If Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle waved a flag and whistled the national anthem while walking on water, the Bush administration's spin machine would issue a press release that read, "Tom Daschle is an enemy of America who cannot swim."
Republican attacks on Daschle for an all-but-imperceptible deviation from the president's "war-on-terror" playbook have been characterized by such faux fury as to be comic - especially those coming from the administration's cheerleader-in-chief, Trent Lott, the Senate minority leader. Yet, as absurdly over the top as the assault on Daschle has been, it serves as a powerful reminder that this administration is determined to stifle even the mildest dissent.
Daschle got in trouble with the Bush-can-do-no-wrong crowd when he dared suggest that the administration might want to offer Congress and the American people basic information about its intentions for an ever-expanding yet still undeclared war.
"Before we make commitments in resources, I think we need to have a clearer understanding of what the direction will be," Daschle said of the administration's apparent plans to continue bombing of Afghanistan indefinitely, tackle an Iran-Iraq-North Korea "axis of evil," and dispatch U.S. troops everywhere from the Philippines to Yemen and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
Even more troubling to the Bush camp was Daschle's suggestion that there might be reasonable measures of success for what until now has been an ill-defined "war on terror." Recalling the intended targets at the war's start, the majority leader said the United States must track down high-ranking Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden, "or we will have failed." Americans, he added, are "not safe until we have broken the back of al-Qaida, and we haven't done that yet."
Hell hath no fury like that of a Republican held accountable, as Lott, the Mississippi Republican, quickly illustrated. Lott screeched, "How dare Sen. Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field? He should not be trying to divide our country while we are united."
House Majority Whip Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, R-Texas, who pronounced Daschle's remarks "disgusting." Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, point man for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, declared that Daschle's "divisive comments have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies by allowing them to exploit divisions in our country."
Come again? How exactly does suggesting that the United States should find top al-Qaida figures comfort Osama bin Laden? Logic argues that Daschle's willingness to name names should strike more fear in the heart of bin Laden than Bush's vague ranting about "evil."
But Bush defenders are not much interested in logic - or in maintaining a facade of national unity.
If they were, they would be embracing Daschle, whose official Web site until recently featured a photo of the senator hugging President Bush. The majority leader has been a consistent champion of the administration's policies since Sept. 11. Due to Daschle's deference, the White House has gotten just about everything it has asked for from Congress.
For instance, Daschle engineered Senate approval of the airline industry's war-profiteering bailout, undermined U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold's attempts to temper attacks on domestic civil liberties, and cheered on administration military "strategies" that are long on expense and civilian casualties but short on measurable results.
With his track record, Daschle should have been accorded maximum loyal opposition leeway by the Republicans. But, of course, there is no leeway for Democrats as the administration and its congressional allies seek to spin an international "war on terror" into a war on honest dialogue at home.
Copyright 2002 The Capital Times