THEY ARE THE polar opposites of the Democratic presidential campaign: Howard Dean, the fiery Bush-basher whose staunch anti-war stand has taken him to the top of the polls, and Joe Lieberman, the mild-mannered hawk now claiming a measure of vindication.
But with the press and the public enthralled with the image of Saddam Hussein’s Charles Manson–like visage being prodded and poked by a rubber-gloved medic, does anyone really care what either of them — or any of the other Democratic candidates — has to say?
Monday, the day after Saddam’s mediagenic capture, was supposed to be a big day for Dean and Lieberman. Dean, the former Vermont governor with the paper-thin international résumé, was scheduled to deliver a major address on foreign policy. As for Lieberman, it was his turn to sit down with Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball, which, despite microscopic ratings, remains appointment viewing for the political cognoscenti.
But if either candidate expected to get any sort of bump, he soon learned otherwise.
Dean’s speech, in Los Angeles, was originally going to be carried live that afternoon by the cable news stations. But as Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz noted on his paper’s Web site, "Fox News just shrunk the ex-governor to a small box and put that picture of Saddam opening wide for the tongue depressor in a big box." And, within a few minutes, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC all dumped the speech. That’s certainly not the treatment that President Bush received: his triumphal news conference, held just a few hours earlier, was carried live by all the networks, broadcast and cable alike.
Dean fans didn’t miss much. I caught the replay on C-SPAN that evening. He delivered his speech in a deadly dull drone, looking down at his text, rocking back and forth on his feet slightly as if to calm his nerves. The content was perfectly respectable, if predictable: he hailed the US capture of Saddam but stuck by his anti-war position, saying, "The capture of Saddam is a good thing, which I hope very much will help keep our soldiers safer. But the capture of Saddam has not made America safer." And he outlined a multilateral alternative to George W. Bush’s aggressive, go-it-alone approach to foreign affairs.
Not that Dean’s speech wasn’t important. Perhaps at some point people will go back and analyze what he defined as the "Dean doctrine." But not this week, thank you very much. Ditto for John Edwards and 2008 front-runner Hillary Clinton, both of whom delivered foreign-policy addresses Monday. At least Wesley Clark got to appear statesmanlike: he traveled to The Hague to testify in the war-crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian dictator whom Clark helped bring to justice. "Yesterday’s capture of Saddam Hussein makes the work done here in The Hague that much more significant," Clark said. "Important precedents and lessons are being learned every day here about what happens when a former dictator faces the bar of justice."
As for Lieberman, well, what can you say? He’s wanted to go after Saddam for 12 years, so let him enjoy his moment. But with Matthews prodding him, he said he would support letting the Iraqis put Saddam on trial only if they promised to consider the death penalty. So much for Iraqi autonomy. He also couldn’t articulate why the US needed to overthrow Saddam if, as now seems clear, he did not have weapons of mass destruction. "He was a ticking time bomb," Lieberman kept saying, and by the end of the hour it sounded more like a plea than an explanation.
With the closing credits about to roll, Lieberman got whacked by a question from a Kennedy School student asking why he served with Lynne Cheney in an organization that questioned the patriotism of anti-Bush academics in the aftermath of 9/11. Lieberman started trying to explain that he actually quit the group over that very issue — but hey, we’re out of time!
As for Massachusetts’s own John Kerry — remember him? — Monday was a bad day in what must feel like a lifetime of bad days. Last week, Kerry was trying to tell everyone that Dean’s stance on the Iraq-war resolution in the fall of 2002 was not much different from his own (true enough), and that the war would never have taken place under a Kerry presidency. After Saddam was captured, though, Kerry swung the other way, pointing to his vote in favor of the war resolution and blasting Dean for being soft. "Governor Dean and some other people ... didn’t even know that it was good to get rid of Saddam Hussein," Kerry said on Fox News Sunday.
The result of all this was that a couple of pundits who are not particularly hostile to Kerry unleashed their weapons of mass destruction on him. In Slate, William Saletan ran pre- and post-capture quotes from Kerry under the McCarthy-era headline SENATOR, HAVE YOU NO SHAME? On the New Republic’s Web site, Ryan Lizza lampooned Kerry as a "fair-weather hawk." Noting Kerry’s 180-degree turnaround following the capture of Saddam, Lizza sneered: "How in the world did anyone ever get the idea that John Kerry has been ambivalent about the war?"
