Washington Prowler

Democrats Head for the Hills

The war claims still more Pelosi victims. Also: Clark and Dean slog on.

By 4.11.03

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YOU BELONG TO ME
With the collapse of the Iraqi regime in Baghdad, Democrats in the House and the Senate watched in their offices as the U.S. Marines helped topple not only the 40-foot statute of Saddam, but the Democrats' political hopes for the next couple of years.

Over the past several days, Democrats, especially in the House, have been polling furiously through their caucus in an attempt to get a handle on public perceptions of the party during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"It probably isn't good," says one House leadership staffer, referring to the public's opinion. "If we don't know it now, we're acting like we know it."

Not a single senior Democrat in either the House or the Senate would accept an invitation to appear on television Wednesday night to discuss the events of the day in Baghdad. On Thursday, the most visible Democrat was Sen. Evan Bayh, who has supported the Iraqi policy all along.

One who is greatly concerned is Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi. On Thursday, she publicly stated she would not change her vote against the war for anything. But privately on Wednesday she asked her personal office staff to compile comments from her career that would show her as supportive of military action and America's soldiers. On Thursday afternoon, she made a very big production of her speech in the Capitol during a congressional rally for the troops. As she spoke, those men and women there in uniform -- and even some Republican House members -- snickered at her performance. "She was trying just a bit too hard," says a Republican House staffer.

What little serious polling has been done by Democrats indicates that many potential voters don't buy the notion that you can support the troops, but not support the war. "If you're a liberal Democrat, maybe that works," says the Democratic leadership staffer in the House. "But the moderate or Reagan Democrat isn't buying that. Many of them are supportive of the war effort. We've probably lost them for now, and will have to work to get them back."

Given Pelosi's mediocre performance as Democratic leader, there are already grumblings among moderate Democrats that she will have to go next time out. And while he isn't saying anything publicly, it's believed by some House Democrats that their whip, Steny Hoyer, might be willing to mount a challenge to Pelosi in January 2005 if she continues to flail about.

Supporters of Pelosi say she's getting a raw deal, that under House rules, and Republican control, there isn't much she can do legislatively or on the House floor to improve her party's position. But those arguments overlook her promise that Democrats would have a better performance during the congressional session, and would retake seats in the 2004 election cycle.

"As it stands now, we pick up seats again," says a Republican Congressional Campaign Committee staffer. "We aren't doing anything different, it's the Democrats who just keep screwing things up for themselves."

MAKING EVERY VOTE COUNT
Democrats and Republicans alike were scratching their heads on Wednesday night when former Vermont Gov. Howie Dean appeared on MSNBC and claimed that he and Sen. Bob Graham had both voted against the war in Iraq. But Dean has been out of office for months and didn't have a vote. Anywhere.

In the end, such false bravado probably no longer matters. Given that Dean built much of his early campaign on an anti-war stance, most political insiders say he'll be lucky to survive through the New Hampshire primary.

BLOODIED BUT UNBOWED
Maybe Saddam's PR guy has already found a new client. Word out of Arkansas Democratic circles is that Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark is still seriously mulling a presidential run.

"People have told him his CNN performances have been good," says a Democratic National Committee staffer.

Given that almost everyone, even at the DNC, thought those performances a disaster, one has to wonder just who's been egging Clark on. Larry King? Aaron Brown? Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf?

Clark was one of the military officers Vice President Dick Cheney ridiculed on Wednesday, saying they were embedded in cable news channels.

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