Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 2002 / 13 Kislev, 5763

Zev Chafets

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Consumer Reports

It's the war, stupid | Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats' new House leader, says that on matters of national security she and her party stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the President.

What she didn't say is which side she is standing on, left or right. And in wartime, side matters.

Since Sept. 11, the Democrats have tried to have it both ways, portraying themselves as critical of the war yet tough on terrorism. The party's midterm-election debacle shows how little the public believes them.

This week, a Gallup poll put it into numbers: 27% of Americans say the Republican Party is not tough enough in the war on terror; 57% say that about the Democrats. Some Democrats dismiss this as a perception problem, a failure to get out the party's message. In fact, the Democrats' problem isn't image, it's reality.

Voters' instincts are sharpened by peril, and their agenda is simplified: They demand leaders who understand the nature of the threat and are willing and able to confront it. This simple human impulse gives a great advantage to incumbents - people in danger want to believe in their leaders. It is this impulse that has turned President Bush into a hero with a favorable rating that hovers around 67%.

This great popularity is not based on results - Osama Bin Laden is still at large, and Saddam Hussein remains in power in Iraq - but on the public's assessment of Bush's intentions. People might not agree with him on every issue, but they trust him. The Democrats have yet to grasp this. On the day Pelosi declared solidarity with the President, Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio went on national TV and showed the country the Democrats' crossed fingers.

Kaptur, briefly a candidate for the job of minority leader is, like Pelosi, a member of the House Progressive Caucus, most of whose 50-plus members - virtually all Democrats - opposed the Iraqi war resolution. Appearing on Fox, Kaptur said forthrightly that the President is taking the country to war to further his personal financial interests and those of his family and friends.

It is not a secret that many so-called progressive Democrats believe this. But saying so in public was impolitic. Few Americans believe that Bush is a traitor. Fewer still will believe that a party whose leaders engage in such conspiratorial nonsense actually stands "shoulder to shoulder" with the President.

The Kaptur theory is not the only reason to doubt the Democratic commitment to the war. Almost half of Democratic senators voted against the war resolution. Worse, many who voted for it whispered that they did so against their better judgment as a matter of political expediency. Cynicism doesn't necessarily bother voters in peacetime, but wars call for sincerity, or at least the appearance of sincerity.

When the Democrats have exhibited passion and sincerity, it has mostly been in the cause of peace at any price. The pilgrimage to Baghdad of Democratic Reps. David Bonior of Michigan, Jim McDermott of Washington and (separately) Nick Rahall of West Virginia were obviously wholehearted acts of appeasement. So were the speeches of Democratic powerbrokers Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton at the Ramsey Clark-organized peace rally in Washington last month. So, too, was the strenuous effort of Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia to orate the country out of war on the Senate floor.

Byrd also led the fight against the creation of a Department of Homeland Security - obstructionism that probably cost fellow Democrat Max Cleland of Georgia his Senate seat.

Pelosi and her party have undergone a postelection conversion - all she ever really wanted, Pelosi says, was a leaner, meaner department - but it comes too late and amounts to too little.

With the UN Security Council decision, the war is shifting into a new, offensive phase. Soon, U.S. troops will be sent to Iraq to disarm (i.e., dispatch) Saddam. That will very likely mark the beginning, not the end, of direct American military involvement in the Middle East. The question is, where will the Democrats stand then?

Bush already is framing the war as a just and necessary fight against the Axis of Evil. This is a phrase the Democrats have, so far, put in ironic quotation marks.

Here, in the moral punctuation, is the Democrats' real problem: Either Islamic radicalism is evil or it is not. Either confronting it is an act of self-defense or it isn't. Unless the Democrats are convinced of the justice of the war, they will, despite all efforts at triangulation and image building, fail to be convincing.

The party has been here before. In 1968, Democrats began putting quotation marks around the phrase "Soviet aggression." For five of the next six elections, they stood outside the gates of the White House wearing a smirk and not much else. Now it looks as if they are headed for another generation of irrelevance.

Pelosi can't fix this problem. The Democrats don't need an injection of personality or a shift in tactics, they need a change in political theology. Only when the party returns to an unabashed, patriotic posture of FDR-JFK moral clarity and self-confidence will it be trusted to lead in wartime.

In the meantime, the Pelosi Democrats can stand anywhere they like, but they will always be in the President's shadow.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

11/14/02: The Dems don't have a prayer
11/07/02: Watch for Dubya to give Arik political hug
10/31/02: Sharpton the patriot
10/22/02: Rabin, gone but not missed
10/17/02: Israelis bracing for US' punch at Iraq
10/14/02: Geriatric war resisters
09/27/02: Al Gore: The Lost Boy of American politics
09/05/02: The intifadeh's over, and the Israelis won
08/29/02: At the world summit, just anger & hypocrisy
08/21/02: No time for weak knees on Iraq
08/16/02: A pro-Arab pol may get the beating she deserves
08/13/02: Fight it out now
08/02/02: Memo to The Council on Foreign Relations: U.S. values won't sell in Arab world
07/31/02: Israel's nutty neighbors

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