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Six Democratic Myths

Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Tom Daschle, and their fellow Democrats try to explain why their party floundered in the 2002 elections.

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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WHEN FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON addressed the Democratic Leadership Council the other day, he declared it "unconscionable" what Republicans had done in attacking now ex-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. And, yes, Clinton was serious. He was repeating what has become a Democratic talking point. But like other staples of the party's rhetoric, the tale of abuse of Daschle is a myth.

It's one of six myths I've spotted--there are probably more I've missed--that Democrats have been repeating since their election losses a month ago. Clinton mentioned a number of them, while offering generally sound advice to Democrats about recovering from their defeats.

Myth one is the abuse of Daschle. How was he abused? Republicans called him an obstructionist, which of course he was. He blocked bill after bill that had cleared the House from passing the Senate. There's nothing dishonorable about calling him that. And since when did the term "obstructionist" become a trigger word, spawning violence? Democrats, including Daschle, actually called Senate Republicans obstructionist. Sure, there was a TV ad in South Dakota suggesting that blocking the homeland security bill was helping America's enemies. But that ad was widely condemned in the political community as over the top. In sum, Daschle wasn't abused or "demonized." He was called to account because so many House-passed measures piled up on his desk.

Myth two: Clinton insisted that Republicans have a "destruction team" but Democrats don't. I'd like to hear what Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel, thinks about that. In my years in Washington reporting, no figure has been more unfairly maligned than Starr, and it was Democrats who waged the campaign against him during the investigation and impeachment of Clinton. More recently, recall the trashing of President Bush's judicial nominees, notably Charles Pickering and Priscilla Owen. Not to mention the trashing of Bush himself by Democratic operatives. In truth, both parties make harsh attacks, not just Republicans.

Myth three: The media is right-wing dominated. Ex-vice president Al Gore trotted out this idea after Daschle had blamed talk radio for prompting threats against him. Gore said the press line is set "inside the building" of the Republican National Committee, then trumpeted by talk radio, Fox News Channel, the Washington Times, and other outlets. Are Gore and other Democrats paranoid? It seems so. The conservative press is noisy, but it is dwarfed by the TV networks, the national newspapers (except the Wall Street Journal editorial page), CNN, MSNBC, and so on. As a media phenomenon, liberal bias far exceeds any conservative bias.

Myth four: Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a Vietnam war veteran confined to a wheelchair, lost because his GOP foe, Saxby Chambliss, insinuated he was unpatriotic in opposing Bush on the homeland security bill. Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said this "sickens everybody in our country." Not so. Jim Wooten of the Atlanta Constitution-Journal wrote that Democrats used a "how-dare-you-attack-my-patriotism" strategy as "a device to put Cleland's voting records off-limits." Chambliss refused to play along. In one TV ad, his campaign said of Cleland: "He says he supports President Bush [in the war on terror] at every opportunity, but that's not the truth." Chambliss cited Cleland's opposition to a homeland security bill co-sponsored by his Georgia colleague, Democratic Sen. Zell Miller. Meanwhile, the Veterans of Foreign Wars endorsed Chambliss. The Wall Street Journal asked, "Was the VFW also questioning Mr. Cleland's patriotism?" No, and neither was Chambliss. But he did question Cleland's record.

Myth five: Bush concocted the Iraq regime-change issue to help Republicans in the fall campaign. Any number of Democrats--Gore and Kerry, to name two--have voiced this charge. True, the Iraq issue may have aided Republicans, if only because Daschle and other Democrats handled it so clumsily. But if it was raised only for the campaign, why is Bush still pursuing it so aggressively, deploying troops to the Persian Gulf region and calling for tougher United Nations inspections? And doing all this in defiance of world opinion? Why? Because he believes it's the next step in the war on terrorism. Even Clinton said Democrats should back the war on terrorism as their top priority.

Myth six: Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser, is running everything at the White House. Certainly, he's an extremely influential aide, more so than Chief of Staff Andy Card. My impression used to be that whenever you think he's not involved in an issue, you're wrong. But September 11 changed his status. The most important meeting at the White House is the War Cabinet, and Rove's not a member. The success of Bush's presidency will be determined by how well he does in the war on terrorism. War decisions are outside Rove's reach. But on domestic issues and politics, Rove is the man.

What does all this add up to? A lot of unhealthful thinking by Democrats that may keep them from coming to grips with what really cost them in the election. It was the failure to see a new and different America post-September 11, an America more interested in security than a prescription drug benefit or attacks on corporate governance. Pretending to be a victim of Republican excess is not the path to understanding the Democratic plight.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.