Back To The '70s

richard m. nixon as a U.S. President AP

In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch says some of the political battles of the early '70s are still being fought today.

The 30th anniversary of Watergate is upon us and the nostalgia blitz is on. The Discovery Channel is airing 10 hours of interviews with Richard Nixon, five of which have never been aired before. John Dean is out with a new book that promises to reveal the identity of Deep Throat. Woodward and Bernstein and Bradlee are making the rounds again talking about the good old days of investigative journalism. And the National Archives has an exhibit of Watergate break-in artifacts, including bugging device tools and electrical tape.

Republicans, who have made a cottage industry of naming things for former President Ronald Reagan, would rather forget former President Nixon, or at least skip the Watergate festivities. They've moved on and would like the rest of us to do the same.

Democrats, too, have their skeletons and historical figures from the early '70s whom they would rather forget. But the fights of that era have shaped the Democratic figures of today and factions of the party have continued the old left-right battles for years. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt has made some moves recently to try to bridge some of those old divisions.

In March, Gephardt gave back-to-back speeches to the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC was formed by those who felt the national party had drifted too far to the left and was overly influenced by labor, women and minorities. Jesse Jackson dubbed the group the Democratic Leisure Class because of its corporate funding and focus on the middle class. Gephardt, who had some early ties to the DLC, also has very strong allies in the labor movement. This spring he was able to convince AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to attend his DLC speech as a sign of party unity.

Last week, Gephardt weighed in on one of the most basic divisions of the Democratic Party in the 1970s: the use of military force. During the last decade, Democrats have gotten over the "Vietnam Syndrome" and have become more comfortable with the use of force. Since September 11, there has been very muted criticism of President Bush's conduct of the war against terrorism. But in general, Democrats have been slow to advocate military solutions to solve problems. There is a strand of Democrats (usually former Democrats or neo-cons) who believe the party is too knee-jerk liberal when it comes to foreign policy and worship the memory of the late Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington State and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn.

In a speech to the Council of Foreign Relations, Gephardt put a toe in that camp by supporting President Bush's first strike doctrine. Moreover, Gephardt endorsed the use of military force to topple Saddam Hussein, which the Bush administration has been threatening. "We should use diplomatic tools where we can, but military means when we must to eliminate the threat he poses to the region and our own security," Gephardt said.

According to his staff, Gephardt consulted with "dozens of Democratic advisers," including former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher; former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger and his deputy Jim Steinberg; and former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke; as well as conservative members of Congress Ike Skelton of Missouri and John Murtha of Pennsylvania.

This week, Rep. Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Relations, circulated Gephardt's remarks to his colleagues. Other Democrats, led by Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, have taken a similar public position on Iraq, but Gephardt's statement is being taken very seriously for the help it could provide Mr. Bush in forging a congressional consensus.

Until this speech, Gephardt, one of those Democrats who opposed U.S. military involvement in the Persian Gulf, has had a relatively dovish and somewhat low profile on international issues other than trade. Now he is positioning himself for a 2004 run for president and he's winning compliments from those pining for the return of Scoop Jackson. A "McCainish" organization, the Conservative Reform Project, praised Gephardt's speech this week for filling the "Scoop Gap" and called upon other Democrats to follow suit. So far, few Democrats have chimed in, including Al Gore whose last words on Iraq were in a speech to the Council on Foreign Policy in February.

But, interestingly, virtually no Democrats have risen in opposition. Gephardt says that Iraq policy should be made in consultation with the Congress, but so far there has been little public discussion or debate on the issue at all. Democratic advisers have been surprised that there has been no criticism from the left. Has the old '70s fight over military force been settled or are liberals asleep at the switch?

It is starting to appear that there has been a tacit decision on the part of Democrats to back a military attack against Iraq. One presumes that Congress would demand a role in such a decision but the silence seems to indicate that they are content to take a back-seat role. Wouldn't they insist on a declaration of war before a strike is made against Iraq?

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has been spending the past week desperately trying to change the focus from international issues and terrorism to prescription drugs and Social Security. His political consultants have told him that foreign affairs is not a winning issue for Democrats this fall, although the policy advisers believe Democrats have a responsibility to weigh in.

Gephardt has taken a true leadership role on this issue. Normally a cautious politician, he made a bold move, which so far seems not so controversial after all. This could come back to bite him, of course, if a war with Iraq goes poorly. He might be sorry, too, about all those comparisons to Scoop Jackson. Jackson, who also had a lot of labor ties, never made it beyond the early states in presidential primaries.
  • Joel Roberts

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