Democrats’ Attacks on Dean Enhance Bush’s Re-election Prospects

It is not the increasingly likely prospect of Howard Dean’s nomination that could lead to a Democratic defeat in November, it’s his opponents’ attacks against him. As Dick Gephardt, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman see themselves lagging in the polls running up to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary later this month, their campaigns are engaging in increasingly desperate attacks against the front-runner for their party’s nomination.

Criticizing a candidate’s positions on important policy issues is certainly valid. I have been quite critical of Howard Dean’s positions on a number of issues myself. (See, for example, my article ‘Howard Dean: Hawk in Dove’s Clothing?‘ CommonDreams, February 26, 2003.)

However, deliberately misrepresenting a candidate’s position, particularly in language that will almost certainly be used against him in the general election by the opposing party, is irresponsible.
The impression his Democratic rivals are trying to put forward is that the decidedly centrist former Vermont is some kind of flaming leftist and therefore unelectable.

Anti-Dean forces have tried to raise a parallel between Dean’s prospective nomination and South Dakota senator George McGovern’s 1972 nomination, which ended in a landslide defeat. Such a comparison, however, has little merit.

Though McGovern wasn’t nearly as far to the left as Richard Nixon and his dirty tricksters tried to depict him, he was certainly to the left of Dean. While McGovern called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, Dean ‘ despite his opposition to the initial invasion of Iraq ‘ believes that now that they are there, they should stay to try to bring stability to the country. While McGovern supported stricter gun control, Dean opposes it. While McGovern supported slashing military spending, Dean supports keeping the so-called ‘Defense’ budget high despite the lack of funding for human needs at home. While McGovern supported more progressive taxation and heavy government investment in New Deal-type programs, Dean is a fiscal conservative.

Indeed, on virtually every issue, Dean is not at all to the left of the average American voter. So it is not his actual positions that are the problem in terms of electability. It is how Bush and Dean’s Democratic rivals are depicting him.

Last month, a political group with close connections with Gephardt and Kerry campaigns unleashed television spots in New Hampshire which alternated Dean’s face with Osama bin Laden, warning that ‘Howard Dean cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy.’ This is an utterly ridiculous charge. Bush’s foreign policy has been a disaster for America and for the world. Bush had far less knowledge of world affairs than Howard Dean when he ran for president four years ago and probably still does.
However, given that Gephardt and Kerry have supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq, supported Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan, and support Bush’s backing of Israeli occupation forces, it is not surprising that they would want to attack anyone who would offer any kind of bold challenge to Bush’s foreign policy leadership.

This is just one of a number of examples of how Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman are acting, in the words of the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, as if they are ‘more interested in tearing down Howard Dean than in defeating George Bush’ by launching ‘vitriolic attacks that might as well have been scripted by Karl Rove.’ Indeed, while Dean and his supporters have repeatedly called on his fellow Democratic contenders to focus their attacks on Bush, most of them seem to prefer to attack him instead.

If these attacks are unsuccessful and Dean gets the nomination anyway, these claims that he is unelectable in November could become self-fulfilling. Just as Al Gore’s attacks of Michael Dukakis in the 1988 primaries were used by the senior George Bush to smear the Massachusetts, the reckless and irresponsible attacks by Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman are simply adding fodder to the Republican arsenal.

Indeed, the New York Times reported on December 26, in reference to the Bush campaign, ‘They plan to use the Democrats’ words to attack Dean in their ads, meanwhile keeping Bush personally above the fray.’

Lying about Iraq

One of the most powerful tools that the Democrats have in defeating President Bush is in pointing out how he lied to the American people about Saddam Hussein’s alleged military threat to its neighbors, U.S. forces in the Middle East and even the United States itself, in justifying his invasion of Iraq.
However, Senators Kerry, Lieberman and Edwards, along with Representative Gephardt, also lied about Iraq’s military capability to justify their vote for the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq.

