WASHINGTON - While key Democrats in Congress such as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd chip cautiously at the edges of President Bush's pursuit of the war on terrorism, an obscure back-bencher in the House is making a frontal attack.
Because Democratic Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio is not in a leadership position in his party or in the House, his protest of what he sees as an unauthorized and unwarranted extension of aims in Mr. Bush's war policy constitutes a trickle of dissent in Congress and in the country so far.
But a speech that the 55-year-old congressman and former mayor of Cleveland gave a couple of weeks ago to the liberal Americans for Democratic Action chapter in Los Angeles has triggered thousands of e-mails to him in support of challenging the Bush policy. The speech was put on the Web site of The Nation magazine.
Mr. Kucinich took issue with the so-called Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 homeland security legislation that he charges violates five of the 10 original constitutional amendments that make up the Bill of Rights.
Under fire, he said, are free speech, protection against unreasonable search and seizure, protection against cruel and unusual punishment and due process of law, including the right to prompt and public trial.
Mr. Kucinich voted for a military response to the Sept. 11 attacks but argues now that the president has gone beyond that authorization.
"We licensed a response to those who helped bring the terror of Sept. 11," he said in his speech. "But we the people and our elected representatives must reserve the right to measure the response, to proportion the response, to challenge the response and to correct the response."
Now he argues: "Congress did not give the president a blank check. By now the administration has had ample opportunity to develop and carry out a strategy to deal with the challenges of Sept. 11. It's not adequate to hear from the administration that we may be at war for the rest of our lifetimes."
The bulk of Mr. Kucinich's speech was devoid of specific partisanship, but it did spill over at one point into an indictment of the election of Mr. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney.
"The trappings of a state of siege trap us in a state of fear," he charged, "ill-equipped to deal with the patriot games, the mind games and the war games of an unelected president and his undetected vice president."
He says now his comment was not intended to challenge the legality of their election but as a reminder that, in his view, they are acting regarding the war policy without a clear "consent of the governed."
Mr. Kucinich, in his third two-year term, has long been a voice in the wilderness on the issue of war and peace. He is the chief sponsor of legislation creating a Department of Peace that would deal in conflict resolution. It has 43 co-sponsors but doesn't appear to be going anywhere, and Mr. Kucinich lacks the stature so far to ignite a brushfire.
While other Democrats, such as Mr. Daschle and Mr. Byrd, have pressed Mr. Bush to provide more information to Congress about the goals of the war on terrorism while supporting its conduct to date, Mr. Kucinich is wielding a much wider brush. He accused Congress of giving in to fear in the evacuations on Capitol Hill during the anthrax scare.
"[Fear] remains present in the cordoning off of the Capitol," he said in his ADA speech. "It is present in the camouflaged armed national guardsmen who greet members of Congress each day we enter the Capitol campus. It is present in the labyrinth of concrete barriers through which we must pass each time we go to vote."
The speech asks for prayer "that our country will stop this war." It is prayer that is not being heard from many others in Congress or in the country as long as we are told that the prime terrorists and their followers are still at large, but it is still early in the war.
For now anyway, the most the Democrats are likely to achieve in stirring public protest is in the limited calls of leaders such as Mr. Daschle and Mr. Byrd to be brought more into the loop on the war's strategy and objectives.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun