Daschle: More right than he knew.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 26 2002 5:10 PM

Daschle Was More Right Than He Knew About Bush

Demagogy about government reorganization is worse than demagogy about war.

On Sept. 5, at a Republican fund-raiser, President Bush declared that the Democratically controlled Senate is "not interested in the security of the American people." Bush repeated the slur in a Sept. 23 speech in Trenton, N.J. Not surprisingly, this comment infuriated Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who on Sept. 25 gave a speech denouncing Bush for politicizing the debate about whether to go to war with Iraq. "We ought not politicize this war," Daschle said. "We ought not politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death." To do so, Daschle said, was "outrageous."

When the matter was brought up later that day at a White House press briefing, Ari Fleischer explained,

The President's remarks were not about the war in Iraq. The President's remarks were about homeland security. Again, I think when you take a look at what was said, it was put into a context which did not match what the President said.

Fleischer was correct. Bush had been attacking the Senate not for dragging its feet on war with Iraq, but rather, for dragging its feet on his proposed reorganization of various federal offices into a Department of Homeland Security. But that doesn't make what Bush said better. Rather, it makes what Bush said worse.

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Let's consider the relative stakes. The question of whether to go to war with Iraq is a matter of life and death. Those who support the war believe innocent lives will be lost if the United States doesn't wrestle chemical and biological weapons out of Saddam's hands, and especially if the United States doesn't prevent Iraq from acquiring a nuclear warhead. Those who oppose the war believe innocent lives will be lost in the conduct of the war itself—those of U.S. soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and others if U.S. actions spark a wider war in the Middle East—and that the political and military mayhem all this creates will help al-Qaida regroup and perhaps engage in further terrorism on U.S. soil. It isn't necessary to rehash the arguments on both sides to recognize that this debate taps into deep feelings and can provoke emotional outbursts. We'd probably all prefer that the president of the United States kept his cool when discussing the stakes prior to the congressional midterm election. But if he didn't, we could chalk it up to their urgency.

Not even George W. Bush, though, can seriously maintain that the success of his war on terrorism depends on how and whether to redraw the government's organization chart. This is a political fight, turning largely on the question of whether to extend civil service protections to the new department's employees. If it affects the nation's security at all, it will be only at the extreme margins. As it happens, Chatterbox thinks Bush is more right than the Democratic Senate about the bureaucratic constraints that continued civil-service protections are likely to impose. Bush is even right to argue that the Senate is allowing itself to be influenced on this matter by special interests—in this case, powerful government unions. But for Bush to say that this disagreement about a fairly abstruse personnel question shows that the Democrats don't care about U.S. security really is, to use Daschle's word, "outrageous." If Bush can't maintain a sense of proportion about the little stuff, what hope is there that he can maintain a sense of proportion about the big stuff?

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.