For example, in October 2002, then-House minority leader Dick Gephardt joined top Republicans in co-sponsoring the bill in the House authorizing the use of force against Iraq, falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein ‘continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear devices.’ Despite Gephardt and the Republicans’ efforts to steamroll the invasion through the House of Representatives, however, a sizable majority of House Democrats, led by Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich, voted to defend the Constitution and the UN Charter by voting against the measure.

Meanwhile, on the Senate side of the Capitol, Kerry was falsely claiming that ‘all U.S. intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons’ and that ‘Iraq has chemical and biological weapons’ that ‘are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War.’ (See my article ‘Kerry’s Deceptions on Iraq Threaten his Presidential Hopes,’ CommonDreams, August 26, 2003)

Ironically, both Kerry and Gephardt voted against authorizing the use of force against Iraq when the senior President Bush asked for such support to launch the 1991 Gulf War. Opponents of that war were correct when they argued that there were still non-military options available and the long-term consequences would be disastrous. However, this first U.S. war against Iraq did have at least some legitimate legal basis through the doctrine of collective security against acts of aggression ‘ which Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait clearly constituted ‘ as enshrined in the United Nations charter. By contrast, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq this spring was itself a clear act of aggression in direct violation of the UN Charter and other basic principles of international law.

It is interesting to note that, contrary to any of his major rivals, Dean supported the 1991 Gulf War while opposing last year’s invasion of Iraq.

Another irony was that Iraq was far stronger militarily and a far greater threat to its neighbors back in 1990 when Kerry and Gephardt voted against the use of force than in 2003 when they did.
This is one of a number of indications of how far to the right these once moderately liberal Democratic members of Congress have swung and why it is so crucial they be denied the party’s nomination for president.

Meanwhile, North Carolina senator John Edwards’ outspoken support for war against Iraq was so strong that his New York Times op-ed piece supporting an invasion of that oil-rich nation was published by the Bush Administration on the State Department’s website. Similarly, Lieberman was one of the leading Senate supporters of Bush’s war policies. Both senators, in a desperate attempt to justify their support for Bush, also falsely claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and sophisticated delivery systems that the war-ravaged and impoverished country had not possessed for many years or never possessed at all.

Some apologists for Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards and Lieberman claim that they did not knowingly lie about Iraq’s alleged WMD threat, but that they were simply duped by the administration. However, most independent strategic analysts knew long before the invasion that the Bush Administration’s claims were grossly exaggerated and many of these reports challenging the administration were given to every Congressional office.

Just two weeks before the vote, a lengthy article of mine systematically refuting the case for invading Iraq, including the WMD claims, appeared as the cover story in The Nation magazine (see Stephen Zunes, ‘The Case Against War,’ The Nation, September 30, 2002.). This article was widely circulated and reprinted and every member of Congress received multiple copies.

Furthermore, a number of Democratic members of the Congressional intelligence committees ‘ who had access to classified documents ‘ had no problems voting against authorizing Bush’s invasion plans.
In short, it is hard to believe that Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards, and Lieberman did not knowingly lie to the American public. That alone should disqualify them from receiving the Democratic Party nomination for president.

Kerry has recently tried to rationalize for his vote by claiming that he did not really support a U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, he simply supported the authorization of the use of force as a tactic to get Saddam Hussein to allow UN inspectors to return. This is demonstrably false, however: Saddam Hussein had actually agreed unconditionally to accept unrestricted UN weapons inspectors several weeks before Kerry voted to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq.

With anti-war sentiment strong and likely to grow, few Americans are likely to forgive politicians who are on record supporting an unnecessary war and lying to justify it. One can only think back to Vice-President Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 loss to Richard Nixon.

