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Democrats' Deja Vu

By welcoming antiwar and anti-Bush vitriol, the party is again losing its bearings

March 24, 2003|David Frum | David Frum, a contributing editor to National Review and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush" (Random House, 2003).

They hated Richard Nixon, and no wonder. It was Nixon who sent Alger Hiss to jail, and Nixon who waged the Vietnam War after the Democrats gave up.

They hated Ronald Reagan, and for good reason. In the 1970s, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party came closer to unfettered power than at any time since the 1930s -- until that ... actor snatched it all away.

They hated Newt Gingrich too, and once more, no surprise. It was Gingrich who thwarted Hillarycare, Gingrich who broke the Democratic hold on Capitol Hill.

Now the Democrats hate George W. Bush -- and that makes no sense at all.

Has there ever been a president who worked harder than Bush to conciliate and befriend his opponents? He appointed a Democrat, Norman Mineta, to his Cabinet, and put another Democrat, John DiIulio, in charge of his signature faith-based initiative. He signed a bill that affixed Robert Kennedy's name to the Justice Department building; renominated Clinton judges whose nominations had lapsed when President Clinton's term ended; compromised his education bill to accommodate Democratic ideas; and rarely, if ever, criticized any Democratic officeholder.

Yet all this symbolic and substantive bipartisanship has done Bush no good. Joe Lieberman, the would-be Mr. Nice Guy of American politics, said in December that Bush had made Washington "more partisan" than ever before. Bush, the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne reported in January, "has become a deeply polarizing figure, winning near-universal support within his own party while sowing deep resentment in the opposition."

"Resentment" isn't the half of it. In a Feb. 12 speech on the Senate floor, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd damned Bush as "reckless and arrogant."

In December, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry accused Bush of "making a conscious decision to ... dominate the discussion with Iraq" in order to divert attention from the nation's economic difficulties. Ted Kennedy -- whom Bush courted and lavishly praised in 2001 -- on March 4 accused Bush of rushing into an "unnecessary war."

As Kennedy's words suggest, leading Democrats are now stepping beyond criticism to lend aid and comfort to the antiwar movement in the United States and Europe. By adopting the movement's rhetoric, they blur the distinction between the mainstream Democratic Party and the far left.

It's important to understand that today's antiwar movement is a very different beast -- more ambitious and more sinister -- than the antiwar movement of the 1960s.

I attended the first of the big antiwar marches in London in October 2002 and was struck by the prevalence of radical Muslim groups and chants. All that was missing were the facsimile suicide-bomber belts.

Now, the antiwar movement is turning to more direct action. In Europe, Italian antiwar protesters have blocked train stations in an effort to halt the transport of military equipment; here in the United States, the protesters are tying up traffic and trying to shut down cities.

The Democratic Party nearly destroyed itself in the 1970s and '80s by inviting in the anti-Vietnam radicals of the '60s. In the '90s, moderate Democrats vowed never to repeat the previous generation's mistake: Bill Clinton chose Al Gore as his running mate in 1992 very largely because Gore was one of the few Democratic senators to have cast a vote in favor of the Gulf War resolution. Gore, in turn, selected Lieberman as his running mate on the strength of Lieberman's reputation as a foreign-policy hawk.

The Democrats' hatred of Bush, though, is leading them to forget this painfully earned wisdom and revert to the bad habits of the recent past. Yes, Democratic presidential front-runners Lieberman, Kerry, John Edwards and Richard Gephardt all cast pro-war votes in October, but on the hustings in Iowa and New Hampshire, antiwar candidate Howard Dean has mocked them for "voting in favor of the resolution and then coming out here and kind of pretending in Iowa [they are] against the war."

When Dean talks like that, his Democratic rivals cower. Their cowardice is inviting some ugly forces in the United States into their party -- and into American public life.

In their hatred of Bush, they are forgetting who their country's real enemies are. In their eagerness to win the next election, they are offering political cover to the people who want the U.S. to lose the war on terror.

It is a scandal and a shame -- and it seems that it is too late for them to turn back.

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