- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Last week’s Democratic ambush in the Senate to tie the dubious indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide to the war in Iraq was all about political gamesmanship.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s plot to exploit a not-often-used parliamentary rule to shut down the Senate and force a debate about the rationale for toppling Saddam Hussein regime may have won lusty cheers from his party’s antiwar base, but some Democrats weren’t joining in.

One who saw dark perils in Mr. Reid’s sneak attack was Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution defense analyst who advises Democrats on national security issues. It was legitimate for the Democrats “to raise the broader context” behind the special prosecutor’s indictment in the CIA leak investigation and the justification for the Iraq war, Mr. O’Hanlon told me. But he thinks they are on a slippery slope when they stoop to scandal-mongering instead of working to define a well-thought-out plan to combat the global terrorist threat.

“It remains dangerous for any opposition party to focus [solely] on scandals by the governing party,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “The Democrats need a positive national security agenda. Reminding voters what Republicans may have done wrong will not reach the level of getting the Democrats into the game.”

But Mr. Reid and his cohorts are not interested in setting forth an agenda to defeat the al Qaeda terrorists and help the Iraqis build a stable, secure democracy. The only combat they seek is political: To bring down George W. Bush’s presidency. Sad to say, that’s what Mr. Reid’s ambush was all about.

Mr. Reid’s Senate shutdown strategy was driven by his party’s large, angry, antiwar base that has an increasingly muscular role in shaping and steering Democrats’ defense policy, such as it is.

Their voices rose in a crescendo of anti-Bush bravado last week on dozens of Web sites that sang Mr. Reid’s praises, urging him to escalate his party’s attacks on the White House. Some went so far as to compare the Senate shutdown maneuver to the first investigative break in the Watergate scandals that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Writing in the leftist huffingtonpost.com Web site, David Wallechinsky raised the prospect of impeachment, asking, “Is a Nixon moment on the horizon?” Sending troops into terrorist breeding ground “strikes me as a more appalling action for a U.S. president to take than anything Richard Nixon ever did during the Watergate affair,” he said.

With growing demands from his base for more red meat rhetoric, Mr. Reid zeroed in on the indictment of Cheney aide “Scooter” Libby, saying it showed “this administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, whose ill-fated presidential bid was financed and staffed by antiwar activists, picked up the theme-of-the-day, calling on the White House to “answer questions about their roles in manipulating intelligence information to build support for the war, smearing opponents of the war and covering up that smear campaign.”

The tactic was to tie the war into Mr. Libby’s indictment for allegedly lying to the FBI and the grand jury. But special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has said the charges have nothing to do with the decision to go to war in Iraq.

“This indictment’s not about the propriety of the war, and people who believe fervently in the war effort, people who oppose it, people who are — have mixed feelings about it should not look to this indictment for any resolution of how they feel or any vindication of how they feel,” Mr. Fitzgerald said when he announced the charges against Mr. Libby.

As for making the case for war against Saddam’s regime, Democrats need look no further than their party leadership.

If “we fail to act,” President Clinton said in 1998, “he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you, he’ll use the arsenal.”

Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, one of Mr. Reid’s plotters in the Senate shutdown, said in 2002, “I do believe that Iraq is an immediate threat” and “we can no longer afford to wait for a smoking gun.” A long line of party leaders voted for the war resolution in the Senate, including John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

But that was then, this is now — two months before the start of the 2006 election season when the Democrats think this new and much more aggressive attack strategy will put them back into control of Congress.

But as weak as Mr. Bush and the Republicans may seem now, according to all the polls, the Democrats aren’t doing any better.

“The public sees the Democrats as disorganized, lacking in clear ideas or a positive alternative to the GOP agenda, and bereft of appealing leaders,” The Washington Post reported Sunday in a story about their latest party preference poll.

When The Post’s poll asked which party has stronger leaders, respondents chose Republicans over Democrats by 51-35 percent. That’s a convincing reason why the Democrats need to spend more time developing a national security agenda and less time playing political war games.

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

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