Nor is the public likely to forgive opportunistic politicians who ‘ in response to public opinion polls indicating this growing anti-war sentiment ‘ change their position to one of opposing an incumbent Republican’s interventionist policies after initially supporting them. One can only think of the 1972 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination when the once-favored Maine senator Edmund Muskie ‘ who came out against the Vietnam War barely two years beforehand ‘ was knocked out of the race by McGovern, whose opposition to the war was far more longstanding and principled.

There are also large numbers of voters ‘ including myself ‘ who respect the U.S. Constitution and the UN Charter enough that we would refuse to vote for any presidential nominee who authorized President Bush to invade Iraq and lied to the American people about non-existent weapons of mass destruction in order to justify it. Indeed, if Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards or Lieberman appear likely to receive the Democratic nomination, you can bet that the Green Party will attempt to field a strong candidate. She or he would certainly get my vote and the votes of millions of others like me who would otherwise vote Democratic.

If the Republicans really are wishing that Dean gets the Democratic nomination, you better believe that the Greens (at least those who put the growth of their party as their top priority) are hoping Dean is denied the Democratic nomination. Nothing could be better for the Green Party than for the Democrats to select a nominee who supports Bush’s disastrous foreign policies.

Indeed, with a Democratic nominee so willing to endorse the most immoral, illegal and dangerous foreign policies of the Bush Administration, why should voters believe a Democratic administration would do things any better?

In short, at this point it appears that the Democrats would lose less votes by nominating Dean than by nominating one of his pro-war rivals.

Self-Defeating Politics

The unfortunate reality, which many Democrats are still unwilling to admit, is that Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards and Lieberman essentially agree with the foreign policy agenda of the Bush Administration and the neo-conservatives who run U.S. foreign policy.

For example, late this past summer, Dean ‘ a strong supporter of Israel ‘ correctly observed that the Bush administration’s support for Sharon’s hard line policies was damaging the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. In response, Dean was viciously attacked by Kerry, Lieberman and the entire House Democratic leadership as somehow abandoning America’s historic commitment to Israel and of being soft on terrorism. (See my article ‘Kerry, Lieberman, House Democratic Leadership Attack Dean,’ CommonDreams, September 14, 2003)

Similarly, Dean’s observation that the capture of Saddam Hussein would not make America safer also received vehement attacks from his Democratic rivals. They were unable to explain, however, how a former dictator living in a hole in the ground without any government, armed force, or command and control apparatus at his disposal could constitute a threat to the United States. Indeed, as of this writing, the armed anti-American resistance in Iraq remains as strong as ever. (See my article ‘Saddam’s Arrest Raises Troubling Questions,’ CommonDreams, December 15, 2003)

Another recent example came in response to a radio interview where Dean expressed his distress over the Bush Administration’s efforts to block investigations of events leading up to 9/11 and concerns that perhaps they did not take certain warnings of possible attacks as seriously as they should. In response, Kerry tried to link Dean with Internet conspiracy buffs and claimed that such speculation ‘leaves Americans questioning his judgment and sense of responsibility.’

It should be remembered that it was Gephardt’s decision, as House Democratic leader, to kowtow to Bush’s neo-conservative militarism which played a major role in the Democrats’ unprecedented defeat in the 2002 midterm elections. Indeed, none of the six incumbent House Democrats who lost (except for one who had been redistricted to run against a popular moderate Republican incumbent and was expected to lose anyway) opposed the war. Gephardt’s na’ve insistence that the Democrats had to play consensus politics with a fraudulently-elected right-wing Republican president was not only immoral, but self-defeating. (See my article, ‘How the Democrats Blew It,’ CommonDreams, November 7, 2002.)
And yet his campaign insists that he is more somehow more electable than Dean.

As a member of an AFL-CIO union (American Federation of Teachers, Local 4629), I find the significant support Gephardt has solicited from organized labor quite puzzling. While Gephardt’s positions on globalization, international trade and related positions are more progressive than Dean, it is hard to understand how Gephardt’s militaristic foreign policy positions ‘ such as supporting an illegal invasion of a nation that was no threat to the United States, which is draining the national treasury and is returning some of the nation’s finest young men and women home in body bags ‘ is in the interest of working people. If a candidate’s position on NAFTA, the WTO and FTAA are that important, these unions should endorse Dennis Kucinich, who opposes the neo-liberal model of globalization even more than Gephardt and opposed the Iraq war in even stronger terms than Dean.

