The (Democratic) Politics of the Iraq Issue

Several of the Democratic presidential candidates have struggled with the Iraq issue because they are on record as having voted for the bill that permitted the invasion (the issue seems to have flummoxed Clark as well). Dean has made hay with this.

Take Senator Kerry as an example. I think he would probably be a fine President (as would several other of the Democratic hopefuls). He started his campaign as the notional front runner, and surrounded himself with consultants from the Democratic party establishment. And they ran the standard play from the Democratic playbook: if you are ahead, be cautious. Don't blow it. That might have worked against Gephardt, a very studied sort of populist, but it doesn't work against genuine populist insurgents (Dean, maybe Clark).

Caution is not such a terrible trait in a President, at least most of the time, but it proved a wasting strategy for the Kerry campaign. So, at long, long last, John Kerry has finally decided to attack Bush in his foreign policy soft underbelly. While I think that it's a good decision, it does make one wonder about the more general question of why so many of the candidates have avoided the obvious explanation for their vote: Bush lied to us.

Here's how the Washington Post described Kerry's new approach to the Iraq question:

Kerry, who voted for the congressional war resolution before the invasion, stepped up his attacks on Bush's decision to go to war in the first place. He said some of the administration's pre-war assertions about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction “misled America.”

“They told us there were aerial vehicles” to deliver Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. “They weren't there,” he said, speaking on ABC's “This Week.” “They told us they had a 45-minute deployment period for weapons of mass destruction. That wasn't true. They told us they were on the road to nuclear weaponization. That was not true.”

“He ought to apologize to the people of this country because what they've done now is launch a PR campaign instead of a real policy,” Kerry said. “We need to go to the United Nations more humbly, more directly, more honestly, solicit help in a way that brings the United Nations into this effort, or you are going to continue to see bomb after bomb after bomb.”

Kerry also derided the administration's effort to portray current efforts in Iraq as international in nature. “We have a fraudulent coalition, and I use the word 'fraud.' It's a few people here, a few people there. It's basically the British, and, most fundamentally, the United States of America.”

“This administration has alienated people all across this planet,” he said. “They have, in fact, made America less safe.”

All of this is true. But, most of it was true two, three, four months ago. Only the fraudulence of the latest Bush approach to the UN (give us troops and money, no strings attached, and in exchange we offer you not even a fig leaf of even nominal control) is new.

One of the medium-sized mysteries of this campaign is that none of the Senators running for President chose the “Bush tricked us all” defense of their vote on the Gulf of Tonkin Iraq War Powers bill. I would have thought there was a lot of milage to be made by saying something along the lines of “I trusted the Administration when it told us Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and was on the verge of acquiring nukes. I trusted the Administration when it told us that Saddam directly threatened the USA. I certainly was not about to take chances with our security, and when the Administration said that this operation was essential to our security, I of course gave them the benefit of every doubt — what patriot would not? It pains me greatly to have to report that the evidence we have now suggests that the Administration lied to the Congress, and lied to the American people.”

There were and are three dangers in this strategy:

  1. WMD's might be found, giving the administration a PR victory even if there was no credible means of delivering them to attack the US.
  2. It might look 'weak' to admit someone, even the White House, fooled you. (But there's safety in numbers, ie. 'we were all fooled', and it can be spun as patriotic trust and caution.)
  3. Using words like 'lied' is nastier and more personal than establishment inside-the-belway politicians like to be—especially those inside the Senate, which still has some vestigial collegiality. Plus, mean personal attacks turn off voters (which is why the imagined quote above speaks of 'the Administration” not anyone in particular).

Even so, you might think at least one of the candidates would have tried it as a means of differentiating himself from the pack?

Clearly, all the campaigns rejected this fairly obvious ploy at the time it would have been most credible. Were there other reasons besides the three hypothesized above? Given that most of the Senators have defended their vote as appropriate, is it too late to try it now, given that the press is ready for it? (Of course, none of this applies to Sen. Lieberman who appears to have no regrets for his vote.)

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