Can Democrats take the war to Bush?

HOPEFULS FOR THE DEMOCRATIC TICKET: (From left) Carol Moseley Braun, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Bob Graham, John Kerry and Dennis Kucinich.

HOPEFULS FOR THE DEMOCRATIC TICKET: (From left) Carol Moseley Braun, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Bob Graham, John Kerry and Dennis Kucinich.  

LOOK AT it any way you want, George W. Bush does not appear as invincible as he did a few months ago. The Republican White House is facing the charge of bungling in Iraq, which has triggered a debate on many fronts in the country and overseas. The body bags are not yet arriving in droves as during the Vietnam War; but hard questions are being asked, much to the delight of the Democrats.

With 14 months left for a presidential election, in November 2004, the Republicans and the Democrats are convinced that the country is deeply divided down the middle. So now they are focussing on the States they won in 2000 by low margins, by five percentage points or fewer.

Thanks to reapportionment, Mr. Bush's victory in 2000 of 30 States accounting for 271 electoral college votes will now add up to 278. But this is hardly a comforting thought. The close battles in the south or the mid-west remain — and this is where the parties will concentrate.

There were many Democrats on Capitol Hill who were tripping over one another to endorse the Congressional resolutions on Iraq; now some of the same lawmakers are protesting Mr. Bush's policy loudly. The emphasis now, though, is on highlighting that the administration has not thought through the post-conflict phase carefully.

With barely five months to go before first political blood is drawn in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democrats in the `Pack of Nine', which will soon perhaps become the `Pack of Ten', see Iraq as weighing down the Bush White House. For the first time, the Democrats find Mr. Bush `vulnerable', not just on Iraq but on his entire policy framework on West Asia and terrorism, not to mention Washington's isolation, thanks to the pursuit of an international policy from solely the American point of view. Not many are happy with the President's handling of the economy either.

Mr. Bush's approval rating is still a comfortable 52 to 55 per cent. But compare this to the 85 per cent-plus ratings immediately after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. For the first time, more Americans are saying that they do not wish to see Mr. Bush re-elected. Though the White House routinely maintains that it is not carried away by opinion polls, if this is not a wake-up call, nothing else is likely to be.

But the Democrats, especially in the Pack of Nine, instead of coming up with a unified strategy have started taking potshots at one another. They seem to be particularly keen on blocking the rise of Howard Dean of Vermont, who is pulling far ahead of the pack.

Dr. Dean leads John Kerry of Massachusetts by almost 21 percentage points in the New Hampshire polls and is tied for first place in Iowa. If he wins these two States and keeps up the momentum in the south and the mid-west, there will be no stopping him.

But why are top Democrats wary of Dr. Dean when in fact he could be the party's ticket to the White House next year? And why are so many Democrats suddenly saying that the physician-turned-politician is "inexperienced" in foreign affairs when many of the Democratic Governors-turned-Presidents were equally so? In fact, foreign affairs was not exactly the forte of the current occupant of the White House, a former Governor of Texas.

The Democrats' worry is that Dr. Dean's "anti-war" stance, coupled with a perception of him being "too far to the left" on economic and social issues, is going to cost the party not only the White House, but also several seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate. They fear the Grand Old Party will make the Democrats appear, too weak on defence in an election where issues of defence and terrorism are going to be crucial. Many Democrats are worried that the Republicans will be only too happy to have Dr. Dean leading the Democratic ticket.

The Democrats are on the verge of repeating a mistake of the election campaign of 2000. One of the things that the political right was trying to do was to capitalise on the shortcomings of Bill Clinton; and the Gore campaign failed to capitalise on the matter and make Mr. Clinton the issue. Instead the then Vice-President, Al Gore, went to the other extreme — picked a moralistic candidate, Senator Joseph Lieberman, as his running mate and then started distancing himself from Mr. Clinton to the extent that he did not want him on his campaign trail or at fundraisers. But who was the loser? Not Mr. Clinton. The Democrats loudly complained that Mr. Bush won the Presidency by a few votes and courtesy of a 5 to 4 ruling in the United States Supreme Court. But many would say that only Mr. Gore could have lost an election that had so many things going for him.