The disturbing fact is that if the attacks by Gephardt and the others are successful and one of the pro-Bush Capitol Hill Democrats wins the nomination, the grassroots of the party that has been so energized by Dean’s campaign will be so alienated that many Democrats who would have actively campaigned throughout the fall for Dean as the Democratic nominee will instead stay home. The bitterness that Dean had been robbed of the nomination through unfair attacks from the party’s right wing could divide the Democrats for many years to come.

The Significance of Dean’s Candidacy

I do not plan to vote for Dean in the upcoming California primary. I will instead be voting for Kucinich, both because the Ohio Congressman’s positions on specific issues are far more progressive than Dean as well as the fact that his working class roots and his great success in repeatedly winning re-election in a Congressional district with one of the highest numbers of blue collar ‘Reagan Democrats’ in the country shows that he would probably be more electable in November than the upper class Dean.
However, I am quite pleased with the way Dean’s campaign has caught the imagination of the American public and that he has emerged as the front runner for the Democratic nomination. While Dean is not nearly as progressive as most of his followers, he has demonstrated that speaking out against the excesses of the Bush Administration can be far more successful than simply playing along with them as most of the Democrats on Capitol Hill are doing.

In many respects, Dean’s opposition to Bush’s invasion of Iraq is being seen in large part as a metaphor for standing up for what one believes in. Unlike his major rivals, he was willing to say, in effect, that the emperor has no clothes. This is why House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats have so viciously and unfairly attacked Dean: they know they are being exposed as the panderers to Bush’s neo-conservative agenda that they are.

While Pelosi and Dean’s major rivals have gone on record expressing their ‘unequivocal support and appreciation’ to President Bush for his ‘firm leadership and decisive action in the conduct of military operation is Iraq,’ polls show that most Democrats and Independents agree with Dean that Bush does not deserve such unreserved backing for invading that country. While Pelosi and Dean’s major rivals have gone on record praising President Bush’s ‘leadership’ in supporting Sharon’s occupation policies in the occupied West Bank, polls show that most Democrats and Independents believe that the Bush Administration should be willing to pressure Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for security guarantees. While Pelosi and Dean’s major rivals have given Bush a blank check in fighting ‘the war on terrorism,’ most Democrats and Independents believe that we are actually less secure now than we were immediately following 9/11.

By contrast, Dean has galvanized the grass roots of the party which the Democratic Party establishment chooses to ignore.

And traditional Democratic leaders are notorious for ignoring the grass roots. For example, in the weeks prior to the launch of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Pelosi’s San Francisco district had been the site of anti-war protests consisting of nearly a half million people. On the day after the war began in March, nearly 10,000 protestors risked arrest by shutting down downtown San Francisco. Despite this, Pelosi arrogantly insisted that her fellow Democrats join her in supporting a pro-war resolution and in allocating tens of billions of dollars worth of taxpayer’s money to support it, despite severe budget cutbacks in her district and elsewhere for education, housing, health care, public transportation and other needs.

Most Democrats have recognized ever since Bush came to office that their leadership on Capitol Hill was in bad need of a spine transplant. Having failed to get one, it is not surprising that they have turned to the former governor of a small rural state who at least had the courage to say no and stand up for principle, something that the Democratic Party establishment has repeatedly failed to do.
Or, to put it more bluntly, while the Democratic Party leadership and Dean’s major challengers have acted like a bunch of wimps, Dean has shown a willingness to fight for what he believes in.
Howard Dean is far from the perfect candidate. But compared to the other Democratic contenders, it’s not surprising that he looks so good to so many.