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Carpe Diem
June 20, 2003
By Thomas Lesh

In the last weeks we Democrats were treated to two appalling examples of why we lost the 2002 elections and are likely to lose in 2004 if we do not begin to assert core Democratic values and wrest control of the party's agenda from its current weak-kneed legislative spokespersons. I refer in particular to Tom Daschle's apologetic questioning of the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and his rather pathetic and craven retraction of those assertions in the face of the usual fury of the Republican attack machine. And to Joe Biden's equally spineless response to the noises being made about maybe attacking Iran sometime soon, where Mr. Biden opined that he really did not have any quarrel with the administration's aims in Iran, only their timing. Just this week, I have read there is considerable debate and misgiving within the party about taking on President Bush over the WMD issue. What if they find some? Didn't people like the war? Didn't the American public find it rather gratifying to vicariously kill lots of defenseless foreigners?

These activities, and one might catalogue so many more, only further demonstrate that there still exists a substantial party cadre who believe that it is possible to wage the 2004 campaign on the same basis as that of 2002. Namely, that people trust the Democrats on economic issues, they will vote economic issues exclusively, and that if only we can get these sluggard's minds off this terrorist stuff for five minutes, they will be consumed with a burning desire to learn everything there is to learn about prescription drug subsidies, realize that our Democratic program is tops, and return us to Congress and the White House with staggering majorities.

I want to assert the obvious counter proposition, that in order to win in 2004, we need to put foreign policy into play. I want to further assert that, at least since 9/11, and probably for a considerable time before that, there is no bipartisan consensus on foreign policy issues in this nation. The Republicans have boldly published a blueprint for world hegemony, a massive defense buildup, and a decade of pre-emptive wars with all their unpredictable consequences. There are some in this party, the Democratic Party, who believe we can agree to this agenda, or overlook it to concentrate on domestic issues, or even portray ourselves as more belligerent and irrational than our opponents.

We need to recognize that these positions are not only morally and intellectually bankrupt but politically wrong. We cannot succeed by selling Bush-lite or by marketing a compassionate imperialism. The simplest reason we cannot avoid confrontation, from a tactical standpoint, is that Bush controls the agenda. He can always create another crisis as he did in the run-up to 2002. Moreover, Bush controls the terms of the nation's perception of reality. He has built up a compelling mythos focused upon the events of 9/11 that can seemingly justify any outrage.

So how can you beat this? Maybe it is impossible. Certainly it is difficult. But the only way to succeed is to go at this agenda head-on. Democratic politicians need to discover a kind of politics they have never, historically, been very good at - the politics of opposition. We should be under no illusions as to what this politics means. There is no room for statesmanship here, nor for all the advances and backpedaling that characterize a typical legislative agenda. The purpose is not to demonstrate that if you elect us we will pass a lot of complicated laws that in the long run will make things better for our constituent groups and better for the country as a whole. The purpose is to demonstrate that we are better suited to governing than the guys who are currently in power. To do this it is necessary to demonstrate that those who currently hold power are completely unworthy of holding it. The purpose of the politics of opposition is to totally undermine confidence in the existing regime, in their competence, in their motives, in their persons.

Fortunately for us, it is in the nature of fantastic visions to fall apart. This is happening to the Bush initiative in Iraq, both with respect to the WMD issue and the deteriorating post-war situation. The WMD issue is an absolute gift that should be seized upon by all serious Democrats. This issue cannot be defended by Bush and his minions. Either Bush and his cabinet lied to the people and to Congress. Or he was misled or misinterpreted the intelligence. Or the intelligence itself was worthless. Now I happen to believe the first thesis, that he lied, but it really does not matter, because the point is that there was no imminent threat. This man, the commander-in-chief, upon whose judgment America must needs rely, was just plain wrong, for whatever reason.

And he was wrong in a big way, wrong in a way that has serious consequences: the loss of historic allies, the condemnation of most of the peoples of the world, the immersion of the US into a quagmire that has cost us untold treasure and at least one dead soldier a day since it was officially declared a military success.

Wrong, in short, in a way that calls into question the honesty and competence of the leader and his advisors. This is how governments fall, how the illusion of legitimacy falls apart. We should not be overly concerned about polls. Legitimacy falls apart rapidly. One day you are riding high. The next day nobody believes a word you say. It must be our aim, as a party, to hasten this realization. We have to keep making the point with the American people, are you safer and more secure, at home or abroad, in your appreciation of this country as a player on the world stage, or in your own person, or in your physical and economic health, with this guy as president than you would be with somebody else, namely our guy.

Which brings us to the issue of who should deliver these messages. I would argue that it cannot be a traditional Congressional Democrat. These men have too much at stake in the status quo. They are under the illusion they were part of the decision-making process that led us into war and ruined our economy and deprived us of significant constitutional rights. They think they had inside information about the Iraqi threat when they might have picked up a copy of The Guardian or The Independent or gone to any of half-a-dozen websites and gotten better and more accurate intelligence than Bush or Blair. These guys are co-opted or compromised.

In particular, it cannot be anyone who voted for the Iraq war resolution, which eliminates Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, and Gephardt straight off. Graham voted against it, but sometimes it appears he only did so because he had other countries higher on his list. Graham is so inconsistent on these issues that you wonder if he knows where he stands. But lately he has shown signs of enlightenment. However, the other issue for Graham is that if he has damaging information on 9/11 that the government is suppressing, he needs to act like a true patriot and publish it. Otherwise he is a victim of the same Congressional illusions and handicaps as the others. Plus he looks weak.

The real problem here is that anyone who doesn't immediately see the opportunities on the foreign policy front, and the necessity of confronting Bush, doesn't get it. If you don't get it, the foot soldiers of the party, who do get it, will and should pass you by.

While I do not want to make this article an endorsement, I must say that among the serious candidates, only Dean and Kucinich appear to get it so far. Even if a guy like Kerry or Edwards finally gets it, it is too late. They cannot erase the vote, nor the whole 2002 strategy that was based on the vote. Politics, to paraphrase the late Harold Washington, ain't bean bag. Once you lose the initiative, you're out. Seize the moment!

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