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Jewish World Review March 18, 2003 / 14 Adar II, 5763

Roger Simon

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On the stumps, Dem hopefuls getting booed | SACRAMENTO, Calif. The Democrats have become a party of peace with a leadership that has voted for war.

All of the top-tier Democrats running for president voted for the resolution giving President Bush the authority to invade Iraq.

Yet it is clear to me after attending speech after speech, rally after rally, fund-raiser after fund-raiser and cattle-call after cattle-call for several months that Democrats, or at least those Democrats who show up at political events, do not want this war.

The top tier -- John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman -- emphasize that they are not thrilled about going to war, either. But they think Saddam Hussein must be removed, and by force of arms if necessary.

"I know what it is like to fight in a war when you lose legitimacy and consent," Kerry, a Vietnam vet, told delegates to the California Democratic State Convention here in Sacramento a few days ago. "And I believe the United States should never go to war without that legitimacy, without that consent."

That line got applause. Lines like that always get applause from Democrats these days.

And Kerry followed it with the line that always gets him the most applause: "The United States of America should never go to war because it wants to; we should to war because we have to!"

But this time, a man shouted from the crowd, "Then why did you vote for it?"

Good question. The fact is that many Democratic leaders voted for the war resolution last year because they either believed it was the right thing to do or the politically wise thing to do. They thought back then that their party was behind them. Now, they know better.

Take Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa. Facing a re-election battle, he voted for the war resolution last year.

Today, however, safely re-elected, he says he was "fooled" and, sensing where Democrats now are on the issue, he rips the hide off Bush for going to war.

"If you're a cowboy from West Texas, it's OK to want to go in and kick Saddam Hussein's butt," Harkin told Democrats in Colorado a few days ago. "But if you're president of a country that will commit hundreds of thousands of troops, spend billions of dollars and likely need the help of the world to rebuild Iraq over the next 10 years, you had better explain why you're going to unilaterally attack a country that is not an imminent threat to us."

Harkin gets to have it both ways because his election is over. For the top Democrats running for president, however, their day of reckoning is still ahead.

John Edwards was soundly booed when he told California Democrats: "I believe Saddam Hussein is a serious threat. I believe he must be disarmed, including with the use of military force if necessary."

The operatives for the top tier always say the same thing: Don't believe these boos; don't believe these crowds. These people do not represent the party; they are activists, not average Democrats. True, but the activists are the ones who tend to control the primary process.

Sure, California activists are probably farther to the left than the party as a whole. But Democrats all over this country, activists or not, are very worried about this war.

And Howard Dean, running for president and ranked just below the top tier, hit the antiwar message hard in Sacramento. "What I want to know is what in the world are so many Democrats doing supporting the president's unilateral war in Iraq?" Dean shouted. The crowd cheered itself hoarse, and Dean got a tremendous amount of TV and newspaper coverage.

Two top Democrats, Lieberman and Gephardt, didn't even bother showing up in California. I guess they didn't see the point in flying across the country to get booed.

Lieberman did send a videotape. It got booed.

Art Torres, California Democratic party chair, left little doubt where he stood when he opened the proceedings with these remarks: "As the presidential candidates speak, we must contemplate the future of those who must fight in a war many of us believe should not be fought at all. We should have consensus before we have a blood-spilling. Our responsibility is to be Democrats and not Republicans."

By the end of the convention, the scorecard was clear: Those who voted in favor of the Iraq war got heckled or booed. Those who said they were against the war got cheered.

But the top tier is not worried: They think the war will be swift and victorious, that Saddam will be removed and that the liberated Iraqi people will happy to see us.

Then, they say privately, Howard Dean will have no issue to get cheers with and the Democrats will return to their senses.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate