President Bush is winning surprisingly strong support for his confrontational policy toward Iraq from an unlikely corner: the Democrats who may challenge him in the 2004 presidential campaign.
Possible war with Iraq has put these prospective Democratic candidates in an awkward position, torn between their desire to hold Bush to account for a doctrine of preemption that has won few supporters around the world, and the knowledge that a vote against military action could be politically costly in 2004.
There is some cautious dissent among these Democrats, most notably Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. But both have left themselves room to embrace Bush's war policy in the end.
Meanwhile, Bush received strong support this week from such Democrats as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), whom one White House official yesterday described as "one of the great leaders" on Iraq now.
The positions adopted by the prospective Democratic candidates reflect the impact of the terrorist attacks of last Sept. 11 on the public psyche; a liberal wing of the party that is less vociferously antiwar and more supportive of taking action against human rights violators such as Hussein; and memories of the 1991 congressional debate and vote on over whether to go to war with Iraq. That vote left most Democrats, including Kerry, Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), on the wrong side of a popular war.
"After 9/11, there is a feeling that if you're going to err, you err on the side of making Americans safer, rather than the side of underestimating the threat that hostile foreign actors present to our country," said Will Marshall of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
Lieberman, who voted for that 1991 resolution, said yesterday that "every day Saddam remains in power is a day of danger for the Iraqi people, for Iraq's neighbors, for the American people and for the world." He pledged to work with Republicans for the broadest bipartisan support possible on a resolution authorizing the use of force.
Edwards, in only slightly less qualified language, embraced the concept at the heart of Bush's posture, that the United States should be prepared to act alone against Iraq if it cannot win adequate support from the United Nations. Former vice president Al Gore has been silent this week, but last February he said that the war on terrorism would not be complete without "a final reckoning" with Hussein.
Gephardt, whose base is on the Democratic left, nonetheless has emerged as one of the most outspoken advocates of Bush's Iraq policy among the presidential hopefuls. This comes despite reservations among many senior leaders inside his caucus, and Gephardt's aides appear eager to point out just how supportive of Bush he has been.
"You've got to worry that [Iraq] is where terrorists could go most easily and effectively to get weapons of mass destruction or parts for weapons of mass destruction," Gephardt said. The United States is obligated to act "diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must."
This represents a dramatic shift for Gephardt from a decade ago. But he said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 dramatically changed his thinking about Iraq and preemptive military strikes. "That was the ultimate wake-up call," he said.
Gephardt said his position is totally "divorced of politics," but his advisers acknowledge that, while Democrats are divided on whether it's better to be seen as questioning Bush or embracing him, Gephardt's firm position could help neutralize the issue if he were to win the nomination to challenge Bush.
Gephardt must balance his presidential aspirations with his desire to have Democrats win control of the House in November. Some Democrats, among them Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a former Marine who recently flew to the Middle East to talk to military personnel, are telling him there is opposition to Bush's approach within the military and within the party.
Daschle has been increasingly supportive of Bush's position, though quicker than Gephardt to raise questions. Still, Democratic leadership aides said Daschle is all but certain to back Bush. The president's willingness to go to the U.N. and reach out to leaders in France, China and Russia appeared to alleviate many of his concerns.
Like Gephardt, Daschle is thinking of 2002 politics as well. Democratic aides said he may want a vote on an Iraq resolution before Congress adjourns next month in order to shift public attention back to domestic issues before the Nov. 5 election.
International criticism of Bush caused some Democrats to appear to waver on their support for having the United States act unilaterally. Last winter, Lieberman staked out a go-it-alone-if-necessary policy to dislodge Hussein, but last week, as pressure intensified on Bush to try to build an international coalition, the senator suddenly sounded more cautious. Bush, Lieberman told reporters, had not made the case. "I certainly believe that it would be a mistake for us to do this alone," he said.
Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein said this week: "He regrets any confusion caused by the remarks, but he has not changed his views." Yesterday's floor statement put Lieberman back to where had been last winter.
In reality, many of the cautions raised by the prospective presidential candidates are procedural, not substantive. Bush, they said, needs to consult with Congress, work through the United Nations and explain the "why" before the "how" in his thinking about an attack on Iraq.
Kerry has been particularly outspoken and has earned some credit with Democrats on the left for doing so. "I think Kerry deserves some credit for being the most courageous of this crowd in laying out at least a serious set of questions for this administration to answer," said Robert Borosage of the liberal-leaning Campaign for America's Future. "What's remarkable is how isolated he's been compared to the others."