AL GORE, remarkably, has stepped into a leadership vacuum and said several
things that most congressional Democrats may well believe but have been too fearful
Gore, speaking Monday at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, warned that
unilateral action against Saddam Hussein would ''severely damage'' the more urgent
war on terrorism and ''weaken our ability to lead the world.'' Gore declared that
the president has turned the broad reservoir of good will for America ''into a
deep sense of misgiving and even hostility.'' In a pointed dig at President George
W. Bush's go-it-alone cowboy rhetoric, he added, ''If you're going after Jesse
James, you ought to organize the posse first.''
Now this is extremely interesting.
For starters, it is out of character for the cautious and generally hawkish
former vice president. Gore has lately returned to politics, sort of, but until
now he has avoided frontally attacking Bush. He has at last chosen to do so, at
a moment when the president, swaddled in the flag, is widely seen as beyond criticism.
Did Gore do his own polling and discover what many members of Congress suspect
based on their mail - that public support for this war is seemingly broad but
very shallow? Was he trying to outflank potential rival Senator John Kerry, who
has won praise for a thoughtful critique of Bush's policy? Did Gore, who often
made abrupt shifts during the 2000 campaign, just impulsively decide to throw
a ''Hail Mary'' pass? Or, perhaps, was he seized with an attack of principle?
It almost doesn't matter. The party's standard bearer for 2000 - who got more
votes than George W. Bush - has now made it safe for Democrats to express serious
doubts about this reckless war. Gore, perhaps in spite of himself, has actually
exercised that rarest of qualities in contemporary politics - leadership.
One can accuse Gore of many things, but being soft on defense is not one of
them. He was one of a handful of Senate Democrats to support George Bush senior
on the Gulf War in 1991. The fact is, public opinion is still fluid on Iraq. And
if other Democrats follow Gore's lead, this could be a turning point.
Jim Dyke, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, declared, rather
lamely, that to him, Gore sounded more like ''a political hack than a presidential
candidate.'' But that just won't wash. Serious questions about the wisdom of Bush's
Iraq policy are being raised publicly by most of our allies and privately by many
of our generals and even by some Republicans. Bush's Iraq strategy is cynically
designed to change the subject - actually two subjects: terrorism and the economy.
It immediately takes the spotlight off our less than stellar antiterrorism crusade
and our shaky success in Afghanistan, and it makes it almost impossible for Democrats
to wage the 2002 midterm election on pocketbook issues.
The strategy has deftly whipsawed Democrats. Some, such as the House Democratic
leader, Dick Gephardt, and the Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, want to get
a quick, slightly toned down resolution of support for the president behind them
and then go back to talking about the economy (if anyone will listen). That way
Bush can't pillory them for being unpatriotic.
But others see the nation pursuing a disastrous course. Many Democrats in Congress
say privately (and a few publicly) that they've heard nothing in the confidential
intelligence briefings to indicate that Saddam Hussein is more of a threat now
than in years past. Congressional Democrats got a closed-door briefing from a
worried and extremely skeptical Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's hawkish
national security adviser. This morning Democrats are scheduled to have a another
confidential briefing from one of the party's foreign policy eminences, Richard
Holbrooke, who is said to harbor grave doubts.
If the Democrats can work up their nerve to schedule some hearings before a
resolution of war is gaveled through, they and the American public will hear more.
I've never been a great fan of Gore. He kept changing his mind so often in
the campaign that he lost a race for the presidency that he should have won. He
was oddly AWOL last year when Bush was claiming a mandate for extremist policies
that he never earned. Gore is often described as one of the most ambitious, calculating,
and poll-driven people in American politics.
But even if he did the right thing partly for the wrong reasons, this has to
be one of Gore's finest moments. Now let's see if his party follows his brave
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears
regularly in the Globe.
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