It’s possible that things are starting to look up for Kerry. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that a newly energized Kerry is on the move in Iowa. He also got an unlikely boost on Monday from Bill O’Reilly, who clearly prefers the senator to Dean. "This is a defining moment for Howard Dean," O’Reilly said on his Fox News show, adding that if Saddam were to admit that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or had ties to Al Qaeda, "Dean’s through."
O’Reilly also told Kerry it was virtually certain he would finish second to Dean in the New Hampshire primary. "Thank you, Bill," Kerry replied, smiling gamely. "I appreciate you making that decision today."
LET’S ACKNOWLEDGE the obvious: this is not a week for politics-as-usual. It’s not the fault of the nine Democrats running for president that they’re forced to play politics-as-usual at a time when no one is paying attention. It is utterly unsurprising that they look irrelevant — and, at times, foolish — during this particular week.
For the candidates, and for Democrats, the principal effect of Saddam’s arrest is that the holiday freeze has hit the presidential campaign a week early. Dean’s still got a big lead in New Hampshire, and he’s moving ahead in the most recent national polls, too. That’s all you need to know until after New Year’s Day.
The more crucial question is what effect will this have on the race in the months ahead. The correct answer, of course, is: who knows? As Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter writes, "The biggest fallacy in forecasting of any kind is to take current conditions and extrapolate forward as if those conditions won’t change. President Bush could still be vulnerable politically. Same for Howard Dean in the primaries, regardless of how positive the news climate may be for both of them right now. Even with good odds, the shoo-in doesn’t fit."
For the Democrats — and especially for Dean, who is so closely associated with the anti-war movement — the dilemma can be defined pretty clearly: when bad policy produces good news, how can you praise the news and criticize the policy without looking inconsistent, grudging, or weasel-y? Under the circumstances, Dean probably did as well as he could, offering generous praise to the White House for Saddam’s capture — and thus avoiding his faux pas of last spring, when he was dismissive of Saddam’s fall from power.
During the Reagan years, conservative columnist George Will liked to observe that the Democrats’ biggest problem was they began every campaign hoping for a recession. What’s going on right now is an update of that old dictum.
First, Saddam Hussein — one of the most cruel, homicidal, and sadistic rulers on the face of the earth — has been captured, an emblematic moment in the liberation of the long-suffering Iraqi people. This is a real, concrete accomplishment that promises a better life for millions of people. The Democratic challenge is to remind voters of the context: that there is zero evidence Saddam was involved in 9/11; that the Bush administration exaggerated and in some cases fabricated evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; and that the White House ran roughshod over the international community, going it almost alone when it could have built a genuine coalition if only it had shown more patience and less arrogance.
Second, the economy appears to be moving into recovery, and could be roaring along by Election Day. Certainly Bush has done everything he can to ensure such a result. His grotesque tax cuts for the rich, which have driven the budget deficit to a record level, appear to be having the intended short-term Keynesian effect. Here, too, then, the Democrats have been put in the impossible position of arguing that prosperity is the result of irresponsible Republican policies.
Former congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the Democrats’ 1984 vice-presidential candidate, put it bluntly on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes Monday night, saying that "if we were going to win based upon things going miserably in Iraq, I don’t think that that’s a criterion for any election."
Ferraro is absolutely right, of course. And, as if on cue, Bush’s poll numbers are moving back up. On Tuesday, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that Bush’s job-approval rating jumped from 52 percent to 58 percent in the immediate aftermath of Saddam’s capture. And poll respondents clearly disagreed with Dean over whether the war in Iraq has made us more secure: 62 percent say it has and only 32 percent say it hasn’t, up from a margin of 52 percent to 43 percent in September.
Perhaps the most effective critique offered by Dean and the other Democrats is that we got the wrong guy. Osama bin Laden, after all, remains at large. Bush’s shifting the war on terrorism from Al Qaeda to Iraq has arguably made the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attack. It threatens to undermine our genuine accomplishments in Afghanistan and has inflamed world opinion against us.
Bush these days never mentions bin Laden, his former "public enemy number one." But the Democrats are certainly trying.
At his news conference on Monday, Bush said, "This weekend’s capture of Saddam Hussein was a great moment for the people of Iraq." He was right, and in more ways than perhaps he intended. Saddam Hussein, an evil man who never represented any direct threat to the United States, is in custody. Osama bin Laden, who seeks to destroy the Western world, remains at large — a beneficiary of Bush’s obsession with Iraq.
