The Magazine

The Dems' Week from Hell

From the February 14 / February 21, 2005 issue:They're in a hole, and they keep digging.

Feb 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 21 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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THE DEMOCRATS' WORST WEEK AND a half since Black Tuesday (November 2, 2004, when the U.S. election returns came in) began on January 18, when Barbara Boxer took on Condi Rice in the Senate, and ended on Black Sunday (January 30, 2005, when Iraq held its first free election). In one comparatively short window of time, the Democrats managed to exhibit all of the class, grace, wisdom, presence, good sense, and strategic and tactical brilliance that had allowed them to move from absolute parity after the 2000 election to the loss of the House, Senate, and White House in the 2004 election, and left them apparently poised to lose even more. You too can turn yourself into a loser if you study and follow their recent behavior, and the cases to look at are these:

(1) Barbara Boxer and allies assault Condi Rice.

For mysterious reasons best known to themselves, a small diehard clique of old-line insurgents hiding out in the depths of the U.S. Senate decided to make confirmation hearings for Condoleezza Rice the venue of a bomb-throwing session, on the basis of two cherished liberal theories: one, that the war in Iraq is an utter catastrophe; and two, that while criticism of liberal nonwhites and women is always racist and sexist in nature, nonwhites and women who are right-wing or centrist are less than "authentic," and therefore deserve what they get. Thus, Margaret Carlson in the Los Angeles Times found nothing amiss in Boxer's calling Rice a liar and a lackey, but insisted Boxer's critics were somehow attacking all women.

This followed by weeks an unprecedented onslaught from liberal cartoonists and columnists, who compared Rice to a parrot, a house slave, Aunt Jemima (with one hell of a weight loss), and Prissy in Gone With the Wind. It did not help that one of Boxer's main allies was Robert A. Byrd of West Virginia, who in a prior life had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. As a method of expanding the vote of an ever-shrinking minority party, this tactic stunned some observers, who concluded the scheme had been cooked up by Karl Rove.

"I wouldn't think having a former kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan lead a futile floor fight against the nomination of the first black woman to be secretary of state is a good way to enhance the appeal of the Democratic party to swing voters, but maybe that's just me," opined Jack Kelly. No, Jack, it's not just you. It's you and Andrew Young, a partisan Democrat and genuine civil rights leader; it's you and Dorothy Height, head of the National Council of Negro Women; you and C. DeLores Tucker, former chair of the Black Caucus of the Democratic National Committee; you and Ron Lester, a Democratic pollster quoted by the New York Post's Deborah Orin as saying, "A lot of African Americans are watching this and they're wondering why [Democrats] are going after her so hard."

It's you and Colbert King, the liberal columnist for the Washington Post, who has little use for Bush but even less for the Boxer-Byrd style. King asks us to ponder a key Boxer statement: "I personally believe--this is my personal view--that your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell the war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth." Writes King, "It's hard to imagine a more demeaning and offensive caricature of a prospective secretary of state." What a great tactic! What a keen way to appeal to white moderates, as well as to stop the leakage to Bush of black social conservatives, which at the moment has the left in a panic.

A former kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan berating a cultured black woman, one of whose childhood friends was blown up in Birmingham: This is the image you want to create for your party? Call it strike one.

(2) Ted Kennedy calls Iraq Vietnam.

"Defeat is an orphan," Ted's big brother the president once famously said, but this fails to apply when Ted is in the neighborhood. He preemptively embraced failure in Iraq, declaring defeat three days before the election, just in time to demoralize American troops and Iraqi voters (and calling to mind another JFK comment, that his youngest brother was not "terribly quick"). But it wasn't the first time Ted had stumbled over his feet in his rush to proclaim a defeat for the United States. In 1990, he wanted to leave Kuwait and its oil fields in Saddam's possession, proclaiming a war would kill 50,000 Americans and become a new Vietnam. But things lately have been confusing for Teddy, what with George W. Bush morphing into JFK, while he himself turns into something rather more like his father, famous in 1940 for saying democracy was finished in England and attempts to save it would lead us into a quagmire--call it FDR's Vietnam.

Apparently, there are pro-and anti-democracy wings not only in the Democratic party but in the Kennedy family, though those on the pro side are sadly no longer with us. Unlike his late brothers, Ted Kennedy has negative moral authority, and is not the man you put out there to win hearts and minds, abroad or at home. A moral exemplar such as Edward M. Kennedy selling defeat is hardly what you want when you're trying to grow a political party that's been shrinking like a wool sweater in a tub of hot water largely because of its shortfalls in moral authority and its weakness in foreign affairs. He is the ideal spokesman to make the argument--from the point of view of the Republican party. Mark this down as strike number two.

(3) Evan Bayh joins the jihad.

On the morning of Thursday, January 27, the Washington Times ran across the top of page one pictures of Democrats Boxer, Byrd, Kerry, Kennedy, and the 9 others who voted against confirming Rice. What was wrong with this string of pictures? It was made up of 12 hacks, has-beens, never-weres, and certified losers--and Evan Bayh, one of the four main sponsors of the Iraq war resolution and until Wednesday a real star in his party, one of the few with a shot at being president, because of the trust he had amassed on the right and in the center, and the chance he could have had to peel off some red states. As of Thursday morning, that trust was gone.

"Say it ain't so, Evan," wrote Andrea Neal in the Indianapolis Star a week later. "After six years of building your centrist credentials . . . causing even hard-core skeptics like me to brand you the genuine article, you turn around and vote against a distinguished, conservative nominee for Secretary of State. After backing President Bush in the Iraq war, and presenting persuasive arguments for ousting Saddam Hussein, you take a stand against the only administration official who can seamlessly pick up [President Bush's] foreign policy. . . . After boasting on your web site to be someone who cares more about doing the right thing than the expedient thing, you become one of 13 senators to vote against President Bush's nominee."

