With the midterm elections now less than a month away, the Democrats have been split into two camps on the issue of war and peace. The most dramatic split, surely, is the one between the House of Gephardt and the House of Gore. The rift is more glaring because, at least at first glance, each leader has had to reverse his stance on the Persian Gulf War to arrive at his present position. In endorsing a microscopically watered-down version of Bush Junior's original resolution, Dick Gephardt has said just that: He now believes his vote opposing the 1991 resolution authorizing Poppy Bush to go to war was a mistake.
Al Gore, on the other hand, was one of just 10 Democratic senators who voted to authorize the Gulf War, and he reaffirmed that position while breaking with Bush during an address to the Commonwealth Club on Sept. 23. His critics allege that he's campaigning under false colors here, that this is just an opportunistic contradiction of his past record.
Opportunistic, perhaps, but it's no contradiction. When Old Man Bush sent his resolution to the Hill in early 1991, the United States had already obtained the support of numerous nations for a joint venture to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The war on which Gore and Gephardt voted, whatever its flaws, was neither unilateral nor preemptive. And it's precisely those two aspects of the coming conflict that Gore has attacked. The Bush administration, he marveled, has managed to estrange virtually all of our traditional allies. And by sanctioning the idea of preemption, he asserted, the United States "destroy[s] the goal of a world in which states consider themselves subject to law, particularly in the matter of standards for the use of violence against each other. That concept would be displaced by the notion that there is no law but the discretion of the president of the United States."
Gephardt's defenders say that in backing the president, the House Democratic leader is looking out for Democratic candidates in swing districts next month. The party has a set of pretested themes that are supposed to sway the swingers, they complain, and Gore has forced the party off message. As one party strategist grumped to The New York Times about Gore's Commonwealth Club speech, "Is this going to enable the peace caucus in the House and the Senate?"
Now, I hardly need convincing that keeping Congress from falling wholly into Republican hands is hugely important, what with that Bush boy in the White House and all. Still, what the consultant is arguing is that it is better to have a nominal peace caucus within the majority party than a peace caucus that actually bestirs itself for peace when a declaration of war is up for debate.
Why this crackpot realism is smart politics for this November, or the one or two years hence, is by no means apparent. Midterm elections hinge on mobilizing your base, and recent polling for National Public Radio makes clear that Democrats favor Gore's position over Gephardt's by nearly a 3-to-1 margin. Gore's position is every bit as calculated as Gephardt's, of course. The difference is that Gore has factored into his calculation the radical notion that the purpose of politics is to advance your core beliefs.
I bow to no one in my exasperation with the Gore of the 2000 campaign. But Gore is now displaying the very leadership that was so missing from his presidential run. In a year in which, at Gephardt's and Tom Daschle's insistence, the Democrats have calculated themselves into silence on both the tax cut and preemptive war, Gore has apparently concluded that a party with nothing to say doesn't have much claim on its voters come election time. He's also concluded that a questionable war merits audible questioning. Two calculations that should require many Democrats to do a little recalculation of their own as to the merits of Al Gore.