A debate worth having

By Hugh Hewitt

What a week the Democrats have had:

  • Al Gore emerges in San Francisco to summon the peace caucus to his side (and the City Council of Santa Cruz obliges the next day with a 6-0 vote condemning the Bush push for war);

  • The Democratic governor of Kentucky is revealed as a cad and a con;

  • The Democratic senator from New Jersey dispatches Team Torricelli to the federal court to keep documents secret that detail the disgraced incumbent’s ties to a federal prisoner;

  • Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s campaign is forced to apologize for Nixonian dirty tricks;

  • Zogby’s numbers strike fear in the Wellstone camp – as well as many others;

  • Gov. “Clouseau” of California actually had to cancel a fundraiser because of media interest in his many apparent conflicts of interest;

  • Democratic Congressmen McDermott and Kucinich are rallying the wingnuts to the banner;

  • And the union heavies are demanding that they run the Homeland Security Department.

Daschle tried to change the subject on Monday with a speech about the cost of pills and other pressing matters, but nobody noticed. Gore had stepped on him. And the Republican lead in fund-raising is enormous. So what did Daschle do?

He had his “Muskie moment.” In early 1972, then-candidate for president Edmund Muskie stood outside the Manchester Union Leader and denounced the paper’s coverage of his wife. He broke down. His candidacy was over.

Daschle lost it as well yesterday – and he did it not because the president had challenged anyone’s patriotism, but because the president has repeatedly challenged the Democrats to give national security issues the top priority. The Democrats have refused, and in the context of the Homeland Security bill, it is a politically devastating failure.

The most searing critic of Daschle and the Democrats has been Democratic Sen. Zell Miller who thundered from the Senate floor after Daschle was finished that the country was exposed and that the Senate risked the wrath of all Americans if another attack struck in San Francisco, Louisiana or Newport, R.I. Miller chose his hypothetical targets with care, for senators from those three states were key in blocking the Homeland Security department from emerging ready for the war on terrorism.

Daschle and the Democrats are fighting for the National Treasury Employees Union, the Federal Personnel Manual, and the Merit Systems Protection Board. The Democrats want their within-grade step increases and their Federal Employee Health Benefits brochures. In short, they want the standard deal for federal employees which makes it practically impossible to fire incompetents and to discipline malcontents.

They want hearings and appeals and seniority. The president doesn’t care about any of that. He’s not against it in other contexts, but he thinks it is patently ridiculous to be arguing about such matters when there are tens of thousands of radicals who want nothing but an opening to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.

The president has the better argument, and he will carry the day if the debate is carried to the people. Which is why Daschle attempted with his tirade to intimidate the president and all those who question the Democrats’ priorities. Daschle is attempting to immunize his colleagues from questions about their judgment by equating such questions with challenges to their patriotism. I don’t think it will work. In fact, I think it failed the moment that Daschle drew attention to the underlying issue. Focus is the last thing the Democrats needed on this issue.

Then there is Robert Byrd. He is out of control, and increasingly appears around the bend. The Democrats are stuck with him, and even veteran hand-holders like Joe Biden are increasingly exasperated by his cranky outbursts. But there he was on Wednesday, shouting at the top of his lungs, and embarrassing not only the Democrats but all Americans. Daschle is Exhibit One in the fall campaign, but Byrd is surely Exhibit Two.

The campaign is now destined to be about large issues and serious arguments. Republicans welcome such a debate. The Democrats fear it. And that explains why the Democrats had such a bad week: The country does not suffer fools – especially in times of war.