This time round, the Democrats cannot shy away from propping up Dr. Dean on account of a perceived weakness in foreign and defence affairs. Rather than playing defensive and trying to stay away from the hot topics, the Democrats must take on Mr. Bush on Iraq and the war on terrorism, including the Patriot Act. And the candidate currently attracting a lot of national attention is Dr. Dean; and this worries some of the so-called mainstream Democrats and Republicans — that somehow the former Governor of Vermont is going to be the real magnet for all those disenchanted with the two major parties. For the others in the Democrats' Pack of Nine targeting Dr. Dean could turn counter-productive.

The Democrats are finding that Mr. Bush is extremely vulnerable on Iraq on many fronts, starting with the raft of bogus rationales put out for the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party from power in Baghdad — especially over the so-called weapons of mass destruction that were deemed to be an `imminent' threat to the U.S. And when all else has failed, this Republican administration has finally turned to its pet theme — that Iraq has to be seen in the larger context of the ongoing war on terror. Today, a solid majority of Americans are appalled that this Republican administration is not willing to rope in the United Nations in a larger, comprehensive and meaningful fashion.

"We opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, so it turns out that four Washington candidates supported a war which turns out to be based on things that weren't so," argues Dr. Dean referring to Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Kerry and Bob Graham in the Senate and Dick Gephardt in the House of Representatives who backed the President in the run-up to the war. At the time the Democrats were quite wary of being branded as weak on defence just like many of them were worried about being labelled soft on terrorism if support on the Patriot Act was not forthcoming.

The Democrats have the advantage of being able to question the credibility of the Bush administration on Iraq not just on account of the shifting rationales for the war. A lot of the questions have to do with the authenticity of the information and intelligence estimates provided by the administration. A case in point is the clumsy fashion in which the White House handled that portion of the President's State of the Union Address about Iraq trying to obtain uranium from an African country; something that was technically passed off as being an assessment of the British Government and when nearly everyone at the United Nations was convinced that the assertion was based on forgeries, third rate ones at that!

For the Democrats to take on Mr. Bush in November 2004, they would have to add punch to the arguments on the ongoing war on terrorism, domestically and internationally. Leaving aside arguments that going after Saddam Hussein has weakened efforts against Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda, the Democrats have to take on the Patriot Act. No one questions this administration going after terrorists, their supporters and sympathisers; but civil rights advocates have increasingly asked if perhaps the Government has not over-stepped its bounds.

Here too Dr. Dean would seem to have a blunt message that resonates quite well in a broad cross section. Referring to the Attorney General, the nation's top law enforcement officer, Dr. Dean said, "John Ashcroft is not a patriot. John Ashcroft is a descendant of Joseph McCarthy."

The Democrats are no match to the Republican money machine; but they can give Mr. Bush a run for his money even if his campaign is able to raise between $ 170 millions and $ 200 millions to be spent between now and Setpember 2004 after which candidates will rely on federal matching funds. All of the nine hopefuls in the Democratic Party have come nowhere close to the Republican President in fundraising; but within the Pack of Nine, Dr. Dean has raised more money than any of the others; he is expected to turn in at least $ 11 millions by the end of September.

Some make the point that it is still too early in the game for any definitive conclusions to be reached at this time. That is a valid point. Mr. Bush is in the position that Mr. Clinton was in 1996. But in politics anything is possible.

What is definitely taking place in the political environment is that the aura of invincibility around Mr. Bush has been pierced; and the President himself knows that his re-election is not going to be a cakewalk. Much depends on the Democrats — will they recover from their self-inflicted wounds of November 2000 and look forward or will they continue to project Washington insiders as opposed to an outsider like Dr. Dean who might just have the fire in the belly to take on the challenge of a lifetime?

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