, as well, and are happy to applaud the fact, that sentiment like Gephardt's, though not so candidly acknowledged, seems almost commonplace in the Democratic Senate. A clear majority of Democratic senators refused to endorse Carl Levin's "Multilateral Use of Force Authorization Act," as it happens. An even larger majority of them--29 of 50, including 12 who'd voted "no" in 1991--wound up supporting the final bill.

On balance, we call this progress.

And yet. One congressional debate, and the split-decision vote that follows it, are hardly an adequate basis on which to cast aside decades-old and well-justified doubts about the Democratic party as a dependable partner in the formulation of grown-up national security policy. None are so perfectly reptilian as Saddam Hussein, but the global landscape remains strewn with copperhead-snake regimes and other such outlaws--and still it is rare to find a congressional Democrat, like Sen. Zell Miller, who unhesitatingly and enthusiastically picks up a hoe to kill them. Even where Saddam is concerned, the Democratic party's backbone will be tested many times over the next few months. Sometime soon, the U.N. Security Council will speak its piece on Iraq, or fail to, and the United States will have to decide how best to proceed. If and when it comes to war, there will be casualties--and an Arab-world reaction, and other, unforeseeable but surely comparable challenges--and the United States will have to persevere. Meantime, here at home, no doubt the Democratic party will be sorely, constantly tempted to turn its attention to friendlier and more familiar issues than war and peace.

It would be best if they didn't. The country deserves, and at the moment very much needs, to have both major parties, not just the Republican one, engaged full-time--and unflinchingly--in a life-or-death international snake hunt.

--David Tell, for the Editors