The Empty Smile

“The cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had VERY long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.” — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

Over a decade later, it is now difficult to recall the level of disunity and uncertainty in the United States preceding the Gulf War. After the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, President George Bush (41) declared, “this aggression shall not stand.” The country was not so sure.

It took Bush the entire six months from the invasion to the build up of forces in the Middle East to swing US public and world opinion behind him. The Democratic leadership argued strongly against armed invasion and wanted to rely only on sanctions to persuade Saddam Hussein to give up the land and oil wealth he had conquered. Then Senator Al Gore was one of the few Democratic Senators who sided with the Republican Administration. In the final Congressional vote authorizing military action, not a single member of the Congressional Democratic leadership supported George Bush.

The Democratic Party and much of the country were still in the lingering grip of the Vietnam syndrome: the extreme reluctance to employ military force and the belief that the United States could not not do so effectively. Robert McNamera, the Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, proved how it was possible to be extremely intelligent and radically wrong in two separate decades by testified before Congress that thousands of American soldiers would be lost in an armed conflict with Iraq.

It would have been possible for Senator George Mitchell, the Democratic leader in the Senate, with a 56 to 44 Democrat to Republican margin, to marshal the necessary 40 votes to prevent the authorizing legislation from ever reaching the Senate floor for an up or down vote. However, cooperation from the Democrats could not be purchased in the coin of appeals to patriotism. The Congressional leadership insisted on forcing Bush to jettison his “No New Taxes” pledge and agree to a tax increase. In exchange for acquiescence to Bush’s military effort against Iraq, the Democrats received a tax increase, the ability to rightly accuse Bush of breaking a campaign pledge, and the position to criticize Bush’s military actions if they failed. Bush won the Gulf War and then lost the election. A recession and the loss of Bush’s credibility due to the revocation of a pledge both contributed to the election defeat.

Republicans remember the smiling and soft-spoken George Mitchell who managed to politically corner a president without Democrats ever paying a political price for the lack of support for the war. They see reflections of Mitchell’s smile in the demure smirk of current Senate leader Tom Daschle and are determined to not make the same mistake the first George Bush made.

Senator Daschle thought he had President George Bush(43) in a politcal box. If there is no economic stimulus package and if the economy continues to worsen, Republicans would be blamed. The House passed a stimulus heavy in tax cuts. The Senate wants one heavier in spending and extension of unemployment benefits. Given the narrow majorities in both Congressional Houses, any stimulus package would have to be a compromise. Perhaps, over eager for a package, any package, so it would not seem that Republicans were insensitive to the economic situation, Republicans kept steadily moving toward the Democrats. This despite an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, that shows by a 50 to 43 percent margin, Americans preferred tax cut to extended benefits and increases in public works. Daschle, however, needed the issue and refused to compromise.

Bush managed to garner enough Democratic Senators to sign on to a compromise package acceptable to the House and the Senate. If Daschle permitted the package to be brought to the floor, it would pass in the Senate. In a desperate effort to keep a campaign issue, Daschle scuttled the stimulus package by not allowing a vote.

Perhaps the economy is picking up by itself. Given the rate reductions by the Federal Reserve and the drastic drop in energy prices, no stimulus will be needed. Nonetheless, Daschle is walking away from $30 billion of additional unemployment benefits and tax rebates for those who make less than $31,200 a year. But, it seems that it is more important to get Democrats elected in the 2002 Congressional elections.

The smile is still there, but the cat has disappeared.

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