The Democratic retreat on Sept. 11

First came harsh Democratic attacks on the president for the handling of intelligence in the months before Sept. 11. Then, the following day, came the angry response from the president and those close to him in the administration. And then, on the Sunday talk shows, there was a decided softening of the Democratic attacks.

The next morning I was at the Monitor breakfast, where Democratic activist James Carville followed his party's line of retreat.

Mr. Carville was telling us that no Democrat really had blamed the president for letting the public down on Sept. 11. He hadn't heard any such words, and he challenged the assembled journalists to cite words that specifically accused the president.

Nobody spoke up – because maybe there weren't specific words of accusation. But certainly Sen. Hillary Clinton came close to blaming Bush when, on the Senate floor, she spoke of the "questions being raised by constituents" because of the New York Post headline, "Bush Knew."

"The president knew what?" she asked. "My constituents would like to know the answer to that and many other questions...." Here she said she wasn't blaming the president, just asking questions.

But if this wasn't blame it was in that direction. It was clearly saying the president must explain his actions relating to Sept. 11.

But the president's angry reply, seconded on a number of talk shows by the vice president, caused Bush's attackers to change their tune – particularly since the public had quickly (according to polls) come to the president's side. When George W. assured Americans he had done all he could with the intelligence at hand, two things happened: (1) The public, already strongly behind him, jumped to his side, and (2) this same public turned with anger on his accusers.

By the time Carville arrived at breakfast, the Democrats had felt the heat from people who were incensed that their president, whom they trusted, had suffered such an attack in time of war.

Now the Democrats' position was: "We're not pointing at the president; but let's simply have an investigation into why that tragedy happened, why our intelligence apparatus failed us."

Carville was following this line of retreat when he told us that he was merely advocating a congressional inquiry into how US intelligence performed before Sept. 11.

But within days after the breakfast some Democrats were stiffening their positions – not pointing the finger at Bush but advocating that an independent commission be set up to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks. Indeed, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle said he would bring legislation before the Senate soon to create such a commission.

The Republicans have agreed that an inquiry was in order, but only by a congressional committee. Vice President Cheney would apply one caveat, that much of these congressional hearings would have to take place behind closed doors.

The Republicans are already embattled against the Democratic move to set up an independent commission. They see it as a political maneuver by the Democrats to form a committee that might well rekindle the focus on the president by not only questioning why US intelligence was inadequate but by going on to ask of the president: "What did he know and when did he know it?"

Will this Democratic plan go forward?

Here I can only add that it has been brought to my attention that two well-informed political writers have dug up this information: that Democratic strategists are telling top Democrats that the party can't win a political fight with the popular President Bush on the terrorism issue and that they should turn the debate back to domestic issues.

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