This week's surge of partisan squabbling over national security policy in Washington is due in part to frustration among some Democratic leaders that the possibility of war with Iraq has likely become the top concern of voters as crucial midterm elections draw near.
Democrats have long thought that for them to maintain control of the Senate and win back the House, voters would have to be most worried about economic issues particularly corporate malfeasance and the falling stock market.
But in political terms, guns now appear to have trumped butter, as the Bush administration's push for a resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq has dominated the congressional agenda at a key moment in the fall campaign. Coverage of the drums of war fills the media, day after day.
If nothing else, the outburst of vitriol could slow progress toward a war approval vote perhaps jeopardizing, in turn, the Bush administration's push to reach a consensus in the UN Security Council on the course of Iraq policy. And it has exposed a split in the Democratic Party itself, with some rank-and-file members frustrated that there hasn't been more criticism of what they see as a rush to confront Saddam Hussein.
"I guess [the squabbling] was predictable," says Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "The election is approaching, tensions are rising, and the issues are difficult."
The round of argument began with a speech by 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in San Francisco earlier this week, in which he charged that the Bush administration had politicized the Iraq debate by pushing for a war resolution vote prior to the November elections.
Then Wednesday the normally restrained Senate majority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, launched into a dais-thumping floor speech in which he demanded an apology from President Bush for words that Mr. Daschle felt questioned the patriotism of some Democrats.
On Monday, in a speech in Trenton New Jersey, Mr. Bush had complained that differences over labor regulations were stalling Senate work on a bill establishing the new homeland security department.
"The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people," said Bush.
Daschle's complaint was followed by a round of rejoinders from Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and others, sending the whole issue into a tit-for-tat swirl.
The president's language in his Trenton speech was indeed "a little loose," judges Mr. Hamilton, himself a former chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. But whether the words constituted an over-the-top slur is debatable.
And astute professional politicians such as Daschle should arguably be wary of engaging in, and then prolonging, such a flammable argument. In Washington, as a general rule, "if you get into the motivations of your adversary, it almost invariably gets you nowhere," says Hamilton.
In part Daschle may simply be reflecting his own party's general angst. In midsummer it appeared as if the fall election debate might break the Democrats' way, as the implosion of Enron, WorldCom, and other corporations was followed by pictures of executives led away in handcuffs. Furthermore the stock market suffered triple-digit losses by the day.
The stock market remains in a slump, but it doesn't dominate headlines. The onrushing confrontation with Iraq has replaced it, especially since Bush's speech to the UN challenging the world body to make President Hussein comply with past resolutions.
Polls generally show that worry over Iraq has risen sharply in the nation as a whole, and in some surveys the issue of war and peace has replaced the economy as voters' top concern.
The latest round of argument "is Democrats expressing their deep frustration over their inability to get any traction against the administration with [the political issues of] the falling stock market and sinking economy and depleted 401(k)s," says Marshall Wittmann, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
Mr. Gore's speech may also have sparked an internal Democratic Party debate that Daschle felt compelled to join.
Some prominent party leaders, such as House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, have taken hawkish stances toward a possible Iraq intervention. In the Senate, the Democratic leadership was moving quickly toward a tough war resolution partly to get the vote over with as soon as possible.
Yet internal party surveys show at least one-third of Democratic lawmakers in Congress as opposed to war in Iraq, and this faction has felt it is being muzzled. Many Democratic activists who will be key players in the 2004 presidential primary process feel likewise.
"The Democrats are in a very awkward position because the leadership seems to want to take the issue off the table ... [and] the Democratic grass roots clearly doesn't feel that way," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.