Friday, April 4, 2003

Silence of the Donkeys

So it's not such a good movie title, but it describes where we are these days. In this time of stress and challenge the Democratic Party has virtually gone silent. Give it to him, George Bush has bet his entire beloved Crawford on this war and its underlying geopolitical policy. Democrats haven't even put their Outer Banks Timeshare's at risk. I know, it's supposedly a long honored tradition not to criticize the President when our troops are in battle, but that's a convenient excuse. The voice of dissent, was virtually inaudible — out to lunch — long before our planes and ground forces hit the road toward Baghdad. Protect the kids in harm's way. What happened to protecting them from harm's way? Every night Jim Lehrer ends his News Hour with photographs and names of the fallen, mostly 19-22 year olds. It makes me cry.

Democracies are great when the debate is hot, when those who hold strong views of any stripe are challenged. Checks and Balances is not merely an organizational principal, it is a metaphor for the essential need of countervailing views. The Founding Fathers wanted discussion and they want to prevent the rule of extremes. I don't agree with all those young Conservative talking heads in their ubiquitous little bow ties. People like Bill Kristol and Richard Pearle put a chill down my spine, get my dander up, but I respect their conviction and relentless commitment to their cause. My civil libertarian body shivers when George Bush says "you're either with us or against us," in a not so veiled threat at a time of intrusion and tribunals. Apparently, Democrats have taken his words to heart, and that really scares the hell out of me.

It seems today that Democratic Politicians are either totally sidelined or, worse, espouse a kind of pabulum acquiesce in the name of supporting Commander and troops. And it isn't just now. Since 9/11 everyone has been, or allowed themselves to be, forced into this unquestioning lockstep as if only the Administration had all the answers endowed by an absolute Divine Right to mandate unquestioned adherence. Let's remember that George Bush wasn't elected in the traditional way, which is not a statement of sour grapes but of the fact that this country (at least the few of us who vote) was split right down the center. In other democracies that might require a coalition government. It certainly should engender more humility. And despite the hype and the punditry about unprecedented gains by a President mid-term, that election resulted in only a razor thin GOP majority in the Senate and far short of mandate-supremacy in the House. We remain a divided nation.

As such, one would expect a far more vocal, albeit loyal, opposition. I know it's not easy. When Tom Daschle criticizes, he is branded unpatriotic. How dare him? So with John Kerry who suggested this week that we too need a regime change. Of course Kerry, a Viet Nam vet, stood his ground against the non-patriotic nonsense. But there haven't been many more and the critiques have been more elliptical than direct. I don't really buy this "in time of war" rule. The troops have nothing to do with it. Regardless of where we stand, we all desperately want them to come home safely. This is not the first time loyal Americans have questioned a war. Perhaps it's happened somewhat earlier this time, but everything (including the battle) has been foreshortened in the nanosecond world that James Gleick describes in his book Faster. But why is this debate so urgent, and why must it be led by Democrats?

We have gone to war in the past, but this conflict has unique characteristics. Korea and Viet Nam were fought in the context of the Cold War. Bosnia responded to a genocide that echoed memories of the Holocaust (even though similar horrors in Africa evoked no such response). Afghanistan was a direct response to 9/11, a hit on the people who claimed credit for terrorism. But this represents the first (and the very use of that word is chilling) war under a new and, for many of us, alarming doctrine of pro-active interventionism. It isn't simply a war to prevent the potential use of weaponry, but part of an envisioned mosaic that will refashion the democratically unwashed across the globe. So it's not simply why we should or should not be at war in Iraq, why our kids should or should not be exposed to injury and death, but whether we are signing on to this new Bush team doctrine for the 21st Century? Do I take it that Joe Lieberman, perhaps the happiest among Democratic co-warriors, agrees with the underlying concept of forcefully reformatting allegedly rouge nations in our own image? I hope not, but his vociferous support would suggest his concurrence.

Simply put, the stakes in this conflict transcend the actual battle and the question is not whether it's appropriate to challenge in the time of War, but whether we are not compelled to challenge its underlying assumptions and direction, and do so with some urgency? Why is there no Democrat including my two Senators (one who has never met a microphone he doesn't like and the other with possible Presidential ambitions), substantively challenging this fundamental shift in policy? Wayne Morse and Bill Fulbright challenged the underlying Domino Theory that brought us to Viet Nam at the height of war. Both refused to be silenced by meaningless and artificial restrictions. Why doesn't Tom Daschle speak out regularly and more substantively and why, aside for Governor Dean and Reverend Sharptan, haven't the Presidential hopefuls? Are Robert Byrd, who is largely, if respectfully, ignored and perhaps Ted Kennedy, who has politically nothing to lose, all that we have left? Even their criticism has been ad hoc.

Perhaps there have been times in which it wasn't dangerous to have two parties whose differences were only at the margin, mostly stylistic. This isn't one of them, which is what prompted Ralph Nader to interject himself into the last Presidential race with, in my view, disastrous results for the country. If this were a game, I could smile and say the Democrats and Al Gore deserved the loss. But it's not a game and fudging differences, not articulating a cohesive counterpoint, has been extremely costly in every respect. I hope we as a Nation can recover from it. How many wakeup calls does my party need before it finds its voice? In the words of the Pink Floyd's Wall lyric, "is there anyone out there?"

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