Democrats yesterday escalated their fiery attacks on President Bush’s rationale for going to war by tying his decision to the indictment of a top administration aide in an aggressive political strategy that has energized the party’s anti-war activist base.
The day after Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada forced the Senate into a rare closed-door session to debate whether Mr. Bush manipulated intelligence information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a pretext for war, he and other Democratic leaders stepped up their rhetoric and demands in a bid to drive the issue back into the news.
Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, whose ill-fated 2004 presidential campaign was fueled by opposition to the war, called on the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney 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.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Mr. Reid also sent Mr. Bush a letter asking him to apologize for the actions by Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and any other officials who may have been involved in the CIA leak investigation.
That investigation led to Mr. Libby’s indictment for purportedly lying to the FBI and the grand jury. Mr. Libby said he is innocent of all the charges.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist returned fire yesterday, charging that Mr. Reid’s tactical Senate ambush was “a political stunt that took us off what we need to be doing” about energy prices, deficit reduction and the economy.
“This was a political stunt from the party of ‘no’ that says obstruct, filibuster, which they’ve said in the past, and it’s a vacuum of ideas that’s reflected” within their party, Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, said on Fox News.
A Democratic national security strategist said the practical effect of Tuesday’s Senate maneuver could backfire and “drag down the Democrats even more than it drags down the Republicans.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution defense analyst who advises Democrats on national-security issues, said it was legitimate for the Democrats “to raise the broader context” of the special prosecutor’s indictment in the CIA leak investigation. “But it remains dangerous for any opposition party to focus on scandals by the governing party. … Reminding voters what Republicans may have done wrong will not reach the level of getting the Democrats into the game.”
Fueling Mr. Reid’s surprise decision for the closed session to debate Mr. Bush’s war rationale was his party’s large, vocal anti-war base, which is increasingly playing a dominant role in shaping the Democrats’ critical posture against the war in Iraq.
“I have been waiting for this day for five years. The Democrats have found their voice, and maybe they won’t lose it again,” said Kenneth Lerer, co-founder with liberal activist Arianna Huffington of huffingtonpost.com. “Finally, they have said enough.”
The left-wing Web site Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com) said Mr. Reid’s move was “worthy of a Wild West gunfight. … This move was pure political brilliance.”
Several others, such as author David Wallechinsky, raised the prospect of impeachment, asking, “Is a Nixon moment on the horizon?”
“I don’t think most Republicans today are quite there yet with George Bush. But Bush did allow his chief political adviser and his vice president to out a CIA agent [Valerie Plame] because her husband [Joseph C. Wilson IV] challenged the factual basis of Bush’s rationale for sending American soldiers to war,” Mr. Wallechinsky said.
During the ensuing debate in the Senate, Mr. Reid said Mr. Libby’s indictment showed “this administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq.”
Ironically, while Democrats were trying to tie the Libby indictment and the Iraq war together, the chief investigator into the CIA leak said there was no connection between the two events.
“This indictment is not about the war,” special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said at last week’s press conference announcing the charges against Mr. Libby.
“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,” he said.