- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

Democratic leaders are stiffening their opposition to war with Iraq at a time when U.S. troops are preparing to crush Saddam Hussein's terrorist regime to prevent another September 11.
In a strategic decision that could turn into a political disaster for their party in 2004, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle are playing to the liberal, anti-war base of their party. That move has upset some of their party's presidential hopefuls who fear it could fuel deeper doubts about the Democrats' falling credibility on defense and national security matters.
Many Democrats rue the day when Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and other party leaders opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf war resolution. Mr. Mitchell even persuaded then-Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the party's hawkish defense policy leader, to oppose military action. Mr. Nunn said later it was the worst mistake of his career.
Those bitter words of regret were privately echoed in the past week by some of the party's veteran advisers. "Who will trust us with the nation's security if we continue to oppose military force when it's needed to defend ourselves," a longtime Democratic strategist asked me.
The split in the party between anti-war doves and defense hawks is widening as Mr. Bush pursues his policy of pre-emptive action against nations harboring and financing terrorist groups. Democrats are torn between the need to mount a war against rogue nations and alienating its noisy anti-war left wing that makes up a large part of its political base.
As President Bush prepares to give the order to take down Saddam's hated regime and destroy his chemical and biological weapons, Mrs. Pelosi, Mr. Daschle and their allies are beating the anti-war drums louder than ever.
"I do not believe that going to war now is the best way to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction," Mrs. Pelosi said in a major speech on Iraq before the Council of Foreign Relations.
George Mitchell and his anti-war allies wanted to impose economic sanctions on Saddam after he invaded and seized oil-rich Kuwait and looked to Saudi Arabia as his next victim. Similarly, Mrs. Pelosi wants to continue the inspections and diplomacy indefinitely as Saddam continues to arm himself.
Mr. Daschle, who voted for the congressional resolution authorizing war, now accuses Mr. Bush of having "failed" to build a stronger coalition against Iraq.
Resurrecting the Democrats' blame America first refrain of the 1980s, Mr. Daschle says America "is in a more isolated position than I ever anticipated."
Sen. Ted Kennedy complains Mr. Bush is "fixated" on Iraq. "Rash action will only place our troops in greater harm's way," he says.
Mrs. Pelosi, one of her party's most liberal partisans, is hard to convince.
Despite substantial intelligence evidence of Iraq's deceit and duplicity in its hide-and-seek game with weapons of mass destruction, she says Mr. Bush still has not made a convincing case.
"It has not been made to the American people. It has not been made to the world community. It has not been made to the U.N. Security Council that war is the best way," she says.
Well, nothing is going to convince France, which does a lot of business with Iraq. But Mrs. Pelosi is in deep denial if she really thinks Americans are not convinced the case has been made. This week, pollster John Zogby found that support for Mr. Bush's war plans "has increased" to 57 percent.
Yet the Democratic presidential contenders are not finding that support among the party faithful who turn out to hear them speak in the key caucus and primary states. Mostly anti-war Democrats are showing up at these events and they are angry.
So much so that Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri was "badgered" about his support for Mr. Bush on the war in a tense 25-minute meeting with Iowa Democrats in Des Moines last week.
Even former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is his party's most vocal war critic, is frustrated by the singular attention being given to Iraq. "I had a press conference and it was all about the war. Finally I said, 'Would anybody like to talk about the enormous jump in the unemployment rate?' "
That is forcing even a front-runner like Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who also voted for the war resolution, to toughen his criticism of Mr. Bush on the diplomatic front, while still supporting military action.
However, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has been consistently raising the level of his attacks on Saddam and defending the need to "get rid of this tyrant." A Lieberman adviser told me, "You won't find anyone among our party's presidential candidates who supports Bush more on this issue, than Joe does."
But not among the party's leadership and rank-and-file in the House and Senate, nor among the anti-war crowds who turn out to badger their presidential hopefuls at town meetings.
Mrs. Pelosi, Mr. Daschle, Mr. Kennedy and the others are only deluding themselves by thinking they can win elections by playing to the anti-war crowd. Being tough on national and homeland security was always a big issue for the American people. After the horror of September 11, 2001, it became immense.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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