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The Democratic Divide

It's not between pro-war and anti-war Democrats--it's between those who are willing to vote their semi-pacifist conscience and those who are not.

10:00 AM, Nov 21, 2005 • By PAUL MIRENGOFF
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"SOME OF OUR ELECTED LEADERS have opposed this war all along. I disagreed with them, but I respected their willingness to take a consistent stand. Yet some Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force are now rewriting the past. They are playing politics with this issue and they are sending mixed signals to our troops and the enemy. And that's irresponsible."

With these words, President Bush captured the fundamental divide in today's Democratic party. The divide is not between Democrats who are willing to wage a serious war against Islamofascist terrorism and those who are not--there aren't enough elected Democrats of the first type to constitute a true faction. Rather, the divide is between Democrats who are willing to vote their semi-pacifist conscience and those who are not.

One might have thought that, on matters of war and peace, every elected official would vote his or her conscience. But the Democrats abandoned that quaint approach more than a decade ago, when America went to war with Iraq the first time. Not surprisingly, Bill Clinton was in the vanguard. Asked how he would have voted on the Senate resolution to go to war, Governor Clinton replied that he would have voted for the resolution if the vote was going to be close, but that he thought the opposition had the better arguments.

How Democrats got to a place where their soon-to-be leader would base a vote concerning the placement of American troops in harm's way on factors other than the merits is the subject for another day. The present point is that in 2002, when it was once again time to vote on going to war in Iraq, a critical mass of Democrats adopted Clinton's post-modern approach. To dispute this claim one would have to explain why the votes of Senate Democrats correlated so closely with whether a given senator was up for reelection in 2002 and/or considering a presidential bid. In fact, while Senate Democrats as a whole split on the issue, every Democratic member facing reelection in 2002--with the exception of Paul Wellstone--voted for the war resolution.

Playing politics in this way must have seemed like a good idea at the time. If the war went well, Senate Democrats could not be accused of having opposed it. If it did not, President Bush, as the war's initiator, would pay the price regardless of how Democrats voted.

But the Democrats underestimated the American voter. By November 2004, it was clear that (1) we were not going to find WMD in Iraq and (2) we were struggling to defeat a counter-revolution more formidable than the administration had expected. Yet President Bush defeated John Kerry who, departing from years of opposition to the projection of American force, had cast a cynical vote in favor of the war resolution. Moreover, the election became as much a referendum on Kerry's unprincipled, war-related voting as on the war itself. In the end, the electorate simply trusted the president more than it did his opportunistic rival.

Since then Democrats have focused their efforts on destroying that trust. Hence, the attempt to persuade Americans that the president misled Congress and the public in the run-up to the war. After all, committing deception in order to bring about a war would be an even worse offense than voting for war based on political calculation. Moreover, if Bush deceived Congress, Democrats who voted for the war could claim they were misled.

Why, then, did mainstream Democratic politicians not make the "Bush lied" argument earlier--for instance while Kerry was being bludgeoned into defeat on account of his flip-flopping on the war? The reason is straightforward--there is no evidence to support the charge. This explains why Kerry relied on other arguments, such as the claim that he expected Bush to work more closely with the United Nations and our allies. It also explains why, when Bush finally responded, Democrats immediately accused him on going into campaign mode. They understood that the success of Democratic attempts to discredit the administration depends on the administration not defending itself.

The record is unambiguous that Bush did not manipulate the intelligence. Even Bush-critics Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post concede that "intelligence agencies overwhelmingly believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."