Hidden Profit

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Speaking before a room of political reporters in early August, Jim
Jordan, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign
Committee, said something impolitic. Jordan was co-hosting a
briefing on the upcoming midterm elections, and his mood was
upbeat: The war on terrorism had grown quiet. Corporate scandal and
stock market chaos had driven down the president's popularity and
contributed to voter angst. Politics had moved out of the war room
and back to the kitchen table. The onetime assumption that
Republicans would thrive in November looked obsolete. "Clearly
something is going on out there," Jordan concluded.But when a reporter asked whether war and terrorism might yet
reclaim the agenda before Election Day, Jordan, a blunt-speaking
veteran of hardball politics, offered a sardonic response: "You
mean when General [Karl] Rove calls in the air strikes in October?"
The crack drew nervous laughter--did he really say that?--but
Jordan made it clear he took the notion seriously, if not quite
literally. "I hope I'm wrong," he added. "Certainly none of us want
to think that the administration, for domestic political reasons,
would use the war. I think the temptation will be strong."

Republicans seethed over Jordan's quip. But today few Democrats
doubt its prescience. Even if party leaders don't yet agree on what
to say about the war on Iraq--"There's not a plan," says a senior
aide to one Democratic senator-- they're largely united on one
point: what the aide calls the "widespread" sentiment that "General
Rove" has manufactured an urgent debate over Iraq in order to win
seats in Congress this fall. As one party operative puts it, the
White House is "play[ing] domestic politics in the international
community."

It's not just whispering operatives who are making the "September
surprise" case. Some prominent Democrats are airing it more
publicly, hoping the media will catch on. Last week, for instance,
former Clinton White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told CNN that the
war talk "has more to do with politics, because I think they were
very, very anxious to change the subject away from the economy and
the corporate ... scandals." Even Tom Daschle made the case last
week. "I think that we do have to worry about the politicization of
this issue, " Daschle told reporters on September 4, in his
typically understated manner. "And I think that there are skeptics
out there who wonder to what extent the political implications of
any of this may affect the elections." (Daschle later took care to
add, rather implausibly, that he is not "one who shares the view
that it is being politicized.") This week Democrats also took swipes
at the administration for politicizing the September 11 anniversary
more generally. The Democratic National Committee, for instance,
issued a press release attacking Dick Cheney for "cheapen[ing]" a
"sacred" day by granting a September 11 interview to the "partisan
and divisive" Rush Limbaugh.

Tough stuff. But Democrats say they stopped giving the White House
the benefit of the doubt earlier this year, after Bush officials
seemed to respond to questions about missed September 11 warning
signs with a series of overhyped terror alerts. The
administration's hastily cobbled-together Homeland Security
Department proposal, they recall, was conveniently released the day
FBI whistle- blower Colleen Rowley delivered her embarrassing
testimony before Congress.

Democrats feel the same dynamic is at work in this month's Iraq
push. (One operative dubs the White House's current efforts "Scare
America II.") Party loyalists seized upon, for instance, a
September 7 New York Times article that depicted a highly
calculated White House strategy to market an attack on Iraq.
Quoting officials such as Rove and Chief of Staff Andy Card, the
article reported that the Bushies had long planned to press their
Iraq case this fall-- meaning their insistence on a quick
congressional vote was therefore not solely a response to summer
nay-saying about a war. Indeed, Card told the paper that the White
House had resisted beginning its p.r. offensive before Labor Day.
"From a marketing point of view," Card said, "you don't introduce
new products in August." (The line, says the Democratic operative,
is "both grotesque and telling.") Recently, several Democrats have
complained that while the administration claims to be presenting
"new" evidence, nothing released thus far indicates any real change
in Washington's understanding of the Iraqi threat. After Cheney and
other officials indicated that Iraq was making swift progress
toward building a nuclear weapon, for instance, a study by the
highly regarded International Institute for Strategic Studies
suggested that Saddam Hussein is still years away from developing a
bomb on his own. And a mere two days after Cheney ominously said on
nbc's "Meet the Press" that "new information has come to light"
about possible links between Baghdad and Al Qaeda, The Washington
Post ran a page-one story saying that the CIA "has yet to find
convincing evidence" of such a connection and that the White House
had dropped that argument in talks with world leaders.