Neal quotes a former Bayh backer who calls the senator "self-serving" and says further, "I am appalled." So are the many who formerly saw Bayh as the one Democrat they could possibly vote for, and right now are changing their minds. This is a vote that will not be forgotten: As we speak, some Republican doubtless is running up spots morphing Bayh into Boxer and Teddy. "In 1991, defense-hawk Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga) caught the presidential bug, abandoned his record, and opposed the first Persian Gulf War--a big mistake," writes Morton Kondracke in Roll Call. "Has the same thing happened to Sen. Evan Bayh?" Nunn lost his chance for a place on the national ticket when the Gulf War succeeded; just as Bayh may have lost his gamble when the Iraqi election went well. Would he have done this had he known what would happen? The answer is probably "no."

Bayh tried to recoup on This Week by claiming that he was for war, but not this war, a smart war, a sensitive war, a war backed by both France and Belgium that lasted three days at the outside, and in which no one got hurt.

But Kerry tried that line in 2004, to no effect whatsoever, telling Rolling Stone that when he voted for the war (before, of course, voting against it) he had no idea Bush would f--it up as he did. Bayh should have looked hard at both Nunn and Kerry, and, failing that, he should have bided his time. It is now three years to the Iowa caucus, plenty of time to find other ways to make nice with the base. And time, too, to see if Rice--and Iraq--are a failure. If you vote against someone as the architect of a failed foreign policy, it helps if the policy first fails. Bayh better hope now Iraq becomes a disaster: If it succeeds, he will look worse than ever, having thrown away his name and his future to protest a success. Paris may be worth a mass, and the White House may be worth a boot-licking gesture, but a boot-licking gesture that costs you the White House is something quite different. The only thing worse than an obvious opportunist is an inept opportunist with a bad sense of timing. Say good night, Evan. And mark this down as strike three.

(4) John Kerry goes on Meet the Press.

If Evan Bayh has learned nothing from Kerry and Edwards, it seems clear enough that Kerry has learned nothing either. He isn't a statesman, but he plays one on TV, and so there he was on Meet the Press the Sunday morning of Iraq's election, looking properly somber and careworn, saying a great many words to no purpose, and displaying too much of the cluelessness that went far toward helping him lose. In fact, as to losing, he seemed in a state of denial, talking up the (fairly) close race in the state of Ohio, and claiming he came so near to winning that it hardly was losing at all. He won the popular vote in the battleground states, he said proudly. A mere switch of 60,000 votes in Ohio, and he would have been writing the State of the Union. (Never mind that Kerry lost the national popular vote by nearly four million, while Bush was gaining four seats in the Senate; and that if he had managed to pull out Ohio, people now would be saying what a fluke it had been, and wondering how he would govern with a Republican Congress and a public that had so clearly voted for Bush.)

But Kerry was much more enthused about his campaign than about the Iraqi elections, which he grudgingly referred to as barely legitimate, while implying the worst was ahead. He declared us less safe than when the war started, although Saddam's capture had made us much safer: a perfect example of the kind of coherence he had brought to last year's campaign. And of his tone-deafness. "Whoever is advising him politically made a terrible mistake," Democratic strategist Bob Beckel said later on Fox News. "He should have said . . . this is a magnificent outcome, and now that we've had this . . . let's begin the process of getting our troops back home. . . . I don't get why any Democrat would want to dump on this election when in fact it's the beginning of the end." But Kerry seemed perfectly content with himself and his comments, and eager for more in the 2008 cycle. "Bring it on," doubtless reply the Republicans. Put it down as strike four--this is politics, not baseball.

EVERYTHING THAT HAS BEEN WRONG with the Democrats in the past several years was on vivid display during Hell Week: the teeth-grinding shrillness; the race card, misplayed with such gusto; the self-interest so blatant it defeats its own purpose; the crippling dearth of ideas. With a few brave exceptions (a faction of one named Joe Lieberman), the Democrats split into two major camps: the wingnuts--Dean, Boxer, and Kennedy--who know what they think, which alas sets them at odds with the rest of the country; and the caucus of cowards--Bayh, Edwards, and Kerry--who believe in nothing so much as their own career prospects, and change their minds on the gravest of war and peace issues on the basis of what serves their ends.

For the Democrats, this is not a new problem, and has been with them since the war in Iraq first emerged as an issue. "More than a dozen Democrats, who requested anonymity, have told the Post that many members who oppose the president's strategy . . . are going to nonetheless support it because they fear a backlash from voters," the Washington Post reported on September 26, 2002, in the run-up to that year's midterm elections, which made history when the Democrats lost. Five weeks later, "The Note," the widely read blog of ABC News, reported: "Voters may not know this explicitly, but if there were a secret ballot vote, Democrats in the House and Senate would vote overwhelmingly to repeal the Bush-Baucus tax cuts, and to stop the president from going to war in Iraq." From here, it is a straight line to Bayh, Kerry, and Edwards, surfing their way around public opinion, and getting upended by shifts in the wind.

And there you have the real vision gap between the two parties: Republicans want to win wars and spread freedom; Democrats want to save their rear ends. Bush thinks freedom is better than terror and tyranny; Democrats think they themselves are better than Bush. In 2004, Bush made it clear he was willing to lose on the basis of his convictions--and won in spite or more likely because of this. Democrats had no convictions beyond the end goal of winning, and therefore quite properly lost. No party deserved to lose more than the Democrats did in these past two elections, and unless they make changes, they stand to lose many more.

Since Black Tuesday last November, Democrats have spent hours of airtime, gallons of newsprint, and billions of words trying to find out why wonderful people such as they keep on losing. They'd be better off taking a hard look at Hell Week. All of the answers are there.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.