Tom Daschle, the former Democratic senator from South Dakota, remembers the exchange vividly.
The time was September 2002. The place was the White House, at a meeting in which President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney pressed congressional leaders for a quick vote on a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq.
But Daschle, who as Senate majority leader controlled the chamber’s schedule, recalled recently that he asked Bush to delay the vote until after the impending midterm election.
“I asked directly if we could delay this so we could depoliticize it. I said: ‘Mr. President, I know this is urgent, but why the rush? Why do we have to do this now?’ He looked at Cheney and he looked at me, and there was a half-smile on his face. And he said: ‘We just have to do this now.’ ”
Daschle’s account, which White House officials said they could not confirm or deny, highlights a crucial factor that has drawn little attention amid rising controversy over the congressional vote that authorized the war in Iraq. The recent partisan dispute has focused almost entirely on the intelligence information legislators had as they cast their votes. But the debate may have been shaped as much by when Congress voted as by what it knew.
Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, did not call for a vote authorizing the Persian Gulf War until after the 1990 midterm election. But the vote paving the way for the second war with Iraq came in mid-October of 2002 -- at the height of an election campaign in which Republicans were systematically portraying Democrats as weak on national security.
Few candidates sparred over the war resolution itself. But Republicans in states including Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota and Georgia strafed Democratic senators seeking reelection who had supported military spending cutbacks in the 1990s, accepted money from a liberal arms-control group, opposed Bush’s preferred approach for organizing the new Department of Homeland Security, and voted in 1991 against the Persian Gulf War.
With national security then such a flashpoint in so many campaigns, many Democrats believe, the vote’s timing enormously increased pressure on their party’s wavering senators to back the president, whose approval rating approached 70% at the time.
“There was a sense I had from the very beginning that this was in part politically motivated, and they were going to maximize the timing to affect those who were having some doubt about this right before the election,” Daschle said.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett denied that charge, saying the vote’s timing represented a desire to increase pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, not Democrats.
“The president, during the run-up to the war, went out of his way not to make it political,” Bartlett said.
Whatever the motivation for the vote’s timing, the effect was to produce a clear contrast between the Democratic senators who sought reelection that November and those who did not.
The Democrats not on the ballot split almost evenly, with 19 supporting the war resolution and 17 opposing it. Among those facing the voters, 10 voted for the resolution while only four opposed it. And of those four, only one -- Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who died in a plane crash a few weeks after the resolution vote -- was in a seriously competitive race.
“The political currents were extraordinarily strong for everybody involved,” said Jim Jordan, then executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “I’m certainly not implying that Democrats had their finger to the wind and didn’t make votes of conscience, but it was a piece of the puzzle, clearly.”
It is, of course, impossible to say whether more Democrats would have opposed the war resolution -- which passed the Senate 77 to 23 on Oct. 11, just hours after the House approved it 296 to 133 -- if the vote had occurred after the 2002 election.
Daschle, who voted for the resolution and was not up for reelection that year, said he did not think so, “given the circumstances, the environment, the sense that we were responding to 9/11, and all of the urgency that was created by the rhetoric and cajoling of the administration.”
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said recently that a delay might have prompted more Democrats to vote no by increasing the time available to study the evidence for war and by dissipating the political pressures surrounding the decision.
“There was a stampede to vote on this,” Kennedy said. “A lot of our people got caught up in it.”
Bartlett said that if some Democrats felt “like they would have made a different decision before the election or after, that doesn’t speak very well of them, because the facts didn’t change in the course of one month.”
Democrats themselves were divided over the vote’s timing. Kennedy, Wellstone and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) were among those who passionately urged Daschle to defer the vote until after the election, said several sources who requested anonymity when discussing the party’s internal debate.
The sources said that other Democratic senators supported Bush’s push, in part because the senators believed an early vote might help the party shift attention to domestic issues it wanted to spotlight before election day. Democrats also felt more pressure to act because they recognized that the GOP-controlled House would agree to Bush’s request on the vote’s timing.
Against this backdrop, Republicans across the country were escalating attacks on their Democratic opponents on defense issues.
Starting in mid-September, for instance, then-Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) issued statements and organized news conferences by veterans to criticize Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson for voting against the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
On Oct. 4, one week before the Senate vote, Thune released an ad that used images of Hussein and terrorist leader Osama bin Laden to criticize Johnson for voting against missile defense systems.
In Minnesota beginning in mid-September, Republican Norm Coleman organized retired military officials to hold news conferences charging that Wellstone “didn’t just vote to devastate our defense; he voted to dismantle it.” In late September, the National Republican Senatorial Committee ran ads attacking Wellstone over votes to reduce military spending.
The committee ran similar ads against Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) one week before the vote.
Although he did not criticize Democrats over Iraq, Bush stoked the overall security debate during a series of appearances between Sept. 23 and Oct. 4. He criticized Senate Democrats who were blocking the administration’s preferred version of legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security because, they said, it gave the president too much freedom to suspend workers’ civil service protections.
“The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people,” Bush said in New Jersey.
Bush’s comments reverberated most powerfully in the Senate race in Georgia, where Saxby Chambliss, then a Republican House member, began criticizing incumbent Democrat Max Cleland over the Homeland Security issue.
Less than a day after the Senate authorized the use of force in Iraq, Chambliss aired what became the most talked-about ad of the 2002 election: a sharply worded jab that used pictures of Hussein and Bin Laden to accuse Cleland of voting “against the president’s vital Homeland Security efforts.”
Cleland, Johnson and Harkin were among the Democrats who voted for the war resolution; Wellstone voted no.
Less than a month later, Johnson and Harkin were reelected, Cleland was defeated and Coleman beat former Vice President Walter F. Mondale for Wellstone’s seat after the senator’s death. Overall, Republicans widened their majority in the House and swept back into control of the Senate.