Last June, Rep. Dick Gephardt gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations supporting President Bush's call for military action to disarm Saddam Hussein. It was a surprising move for a customarily cautious Democrat and one that his staff expected would set off a wave of controversy. But the major reaction came from a McCain-ish organization, the Conservative Reform Project, which applauded the Missouri lawmaker for his remarks and hailed him as the new Scoop Jackson.
Gephardt's office sent this press release around to reporters and an aide to Gephardt marveled that there had not been "one whiff of criticism from the Democratic left." Well, this week in Washington, the silence was broken. During Gephardt's remarks to the Democratic National Committee defending his support of the president's Iraq policy, one DNC member shouted "Shame!" while several others nodded in agreement.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean followed Gephardt and rocked the hall. He began his speech by blasting Democratic leaders who support Mr. Bush, saying, "I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." While Gephardt and others would like to cast Dean and his fellow critics of military action against Iraq as lefty peaceniks, Dean is exactly where the Democratic voters are, which explains why, in the short term at least, he's gaining strength among party activists.
A recent CBS News/New York Times poll revealed a nation polarized on attitudes toward war with Iraq. By and large, Republicans overwhelmingly support the president and the war; Democrats are concerned about it; and Independents fall in between. Looking beneath the overall numbers, which show a nation generally supportive of the idea of removing Hussein but wary of unilateral action, the partisan divide is striking. By 53 percent to 38 percent, Republicans believe the U.S. should act without waiting for the U.N.; compared to Democrats who break 75 percent to 20 percent in favor of waiting for the U.N. On the question of whether Iraq's development of weapons is a threat that requires action now, or whether it is a threat which can be contained, Republicans believe 71 percent to 26 percent that action should be taken now; while Democrats believe 59 percent to 29 percent that it can be contained. Independents break evenly: 44 percent act now, 42 percent try to contain him.
On the overall question of whether they approve of military action to remove Saddam from power, Republicans approve, 90 percent to 7 percent, while Democrats split 46 percent to 46 percent. When potential negative consequences of war are raised, either substantial casualties to Iraqi citizens or U.S. military, opposition among Democrats goes up to 63 percent. And that opposition is passionate, as was clear from the reaction to the 2004 presidential candidates who spoke at last weekend's DNC meeting in Washington.
One Democratic foreign policy adviser who is against military action now said that he is bothered more by Kerry and Edwards, the two Democrats who have danced around the issue, than by Gephardt and Lieberman, who are supporting the president. "At least Gephardt has a position," he said. "Kerry and Edwards are trying to straddle and come off looking packaged and political."
Kerry, who first came on the national scene as a veteran against the Vietnam War, was not at the DNC meeting because he is still recovering from prostate surgery. But the reaction to Dean hit a nerve in the Kerry camp. Kerry's campaign manager, Jim Jordan, snapped at Dean's insistence on getting U.N. backing (a position supported by three-quarters of Democrats and 53 percent of Independents). "Gov. Dean, in effect, seems to be giving the U.N. veto power over national security decisions of the United States. That's an extraordinary proposition, one never endorsed by any U.S. president or serious candidate for the presidency," he told the Associated Press' Ron Fournier.
Dean's position has not only won him standing ovations on the hustings but support from well-heeled liberals like Hollywood's Rob Reiner, which could mean a substantial infusion of cash in his underfunded campaign.
Candidates Gephardt, Lieberman Kerry and Edwards are counting on the war to be history by the time next year's Iowa's caucuses roll around. But as they start out on the trail, it is Dean who not only is in sync with Democratic voters and fundraisers on an issue they care passionately about, but who is coming off as bold and authentic in comparison to the carefully scripted members of Congress.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff put out similar poll numbers last week and gleefully predicted a "Democratic Party meltdown" over the Iraq issue. The conventional wisdom is that the Democratic anti-war message is too far to the left and candidates who articulate it will be badly positioned in a general election.
But this presumes a successful conclusion to the Iraq situation, something many Americans, not just Democrats, are unsure of at this point. By 59 percent to 12 percent, Americans believe that military action will increase the threat of terrorism to the U.S.; and by 41 percent to 23 percent they believe that it will hurt the economy.
Another terrorist attack or continued economic downturn could turn the current CW on its head and make the smart-money crowd think again. For now, the doctor from Vermont has gained the attention of a lot of Democratic activists and the other candidates will have to reckon with him.