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Jewish World Review Oct. 2, 2002 / 26 Tishrei, 5763

Michael Kelly

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Reinforced caricature | One of the things that make the observation of politics an enduring delight -- I mean, besides Robert G. Torricelli; gosh, he will be missed -- is the spectacle of the Republican and Democratic parties committing the same acts of self-destruction over and over.

The big lugs cannot help themselves. There is no rational way to explain, say, the Democrats nominating for president both George McGovern and Michael Dukakis. And there is no rational way to explain the Republicans' habit of promptly passing a massive tax cut for all people named Forbes every time they are in danger of gaining popularity with all other people. The parties do these things not because these things are sane or self-beneficial, but because these things represent what they (institutionally) are. One is the party of people who name their cats Che and the other is the party of people who name their sons Trey.

This is a gross and crude caricature, of course, but politics is a gross and crude business, and caricature captures its realities pretty fairly. One widely accepted caricature that has attached itself to the Democratic Party since at least the mid-1960s is that of the Democrats as foreign-policy morons -- excellent company when it is time to lard up a farm bill, but not to be trusted with the life-and-death stuff.

In 1991 the Democrats proved themselves worthy of the caricature in their considered response to the impending reality of war with Iraq. They howled and mewled about the scariness of the world's fourth-largest army or whatever nonsense the battered conscripts who had managed to survive Saddam Hussein's insane war with Iran were said to constitute. They pledged their faith to sanctions.

They trotted out platoons of experts to explain why the war would destabilize the Middle East, or alienate our international friends, or quadruple the price of oil, or harm the environment -- would, in short, be bad for children and other living things. They counseled patience and diplomacy and working with Iraq. And, for the most part, they chose to let President George H.W. Bush and the Republicans go to war alone. In the Senate, only 10 Democrats joined Republicans to support the war resolution, and in the House only 86.

This spectacular collective failure of judgment should have badly hurt Democrats in 1992 but for the fact that, as congressional handicapper Charlie Cook recently noted, "the economy went south on Bush and . . . rendered the war and the vote authorizing it . . . politically irrelevant." The election of Bill Clinton gave the Democrats a second, larger break; Clinton's willingness, if only fitfully and occasionally successfully, to employ American force erased a good bit of the dismal reputation that the neo-isolationist Democrats had forged for themselves.

Next week, most likely, Congress will pass some sort of resolution authorizing the current President Bush's war with Iraq. This time, a majority of Democrats will support the war. But the party, at its leadership level, has already gone and done the same old hurt to itself.

There was Al Gore, telling the world that the killers of Sept. 11 had "gotten away with it" and broadly (if, in his trademark weaselly fashion, coyly) suggesting that the president of the United States was pursuing war for the selfish purpose of winning votes in November. Two days later, there was Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle picking up on Gore's repulsive slander and vastly amplifying it on the floor of the Senate. A few days later, there was House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, in a mostly reasonable op-ed column, echoing the calumny: "President Bush himself has decided to play politics with the safety and security of the American people."

And, last Sunday, there were -- most memorably, most indefensibly, most obscenely -- two Democratic congressmen, former whip David E. Bonior of Michigan and Jim McDermott of Washington, beamed live from Baghdad, to literally parrot Hussein's line -- to tell Americans that, as McDermott said, "the president would mislead the American people" in order to get his war, but that, by contrast, "you have to take the Iraqis on their value, at their face value."

This is not a little cabal of contributors to the Nation telling the world that the American president is not to be believed and that he wishes to send Americans off to fight and possibly die in Iraq because war is good for his party. These are men in the leadership ranks of the Democratic Party. This is the party's mainstream. This is what it, again, has revealed itself to be. Parties do the darnedest things. To themselves.

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

© 2002, Washington Post Co.