I am in Washington, D.C., for the 26th running of the Marine Corps Marathon. It’s been 15 years since I ran this race and, when media demands following the attacks of Sept. 11 disrupted my training, I thought about skipping it. The Marines, however, refused to cancel the race even though the security issues went through the roof. If they can put it on, I decided I could finish it.

Coming to Washington from the West Coast brings you to a different world. The anthrax attacks are just disturbing headlines in California, but here it is very much a real problem on the minds of almost every Washingtonian I have chatted with. The Pentagon, having recently taken a direct hit, is now ringed with camouflaged biohazard monitoring stations. The Supreme Court was added to the target list on Friday, and more surprises are believed to be in the mail. There is no panic. Just seriousness.

Which is why I find the conduct of Senate Democrats so surprising. The country is undergoing its most significant challenge in decades, and the leadership of the opposition has returned to an almost maddening partisanship less than two months after thousands of Americans died in a surprise assault. They have chosen the opposite of seriousness. They have chosen self-interest.

Tom Daschle has buried the energy bill that would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because he knows the votes from both sides of the aisle are there to pass it.

Patrick Leahy has imposed a near boycott on Bush judicial nominees even though we are in the middle of the largest manhunt in history and a full federal bench is a pressing necessity. Bill Clinton had 28 judges confirmed in his first year in office – a 57 percent confirmation rate even though he did not start nominating judges until August of 1993. George Bush has had only 12 of his 60 nominees voted on – a tiny 20 percent – even though he began sending up his judicial picks in May. Leahy is unapologetic. The Democrats are running things, and they are committed to running out the clock.

And now we have Joe Biden droning on about “high-tech bullying” and the need to go mano a mano with the Taliban. When I played the entire Biden answer on my radio program last Thursday, an outraged and teary caller from Colorado explained how her father had died at the Chosin Reservoir going mano a mano with the Chinese when she was 1 year old, and perhaps the Biden Doctrine that conflict is unacceptable unless a lot of American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines die is not the view of the American voters. Biden complains he is the victim of a political drive-by. Biden is a victim of his need to pose as a player. He deserves every bit of the withering criticism that has come his way.

It is too bad we do not have a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy for the Senate Democrats. Such a policy would oblige Jim Jeffords to look at the real and lasting damage his dance with self-absorption has cost the country, and perhaps it would even move Georgia Senator Zell Miller to act on what must be his increasing discomfort with the fecklessness of his national party.

Tests of leadership capability come along rarely. We are in the midst of one now, and its subject matter is nothing less than protection of the lives of millions of Americans living in target areas. The recent reports of bin Laden’s potential nuclear capability underscore the threat at the same time that they underscore the need for candor, honor and purpose among the political leadership. The Senate Democrats have failed on all counts, and no amount of prattle about “bipartisanship” from their allies – like Michael Kinsley and Al Hunt – will cover their collapse under pressure. They know nothing except hyper-partisanship, and they have returned to it in record time.

This partisanship is a tragedy for the party of FDR and JFK, but it is simply dangerous for the country. The only answers are attention and political revulsion. The elections of 2002 are a year away, but disgust should be funneled into contributions to the coffers of those who would restore responsible people to power in the Senate. I listed some of the individual candidates in last week’s column, and the general effort is guided by – and can be studied and supported at – the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

There is still time in this session for Daschle – and the Democrat Party he leads – to turn around and come back to the political conduct required by these times. That does not mean agreement with the president. It does mean votes on the key bills, the judicial nominees, and a public rebuke of Biden.

In a city consumed with seriousness, it is a shame that the only place that quality is in short supply is the United States Senate.

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