LOOKING AHEAD, the challenges for the Democrats are only going to grow. On Tuesday, the Boston Globe’s Charlie Savage reported on the prospect of Saddam’s going on trial for crimes against humanity sometime this spring, with his terrible deeds making headlines day after day.
Savage quotes John Hulsman, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation: "Without ever appearing to be partisan, but merely by cataloging Saddam’s numerous heinous crimes ... it will become implicit in a lot of people’s minds that this was a terrible person and that toppling and catching him was undoubtedly a moral and practical good. That undermines the moralism at the base of left-wing opposition to the president’s Iraq policy. It hits them where they live."
Arguing, as the Democrats will, that Bush never should have gone in — or that he did the right thing but went about it in the wrong way — will be no match for testimony about torture, rape rooms, and mass graves.
So is it hopeless? Is Bush guaranteed election in 2004? The answer: it’s not going to be easy for his challengers. Remember George Will’s dictum. Bush may not have actually won election in 2000, but he is the incumbent. And incumbents are never beaten unless outside events create the right circumstances for an upset. The economy is always the biggest issue. It’s hard to base a campaign on foreign-policy setbacks, because even the worst international blunders tend to be forgiven as long as the president appears to be tough. After all, George McGovern lost 49 states even though Richard Nixon was pursuing the most disastrous foreign policy imaginable.
Yet the United States remains deeply divided, as divided as it was three years ago, when the presidential campaign ended in a virtual tie. No matter how good things look for Bush, the Democrats start with about 45 percent of the vote.
Bush has certainly been tough enough. The challenge for the Democrats is to convince enough undecided voters that Bush has not been wise enough — that his toughness has alienated our friends and made us less secure.
Thus the awful truth is that the Democrats need the Iraq occupation to continue to go badly. They need the capture of Saddam Hussein to stand out as only slightly more important than the deaths of his sons, Uday and Qusay. They need the guerrilla war in Iraq to continue, the quagmire to deepen, the consequences of Bush’s recklessness to be exposed on a daily basis.
This is ugly stuff, and I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m sure every Democrat running would rather Bush win a second term than see our policy in Iraq — which has been a failure in conception since day one — turn into a failure on the ground as well. That a Democratic victory depends on failure does not mean that Democrats are hoping for failure. It’s just a simple statement of fact.
It’s easy to imagine how this might have been otherwise. If a liberal internationalist such as John Kerry or Wesley Clark had been president, we could have carefully nurtured our alliances and presented a united front. Maybe war with Iraq would have been put off a year, two years. But, in all likelihood, it would have come. And instead of being derided for going it alone, the United States would be hailed as the leader of the new world order — as it was after the first President Bush liberated Kuwait, and as it was in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
But it didn’t happen. The bitter fact is that, in Iraq, we are pursuing liberal ends through illiberal means. In its bumbling, arrogant way, the Bush administration has created the conditions for a decent, stable, democratic or semi-democratic Iraq — even as our forces continue to kill civilians who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, even as corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel give new meaning to the phrase "ugly American." And even as the lives of American soldiers continue to be lost.
In a speech on Tuesday, it was Kerry, trying to revive his flagging campaign in the final run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire, who struck just the right balance.
"On one side is President Bush, who has taken America off onto the road of unilateralism," Kerry said, according to his prepared remarks. "On the other side are those in my own party who threaten to take us off on the road to retreat and retrenchment — to a kind of new isolationism where the call for a multilateral approach is not a summons to collective security, but an excuse for inaction.
"Instead, we need a president who will not walk away from a dangerous world — and a president who will not walk alone — but a president who will lead a new alliance of free nations to build a new era of security and peace."
Kerry has done plenty of pandering, but this isn’t pandering. (It’s arguably unfair to Dean, who’s anything but an isolationist. But politics is unfair.) Rather, Kerry’s is a nuanced, subtle view, offered up for voters who generally show little patience for nuance or subtlety.
During one of Adlai Stevenson’s unsuccessful campaigns against Dwight Eisenhower, someone is said to have called out, "Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!"
Stevenson’s memorable response: "That’s not enough, madam. We need a majority."
The dilemma in which the Democrats find themselves today is remarkably similar. They may be right. They are right. But only time will tell whether being right will lead to victory — or will simply have to suffice as its own reward.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.
Issue Date: December 19 - 25, 2003
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