Fighting Across the Aisle

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Senator Tom Daschle demands an apology from President Bush

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The Bush team was also busy making its case in private, because it is only behind closed doors that lawmakers and Bush aides feel it is safe to debate the implications of waging war against a country that has not first attacked the U.S. or its interests. As Rice briefed a group of House members last week, a Democrat challenged her argument for a pre-emptive strike. By that reasoning, he said, we should have invaded the Soviet Union in 1948 to keep them from getting nuclear weapons. "In light of 50 years of bondage of Eastern Europe," Rice replied, "that was probably a reasonable thing to do."

Although the White House has continued to insist that the timing of the Iraq vote in Congress has nothing to do with an upcoming and excruciatingly close election, war has become Bush's favorite topic as he stumps the country in a record-setting fund-raising effort for Republican candidates. He has taunted Democrats who argue for waiting until after the U.N. acts to pass a resolution authorizing force: "If I were running for office, I'm not sure how I'd explain to the American people — say, vote for me, and, oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I think I'm going to wait for somebody else to act." His pollster, Matthew Dowd, has said the Iraq issue "puts Republicans on a very good footing" for the elections and beyond.

Dowd may be right: polls show that as war talk drowns out everything else, Democrats are losing the slight edge they had in congressional races when they returned from the August recess. They are increasingly worried about not only their effort to win back the House but also the possibility of losing control of the Senate. And they anguish over long-term damage: some say a prolonged fight over Iraq will resurrect an image that the Democrats spent decades trying to shake after Vietnam. "If we look like a bunch of left pacifists, it hurts our numbers," a Democratic Party official says. "In the congressional campaigns, it's killing us."

So, rather than drag out the conversation, most Democratic leaders want to get the Iraq vote behind them as quickly as possible, so they can spend what remains of the campaign season talking about issues that play to their strengths, such as Social Security, corporate corruption and providing prescription-drug coverage under Medicare. The day after his dramatic Senate-floor speech, Daschle toted a chart into his daily briefing showing increasingly dire unemployment numbers.

But changing the subject is getting harder to do, as more voters are coming to believe that the question of a fundamental shift in U.S. defense policy is at least as important as the value of their 401(k)s. Al Gore's speech in San Francisco last Monday was a stinging indictment of the Bush policy — made more powerful by the fact that as a Senator he had been one of the few Democrats who supported the first President Bush's war with Iraq. "By shifting from his early focus after Sept. 11 on war against terrorism to war against Iraq, the President has manifestly disposed of the sympathy, goodwill and solidarity compiled by America and transformed it into a sense of deep misgiving and even hostility," Gore said.

The speech drew decidedly mixed reviews, with liberal columnist Richard Cohen praising it in the Washington Post for its boldness, and the New Republic, which backed Gore for President as early as 1988, suggesting it was born of bitterness. Every pundit in the country also held up the speech to the light of 2004 and tried to divine whether Gore's words were just the opening salvo of a campaign to make Bush foreign policy Topic A. They got no help from Gore: when he came onstage the following day at a rally for Democratic candidates in Santa Fe, N.M., he was greeted by hand-lettered placards congratulating him and chants of "Say no to war!" But Gore never directly mentioned Iraq in his comments, offering instead his well-worn litany of jokes about the indignities of being a former Vice President ("Now I gotta take my shoes off to get on an airplane.")

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