Before I say anything, let me be crystal clear about a few matters:

One: I’m a First Amendment addict. People have the right to say whatever they want, whenever they want. That’s what separates this country from just about any other.

Two: It’s not only the right, but also the duty for politicians from opposing parties to criticize “the other guys.” This includes not only matters of peace but also matters of war. And if anybody thinks that’s unpatriotic, let me remind you that during World War II, then Sen. Harry S. Truman held hearings that raked the Pentagon over the coals for lousy procurement practices. Some people didn’t like it, but as a result, thousands of soldiers’ lives were saved from dying in shoddy equipment and hundreds of millions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse were curtailed. That’s democracy. It’s not always pretty, but it’s a lot less ugly than the alternatives.

Now to Sen. Tom Daschle’s remarks this week about Bush’s management of the war. He certainly had a right to assert criticizing Bush’s war effort for lacking a “clear direction.” He also had a right to assert that U.S. policy ought in part to be measured by our success in nabbing Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. As Senate Majority Leader from the opposition party, arguably, he even has a duty to raise these matters with the administration.

He also has a right to be a dumbbell, if he chooses to exercise it. And this week, he chose to exercise it. My reaction to Daschle’s remarks was the same as Tallyrand’s when he was told that a certain general had been wrongly executed. “It was worse than a crime,” he sputtered. “It was a blunder!”

Here’s why: We’re at war now, and the stakes are huge. This includes the safety of innocents at home and abroad as well as human rights everywhere. Daschle better look at the calendar because it’s not 1969 this year. The war on terrorism isn’t Vietnam, where the American people were suckered by a phony Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as our G.I.’s were being sucker-punched by President Lyndon Johnson who sent them off to a war he knew we couldn’t win. (If anyone doubts this, see the transcripts of tapes made during LBJ’s presidency contained in David Beschloss’ new book, “Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes,” 1964-1965). This time around, al-Qaida hit us with the ultimate sneak attack, and we were mauled.

The American people gets this but Daschle and some Senate Democrats apparently didn’t, at least until today. Overwhelmed by a tsunami of public revulsion, the Majority Leader sponsored a resolution Wednesday declaring that the body he leads “stands united with the president in the ongoing effort to destroy al-Qaida.” This capped a week of bad luck for Tom Daschle.

First, he launched his attempt to “Vietnamize” Bush’s war effort just as our troops were taking casualties while they heroically battled the al-Qaida troglodytes in the Afghan mountains. (Part of Daschle’s volte-face was an expression of condolence for the slain soldiers, including one who was apparently murdered by al-Qaida butchers after he had been taken prisoner.)

Second, and related to whining about the war effort, were Daschle’s and Sen. Robert Byrd’s, D., W.Va., attacks on the so-called “shadow government.” Although they were most likely not given the full extent and cost of the operation, they implied it smelled like some plan for a Bush coup d’etat. The White House released documents proving that they had been consulted. More egg on the Senators’ faces.

Now if I’m sounding too much like a Republican for my liberal friends, let me assure you that my concern is prompted by my love for the Democratic Party and the ideals it represents. In wartime there is no margin for error, whether fighting on a real battlefield or in the halls of Congress. For Democrats, the political stakes are huge – keeping control of the Senate, regaining control of the House and possibly retaking the White House in 2004. And the policy stakes are likewise enormous: 40 million Americans with no health insurance, tens of millions of seniors without prescription-drug benefits, threats to progress on the environment, gun control, civil rights and worker safety – the very types of issues where Democrats are strong.

If it’s true that war is too important to be left to the generals, it’s also true that leading an opposition party in wartime is too important to be left to nincompoops. I don’t believe Tom Daschle is a nincompoop, but this was not an encouraging week.

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