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All the Rage

From the August 19, 2003 Dallas Morning News: The Democratic presidential contenders--and the Democratis base--are putting out a message of empty fury.

12:00 AM, Aug 20, 2003 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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WHATEVER ELSE may be said about the base of the Democratic party, it most definitely is upset with President Bush.

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin says that in his 25 years of polling he never has seen Democrats so angry with a Republican president. Veteran columnist Robert Novak writes that he hasn't seen such "pure hatred" on the part of Democrats toward a Republican president in his 44 years of campaign watching.

The Democratic activists who dominate the party's presidential primaries will pick the nominee. So, it isn't surprising that Howard Dean has become the front-runner by tapping their anger--nor that the other candidates are copying him.

The case being made against Bush is that, on matters both foreign and domestic, he misleads if he doesn't intentionally lie and that his presidency endangers not terrorists but law-abiding Americans. That is a harsh indictment that, while pleasing to the base, has yet to appeal to voters in the middle who don't share the Democratic hatred toward Bush and don't regard his presidency as a continuous act of deception designed to destroy America.

Maybe the Democrats--and their eventual nominee in particular--will offer a more credible critique of Bush. Maybe, having undergone an attitude adjustment, they will be able to appeal to independent voters. On the other hand, the Democrats may be in a place from which they can't easily escape.

After all, their view of him--or at least the activists' view--is pretty well set. In sum, they don't like him. They don't admire his mind. And they have, as George Will has written, "a visceral, almost aesthetic recoil from . . . his Texasness, the way he walks, the way he talks." More profoundly, the recoil is from the cultural conservatism Bush embodies and even from his faith, which was nurtured in the small groups of contemporary evangelicalism.

That he actually became president remains a continuing source of frustration. Indeed, Florida is a past that party activists haven't got over, since it reminds them that but for the Supreme Court's refusal to defer to the Florida Supreme Court, Al Gore would have become president. And so the opportunity afforded by the attacks of September 11 to become a truly consequential president would have been Gore's, not Bush's.

Bill Clinton wasn't that kind of president. In his second term, characteristically talkative when silence was preferable, Clinton lamented the fact that he had no opportunity for presidential greatness, inasmuch as he had no war to fight, no great depression to overcome, no chance, in effect, to show his stuff. Bush's presidency would have been very different had the attacks of September 11 not occurred. At some level, Democrats must envy the unusual moment for presidential leadership.

Not that they would have seized it as Bush did. Democrats don't like the war on terrorism. The invasion of Iraq in particular has riled the base. While begrudging credit is given for ousting Saddam Hussein, Democrats regard Bush as too quick to use American power and too reluctant to consult with allies. As they see it, he has been too eager, if not wrong, to push for freedom and self-government for all people. Then, too, there is the war on terrorism at home, which the activists see as an unremitting assault on civil liberties.

All of that is fueling the Democratic rage, as is the fact that the party is completely out of power--for the first time in 50 years. Democrats held the Senate by a single vote in 2001-2002, but the midterm elections put the Republicans back in charge. The Republicans have controlled the House for five straight terms. In charge of neither elective branch, with the third branch (the judiciary) becoming more Republican by the day, Democrats feel especially aggrieved.

Looking ahead, as Democrats must, the odds are that they will lose seats in both chambers in 2004. What might improve their chances is an appealing candidate at the top of the ticket. But right now, that person is nowhere in sight. Instead, what the nation sees are presidential candidates whose faces are creased with fury. It isn't a happy sight.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.