Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) yesterday lambasted the Bush administration's domestic and foreign policies as dangerously divisive, and warned Democrats that they will rebound at the polls only if they "stand up and speak out" for their core principles.
In his annual speech to the National Press Club, Kennedy sharpened his earlier challenge to President Bush's policy on Iraq, arguing that weapons inspections are working and that North Korea and domestic terrorism pose more imminent threats to the United States. The critique was one of the broadest and sharpest attacks on Bush policies since the president took office two years ago, and had particular significance because it came from one of the Democrats' most powerful figures on Capitol Hill.
While Kennedy did not specifically criticize the dozen Senate Democrats who supported Bush's 2001 tax cuts or others who have been hesitant to criticize the Iraq policy, he said the 2002 elections demonstrated there is "no assured political safety in just going along with President Bush."
No Democratic senator who voted against the tax cuts was defeated, he noted. "The lesson of 2002 is clear: We will not succeed if we fail to stand up and speak out."
Rather than focusing exclusively on tax cuts, Kennedy said, Republicans should divide available funds evenly among tax reductions, including those already approved in 2001, and "other important priorities," such as education and health care. "We cannot say it is wartime for the rest of America but still peacetime for the rich," who he said would benefit most from the tax cuts.
Kennedy, a senator for 40 years, also chided the administration on civil rights, saying its deeds do not match its words, especially in the selection of judicial nominees. He said he and others will use "every means at our disposal" to defeat nominees "hostile to the core values of a diverse democratic society."
Even though other Democrats may not go as far as Kennedy on general strategy or specific issues, his remarks appear to signal at least some shift within the party. Among Senate Democrats, only Zell Miller (Ga.) has endorsed Bush's new round of tax cuts, and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) has denounced Bush's policies almost daily.
Kennedy praised Bush for his "impressive leadership" in responding to the 2001 terrorist attacks and to the war in Afghanistan. But he said the administration "squandered too much of the good will of the world community" with its preoccupation with war on Iraq. "Surely, we can have effective relationships with other nations without adopting a chip-on-the-shoulder foreign policy," he said.
"The threat from Iraq is not imminent," the senator said, "and it will distract America from the two more immediate threats to our security -- the clear and present danger of terrorism and the crisis with North Korea."
The recent discovery of empty chemical warheads is "not a sign that we need to go to war," but rather "an indication that inspections work" and should continue, Kennedy said.
Kennedy voted against both the 2001 tax cuts and the resolution, approved by Congress last year, to authorize the use of force against Iraq.