The Magazine

The Last Refuge of the Democrats

Dec 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 14 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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DEMOCRATS ROUTINELY COMPLAIN that President Bush and his political team call them unpatriotic for criticizing Bush on the war in Iraq. Democratic senator John Kerry, a struggling presidential candidate, last week went one step further. Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations, Kerry claimed to know ahead of time how the Bush crowd would react to his speech. "I know what the Bush apologists will say to this--that it is unpatriotic to question, to criticize, and to call for change," Kerry said. "I believe it is the essence of patriotism to hold this nation to a higher standard." Yet there was no such charge from Bush or his allies--no doubt, to Kerry's consternation.

The claim that Democrats are targets of a political low blow by being labeled unpatriotic has become a Democratic refrain. It's been used by Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, and presidential candidates Dick Gephardt, Wesley Clark, and Howard Dean. Kennedy was upbraided by Republicans in September for claiming Bush had concocted the Iraq war for political gain. His response: "There's no question that this White House sees political advantage in the war. And you can see it in the way they attack the patriotism of those who question them."

But nobody called Kennedy or any other Democrat unpatriotic. Bush didn't. Senate Republicans didn't. House majority leader Tom DeLay denounced Kennedy, but didn't accuse him of a lack of patriotism. In this and every other case in which Democrats claim to have been smeared as unpatriotic, the facts don't bear them out. Bush has never used the words "Democrat" and "unpatriotic" in the same sentence or in nearby sentences. In fact, he's never uttered the word "unpatriotic" in public in any context.

Democrats said he insinuated they were unpatriotic during the congressional debate on a department of homeland security in 2002. But what Bush actually said in a speech was merely that "the Senate" was "more interested in special interests . . . and not interested in the security of the American people." And there was evidence to support the charge. Democrats controlled the Senate at the time, and they voted against Bush's version of the new department 11 times, precisely because it weakened the prerogatives of a Democratic special interest, labor unions.

There is, however, one political figure who's been accused time and again of being unpatriotic: President Bush. The accusers? Democrats. Graham said Bush's Iraq policy is "anti-patriotic at the core, because it's asking only one group of Americans, those soldiers in Iraq and their families, to pay the price of the occupation." Kerry was harsher. In a candidate debate last September, he said Bush "lives out a creed of greed for he and his friends. I'm tired of seeing chief executives be permitted to take their millions or billions to Bermuda and leave the average American here at home stuck with the tax bill. You know what I call that? Unpatriotic." Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton complained of Bush, "Real patriots don't put troops in harm's way on a flawed policy." And Dean has questioned the patriotism of Bush's attorney general, John Ashcroft.

But Democrats have convinced themselves they are victims. To shut off dissent from Bush's Iraq policy, they insist, the administration tars dissenters as unpatriotic. When the White House said Durbin had disclosed classified information in a Senate speech, he responded by claiming that anyone who questioned Bush's case for war would be unfairly attacked. "This White House is going to turn to you and attack you," he said. "They are going to question your patriotism." Democrats were incensed by a recent Republican TV ad that says "people are attacking the president for attacking the terrorists." That, said Clark, showed Bush is "trying to strip us of our patriotism."

Democrats are selectively sensitive about TV ads. They remained completely passive when the NAACP aired a commercial in 2000 that accused Bush of killing James Byrd "all over again"--Byrd had been murdered by racist thugs--for refusing to sign a new hate crimes bill. And today they blame Bush for failing to deliver on his promise to "change the tone" in Washington. Yes, the tone needs changing. But it won't change if Democrats keep complaining, in order to discredit Bush, that their patriotism is being questioned--and then also claiming that the president is unpatriotic. They are wrong on both counts.

--Fred Barnes, for the Editors