Democrats Looking for a Road Map to Downing Street

By Terry M. Neal Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 14, 2005 10:26 AM

Democrats this week are escalating their efforts to highlight the so-called "Downing Street Memo."

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has scheduled a public forum for Thursday on the subject. And 104 House Democrats have signed a letter written by Conyers to President Bush asking him for a detailed response to the memo.

After struggling during his failed presidential bid last year to stake out a clear and compelling position on the nation's most pressing issue -- Iraq -- Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has come out swinging. A senior aide close to Kerry said this week that Kerry is circulating a letter about the memo among Democratic senators before sending it to Bush. The aide predicted that Kerry would make the letter public in the next few days.

If you're not familiar with the Downing Street Memo, a summary of a secret meeting among British Prime Minister Tony Blair and top officials discussing the war in Iraq eight months prior to the invasion, you're not alone. The Sunday Times of London broke the story of the memo in early May, a few weeks before the British elections, and the ensuing media storm contributed to the drumming Blair's Labor Party took in the elections.

While the European media have covered the memo extensively, it has received scant attention by the mainstream media in America. Walter Pincus of The Washington Post, who had previously written a story about the memo that ran inside the A section of the newspaper, wrote a front-page story on Sunday detailing a separate British memo (written prior to the DSM) that raised questions about America's postwar planning.

"When I go back [to Washington] on Monday, I am going to raise the issue," Kerry told the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard Times newspaper two weeks ago. "I think it's a stunning, unbelievably simple and understandable statement of the truth and a profoundly important document that raises stunning issues here at home."

But Kerry has yet to raise the issue in public again.

The disinterest in the memo outside a network of liberal blogs is striking for a number of reasons. Bush's approval rating on Iraq has been tanking, with nearly six in 10 people now saying the war was not worth it and a clear majority now saying for the first time that the war has not made the United States safer, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week. The poll indicates that people are not so much gung-ho in favor of the president's policy, but rather are ignoring bad news.

Two Democratic strategists I talked to said their party should forge ahead on the memo -- but carefully.

Erik Smith, a former longtime adviser to former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt, said that although there are "cracks in the president's Teflon," most voters are turned off by suggestions that he purposefully lied to make the case for war.

"I think that the party can get an advantage talking about it, but it has to be done very carefully," said Smith, who has studied research of voter perceptions last year while at the liberal Media Fund. "The research found that you couldn't make the argument that there was malevolence involved, that the president intentionally lied to get to war. You can make the argument that there was thorough planning, and you can make lots of arguments about mishandling. But saying that he purposefully put people in harm's way was not a credible argument."

Similarly, Dane Strother, who advises numerous congressional and gubernatorial candidates, said: "I'm not sure [the memo] is news. People know he lied. Paul O'Neill said that Bush planned on attacking Iraq all along in his book two years ago. [Bush and his advisers] haven't showed themselves to be very vulnerable. . . . They forge ahead anyway."

I called the White House on Friday to ask about the memo and was transferred to the National Security Council, where spokesman Fred Jones told me "that issue has already kind of been handled" -- a reference to Bush's answer to a single question, with no follow up, at a news conference earlier in the week.

At the news conference at the White House with Blair, Bush asserted flatly that the memo's allegation that intelligence had been fixed for political purposes could not "be further from the truth."

The full transcript of the news conference is here.

Neither Bush nor Blair denied the authenticity of the memo, and therein lays the rub.

There is much to fault in both the right's and the left's interpretation of the memo. First, the memo is not the smoking gun that some liberal politicos and bloggers see. No matter what Richard Dearlove said in the memo about fixing the facts, it was still merely one man's analysis of the situation. At the same time, Dearlove is a credible source who was, essentially, the British equivalent of former CIA director George Tenet. It doesn't have to be a smoking gun for it to be an important document. The document should not be ignored simply because it does not answer every question. The Downing Street Memo is a starting place, not an ending place.

The memo is important not only because it suggests Bush made up his mind well in advance of the actual invasion, but because it undercuts Bush's postwar response to questions about whether he made a mistake in going to war with Iraq. Bush's answer has been, essentially, that every credible government official in the United States and Europe believed Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction, based on the unanimity of intelligence reports.

Chris Lehane, a former adviser to Vice President Gore, said the memo was worth discussion from a policy perspective because it might shed light on how a decision was made to go to war. But politically, he said, Democrats had more to gain by looking forward. Democrats could be stronger on defense issues by focusing on a plan to return troops from Iraq while maintaining security in the Middle East. Lehane said Democrats should simultaneously hit Bush while proposing their own policy prescriptions.

"I would like to see the party talking about why is Osama bin Laden still running around after the president said three years ago we were going to get him dead or alive," Lehane said. "Now you can't even get this administration to mention his name. . . . I'd like to see us talk about how three years ago the president identified the 'axis of evil' and now the fact is that two of the three members of the axis of evil are on the cusp of arming themselves with nuclear weapons and America is demonstrably less safe than it was before. I'd like to see us talk about what we're going to do about that."

Nonetheless, some Democrats won't rest until the truth -- at least as they see it -- is told.

The liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas pointed last week to Bush's slipping poll numbers and asked: "NOW can Democrats demand some accountability from Bush?"

An anonymous Daily Kos reader responded: "let's hope. kick him while he's down. sounds good to me."

John Kerry, is that you?

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