For Democrats, the problem with the "Scare America" complaint is
that, whatever its merits, it makes them look as if they're afraid
of an honest debate on Iraq. That's why elected Democrats will go
no farther than Daschle's lame reference to "skeptics out there."
Still, most in the party feel that they don't have a lot of other
options. They can try to postpone a floor debate on the war until
after the elections, probably by dragging out committee hearings in
the name of sober deliberation--or, as Daschle has begun to suggest,
on the grounds that Congress waited until just after the 1990
elections to vote on the Gulf war. But if the president begins to
hint--as few doubt he would--that Congress is delaying battle
plans, that won't be easy. It's not even clear that a delay, which
drags out the debate and calls attention to Democratic
intransigence, is in the party's best interests. "The most expedient
thing would be to introduce a resolution ourselves and pass it
right away," says one House leadership aide. Then the Democrats
could get back to bread-and-butter topics like pension reform and
the minimum wage.

But it's not entirely clear that an Iraq debate would be the debacle
that many flustered Dems now fear. Hopeful party operatives recall
that Democrats handily won the governorships of New Jersey and
Virginia two months after September 11. Though there's a difference
between state and federal office--"no one expected [gubernatorial
candidates] to have a position on U.N. weapons inspectors," says
one Democratic House aide--the outcomes seemed to show that, even
as ground zero still smoldered, voters still gave high priority to
more pedestrian concerns like health care.

True, a vote on military action could be painful for those
vulnerable Democratic incumbents whose consciences might not match
public opinion back home. It's hard to imagine Minnesota liberal
Paul Wellstone voting for an attack, no matter what the polls say.
But Democratic strategists list several other candidates who might
be helped by the opportunity to show their national security bona
fides. Georgia Democrat Max Cleland, for instance, has been trying
to fend off suggestions that he's a closet liberal. A vote with Bush
on Iraq "could seal that [race]," says a Democratic campaign
consultant. In Arkansas, Democratic candidate Mark Pryor, trying
hard to show Southern conservative credentials in his race against
incumbent Tim Hutchinson, has already said that he believes "we
should go into Iraq." That sort of dynamic could also help several
Democratic House candidates in pro-war rural areas.

Equally important, there are Republicans for whom an Iraq vote would
be less than convenient. GOP Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, for
instance, has seen his reelection in that liberal state grow
increasingly uncertain; a vote for war could highlight his
conservatism at an inopportune moment. Democrats note that in
several isolationist pockets of the Midwest, mountain West, and
Southwest, Republicans could find themselves in uncomfortable
positions--witness the strong doubts already expressed about an
invasion by otherwise rock-ribbed conservatives such as Dick Armey
of Texas, Larry Craig of Idaho, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Some
House Democrats suspect that House Speaker Dennis Hastert's hedging
on a pre-November Iraq vote may be due to pressure from
conservative isolationists like Armey.

A vote on Iraq might even wind up helping the Democratic crop of
presidential contenders. Nothing benefits John Kerry more, for
instance, than an opportunity to remind voters of his military
record--even if some Democrats complain that he's simultaneously
styling himself as both a hawk and a dove. Dick Gephardt, who found
himself on the wrong side of the 1991 Iraq debate, has taken pains
not to stand out as a voice of dissent this time. John Edwards,
too, could use some hawkish credentials if he hopes the South will
carry him to the White House. But no Democrat will outflank Joe
Lieberman, who--despite reports that he softened his position at a
breakfast with reporters last week--would still support unilateral
action against Iraq if necessary, according to his spokesman.
(Curiously, it is Al Gore, one of the few Democrats to vote for war
in 1991, who has been among the harshest critics of the
administration's war plans.)

In an ideal scenario, Democrats could wind up with the best of both
worlds: pro-war votes that shore up the party's pathetic national
security credentials and gains in midterm elections dominated by
domestic issues. It's not a crazy notion. Consider this excerpt
from the October 29, 1990, New York Times, one week before midterm
elections and in the midst of obvious war preparations in the
Persian Gulf: "[B]uoyed by Mr. Bush's showdown with Saddam Hussein
of Iraq, Republicans actually thought they might defy the normal
law of politics and pick up seats at the middle of the presidential
term," the Times explained. "Now they are talking about minimizing
their losses." Thanks largely to a weak economy, the GOP went on to
lose eight seats in the House and one in the Senate. Two months
later, in January 1991, some Democrats went on to cast Gulf war
votes they sorely regret. But few of them are likely to repeat that
mistake again. All of which suggests that for Democrats, the Iraq
debate might bring less pain and more gain than anyone expects.

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