House and Senate Democrats are in a tight spot. Top Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri know the liberal base of their party is dead-set against the use of force in Iraq. They also know if they vote to authorize a war against Iraq, they could face retaliation by that base in the 2004 Democratic primaries.
One problem: Those Democrats are already on record supporting "regime change" in Iraq. True, 82 percent of Senate Democrats (including Sens. Daschle and Kerry) voted against the Gulf War. So did 179 House Democrats (including Rep. Gephardt). But in October 1998, the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan "Iraq Liberation Act," 360-38. The next week, the Senate passed the act unanimously. It authorized $97 million in aid to help overthrow Saddam and replace him with a democratic government.
"The United States looks forward to a democratically elected regime," said President Clinton as he signed the bill into law on Oct. 31, 1998. "The United States favors an Iraq that offers its people freedom at home. I categorically reject arguments that this is unattainable due to Iraq's history or its ethnic or sectarian make-up." Three weeks later, the Clinton-Gore administration-backed by leading Democrats-persuaded the United Nations Security Council to vote 15-0 to demand that Iraq allow the international community to "prevent Iraq from rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them" or face a swift and severe military attack. Now, leading Democrats are singing a very different tune. Why?
"Are Democrats insane on Iraq?" That's what former chief Clinton strategist Dick Morris wants to know. For weeks, senior Democrats have been complaining that President Bush has not "made the case" when it comes to preemptive military action against Iraq. Big mistake, says Mr. Morris. TeamBush is defining the debate: Topic A leading up to the October recess and the Nov. 5 elections is now how to defend the United States against Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction-an issue voters believe the GOP is better at handling-not revitalizing the economy, punishing corporate irresponsibility, or passing a Medicare prescription drug benefit, issues that cut better for Democrats.
"If Bush calls for a congressional vote [authorizing force against Iraq] before the recess, the event will dominate headlines and sweep all before it," argues Mr. Morris. "If the vote is to take place right after the elections, it will be the key issue in dozens of House and Senate races throughout America. Either way, the Democrats have miscalculated badly."
Complicating TeamBush's effort to get its message out, a remarkable 72 percent of all major media coverage of the Bush Iraq policy was negative, "including 71 percent printed in The New York Times and 73 percent that aired on the networks." That's the conclusion of a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which looked at TV, radio, and newspaper coverage between July 1 and Aug. 25. The study found that CBS aired "the most balanced views of the Bush plan (56 percent negative)," while evaluations on ABC and NBC were 80 percent and 76 percent negative, respectively.