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Election Year Politics And The Road To War


George W. Bush wants war. He makes no bones about it. Right now his biggest concern is to get a UN Security Council resolution that would provide political cover for his planned war against Iraq, and he wants it before our November 5 election.

Why? Because after the election, some more Congressional Democrats might pick up their spines from the Capitol cloak-room where they surrendered them before voting to authorize this war. We might then see more vocal opposition from politicians here at home.

President Bush’s motivation, and that of his party, has been obvious from the start. They needed to change the subject of political coverage for the November elections. Otherwise the newspapers and TV would have reported on some issues that favor Democrats: the jobless economic recovery, the millions who lost their retirement savings in the stock market, a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Not to mention the pile of scandals that have dogged the Bush administration, any one of which is potentially fatal: President Bush’s Harken Energy Corporation, Cheney’s Halliburton, Enron and the corporate accounting fraud, the 9-11 intelligence failure.

President Bush’s decision to change the channel, however cynical and depraved, has been a brilliant political success. It remains to be seen whether it will win the Congress for his party. But his gambit completely transformed media coverage for the 2002 election season.

The more difficult thing to explain is: Why did the Democrats let him get away with it? First, in fairness, it is important to note that more than 60 percent of the Democrats in the House of Representatives actually voted against the resolution that gave the president a blank check to start a war. Those who led the fight against their party leadership — Representatives Barbara Lee (CA), Dennis Kucinich (OH), Lloyd Doggett (TX), and Pete Stark(CA) — deserve the highest praise.

The Senate was much worse: Democrats voted 29-21 for the war resolution. The biggest problem in both chambers is the leadership: Dick Gephart, House Minority Leader, and Tom Daschle, Senate Majority Leader, both supported the war. Both have presidential ambitions, and this is commonly cited as the reason for their stance, as well as that of other Democrats — Senators Hillary Clinton (NY) and John Kerry (MA) — who supported Bush.

But the problem is deeper than that: the Democrats who supported the war, including the leadership, made some cynical calculations. Some figured their consent to the war would remove one issue from their election campaign, where they were facing a pro-war Republican.

That was the leadership strategy, and what a blunder it turned out to be. Daschle and Gephart seemed to believe that if they gave Bush what he wanted, they could move on to other issues. But Bush played them like a violin, and kept Iraq on the front pages almost every day up to November.

The Democratic leadership’s extreme opportunism must be distinguished from simply bowing to public pressure. Although polls have shown a majority of people favoring military action, this falls quickly to a minority when casualties are mentioned.

And these polls have been taken among people who have mostly heard only one side of the story. The media — especially TV and radio — tend to ignore opposing views when the leadership of both parties is in agreement. With an ounce of courage, Democratic leaders could easily move public opinion against the war.

Whatever the outcome of the election, Daschle and Gephart should resign from their leadership positions. This is a matter of life and death, war and peace, with untold and unpredictable consequences. No elected official should ever dishonor their oath, and betray their constituents, by deciding such issues on the basis of the most unprincipled political motives.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington D.C.

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