Is the Democratic Party taking the “big tent” idea too far? It’s one thing to be the anti-war or pro-war party. It’s entirely another to be both. Yet that appears to be what the Democratic Party is trying to do. But don’t take my word for it.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, the widely respected Connecticut senator who was the party’s vice presidential candidate in 2000, is squarely behind the war in Iraq. He supported the ouster of Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, when Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act and many of his Senate colleagues voted for it because they knew it would never be carried out. He supported Saddam’s ouster in the fall of 2002, when President Bush came to Congress and openly asked for authorization to go to war. He supported Saddam’s ouster in those heady days in the springtime of 2003, when the tyrant and his statues fell. He supported Saddam’s ouster when liberation gave way to “a long, hard slog.”
Lieberman supported the war during the Purple Thumb Revolution and blood-soaked insurgency. He supported the war when it appeared it would cost him his seat in the Senate. Indeed, it pays to recall that Joe Lieberman ran on the war and on his pro-war record—not against them—and won. And he still supports the war today, amid the political games in Washington.
“It would be a dangerous mistake to cut off funds to our troops while they are fighting to achieve their mission,” he declared earlier this year. “It is a dangerous illusion to believe that we can depart Iraq and the inevitable killing fields and terrorist violence will not follow us in retreat—even to our own shores. That is why it is right and imperative that we recommit ourselves to success in Iraq.”
During a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he was even more direct: “The president of the United States gets this. I think he sees the moment that we are at in the larger war on terrorism and the significance of how we conclude the war in Iraq, how devastating it would be to the Iraqis to the Middle East to America if we simply withdraw. He needs our support.”
These are not the words of some backbencher or freshman firebrand; these are the words of a truly national figure, a Democratic statesman who happens to support the war.
Sen. Joe Biden, who has been in the Senate since 1973 and is now in the middle of his second run for the White House, takes a different view. To his credit, it’s not the shortsighted reaction of some of his colleagues. “Congress must act responsibly,” he recently warned. “We must resist the temptation to push for changes that sound good but produce bad results.” In his trademark matter-of-fact style, he has argued, “We gave the President that power to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and, if necessary, to depose Saddam Hussein. The WMD were not there. Saddam Hussein is no longer there.” Biden seems to be saying that the mission is technically accomplished—that the war to take down Saddam’s regime and eliminate the WMD threat posed by him was won long ago—so stop moving the finish line.
Were the current president as adept at the sort of triangulation his predecessor mastered, I daresay he already would have reached across the aisle to appropriate Biden’s assessment. Recall how President Clinton did just that with Speaker Newt Gingrich’s plan to reform welfare and Sen. Bob Dole’s plan to end the bludgeoning of Bosnia. But in this, as in so many other matters, Bush is not following Clinton’s example or footsteps.
Finally, there is Sen. Harry Reid, leader of the Democrats’ plurality in the Senate. Reid is the senator who famously declared last week, “This war is lost, and this surge is not accomplishing anything.” He may be right; he may be wrong. But either way, most observers would argue—and many have—that it is wrong for a Senate leader to make such a pronouncement in the middle of a war. (It was just as wrong for Tom DeLay, then a key leader in the House, to advise Republicans, with US forces in the middle of military operations around and above Kosovo, that “We should think very, very seriously whether we are going to take ownership of the bombing.”)
Some observers, myself included, find it interesting that these three national leaders of the Democratic Party have such divergent views on this most central issue of our time. One says the war is lost and cannot be won. Another says the war was won long ago, and it is the peace that’s lost. And still another says the war is neither over nor lost—but must be won.
Great political parties, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, “are those which cling to principles rather than to their consequences; to general and not to special cases; to ideas and not to men.” It seems the Democratic Party’s leaders need to determine which principles, which ideas, to cling to as the war over Iraq rages.
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