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Caution, Calculation and Cold Feet

Mr. Jefferson’s Inheritors

by NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN

"I belong to no organized party", Will Rogers once boasted famously, "I am a Democrat". Were he alive, he would be dumbstruck by the conformity that has overtaken his party.

It is hard to imagine a time which cried out more for a vigorous opposition. Yet, when it was needed most, the Democratic Party failed to provide any check on a government run amok.

President Bush addressed the nation last month, assuring his listeners that with 20,000 additional troops, he could hold off the Middle East from exploding. Simultaneously, he was also telling them there were no guarantees, that this was a last attempt before calling it a day in Iraq. Having destroyed a noncombatant nation and triggered the deaths of thousands (30,000 by his own admission, 655,000, according to Lancet), here he was, telling us how he proposed to save Iraq and the rest of the world. "Sau choohe kha ke billi Haj pe chali", as the Hindi saying goes (rough translation: after swallowing a hundred rats, the cat announced it was off on a pilgrimage).

To be fair, Mr. Bush has been no less assiduous in devastating his own country. It was reported recently that the CIA and the Pentagon were accessing people’s bank records without any official warrant. Earlier it was discovered Bush had ordered postal mail to be intercepted and read without a warrant. Habeas Corpus is no longer guaranteed in the United States, phone conversations may be listened to, email monitored, library and book purchases tracked, all without any court order. Mr. Bush has been deciding which laws he will or will not choose to obey, using an artifice called a ‘signing statement’. This is what the birthplace of modern democracy, the home of ‘government of laws, not men’, has become in our day.

At a more prosaic level, if the war has reduced Iraq’s infrastructure to rubble, America’s own can hardly be called shipshape. The tab for the war is already $350 billion (even higher, by some estimates), money which, experts have calculated, would’ve provided for hundreds of schools, built scores of hospitals, put thousands through college, or even paid for the inspection of all cargo coming into the United States, a oft-voiced concern. The budget surplus has been turned to a record deficit.

"Where were you when Kennedy died?", the question goes. So might the Democrats be asked, "Where were you when a boy president, taking power in a doubtful election, careened through and broke every norm in your own country and across the world?

"Missing in Action" (MIA) is mot juste. Who can forget that it was a Democratic-controlled Senate which gave President Bush the authority to go to war with Iraq!

It was October 2002, a month before the midterm election. Heedless of warnings from the likes of Sen. Robert Byrd, a majority of Democratic senators pushed for the war resolution, fearful of being labeled "soft on terror" by Bush and his twin Svengalis, Cheney and Rove. But this Faustian deal availed them nothing; the election took away the very majority they had compromised so much to retain.

By 2004, it was clear that the whole WMD thing was a crock. Yet, not one prominent Democrat receded from his or her vote. John Kerry even kept saying that, knowing what he knew now, he would still have voted for the war resolution. Neither Kerry, nor Hillary Clinton, nor any other big-name Democrat, deigned to visit Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey outside Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, where she was on a Gandhian satyagraha to seek an answer from President Bush to a simple question: for what noble cause did her son die fighting in Iraq?

Bush, of course, used every means to avoid her even sending out his flunkeys to smear her. So too, to its lasting shame, would the Democratic leadership.

In the end, the Democratic Party never took a bold stand on the two issues of our time, the Iraq War, and the shredding of the American Constitution.

By 2006, the country had itself moved far ahead of the Democrats. Bush’s dropping poll numbers lent them enough calcium to start speaking out on Iraq, though careful seldom to raise the issue of the Original Sin, content merely to critique Bush’s ‘conduct’ of the war.

Nevertheless, so reviled had Bush’s Republican Party become, all across the nation, in states red and blue, that the elections gave the Democrats a nice majority in the House, and unexpected control of the Senate.

Early indications are that caution is still their watchword, not impeachment. They will criticize the ‘surge’ but not say a word about the ‘occupation’.

If there is still a trace of euphoria, it is because, to paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, you have to go to bat with the opposition you have, not the one you might wish you had.

If in these testing hours the Democrats were craven, the Republicans were in enthusiastic lock-step with the administration’s lawlessness. Together, they call to mind these lines from a famous novel,

"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Tom and Daisy? Surely Fitzgerald meant George and Hillary…?

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Indian Express.