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Democratic Leaders 'Betray' Hackett

By Robert Parry
February 15, 2006

The ultimate goal in politics should be to do both what’s right and what’s smart, what’s honorable and what works with voters. In the American context, that could be telling a hard truth instead of pandering or standing for principle at a time of fear – and thus inspiring the public.

In recent years, however, what’s right and what’s smart have rarely made joint appearances on the stage of U.S. politics.

The Republicans have built their national dominance – controlling the White House, Congress, the courts and much of the news media – by doing what’s politically smart but rarely what’s right for a healthy democracy.

For instance, White House political adviser Karl Rove has exploited the Sept. 11 terror attacks to marginalize the Democrats as people unconcerned about the security of the American people. Those tactics may be terribly wrong – because they divide the nation – but they certainly work.

The Democrats are even more galling. They seem zeroed in on both doing what’s wrong and what’s stupid. The latest example is the party leadership’s “success” in driving Iraq War veteran Paul Hackett out of the Ohio Senate race apparently because he speaks his mind too much and takes the fight directly to the Republicans.

Instead, Democratic Senate leaders, hoping to win in Ohio by default because of Republican disarray, opted for an establishment Democrat, Sherrod Brown, a seven-term congressman who has raised $2.37 million, tenfold more money than outsider Hackett.

But by settling on a business-as-usual strategy, Democratic leaders offended the idealism – and fighting spirit – of their base and may have ultimately hurt their chances for victory in November, a lose-lose strategy that has become all too familiar for Democrats.

Iraq Veteran

Hackett, who returned from Iraq angry at George W. Bush for risking the lives of U.S. soldiers over the hyped threat from Saddam Hussein, ran a strong but losing race in 2005 for a House seat in an overwhelmingly Republican district in southern Ohio.

That performance made Hackett immensely popular with rank-and-file Democrats and prompted Democratic leaders to encourage him to undertake an uphill fight to unseat Republican Sen. Mike DeWine.

Over the past several months, however, the Ohio Republican Party has suffered a series of damaging scandals, making DeWine an endangered incumbent. Meanwhile, Hackett has offended Republicans – and some non-Republicans – by talking bluntly.

Earlier this year, Hackett came under criticism for saying that the Republican Party had been hijacked by religious extremists who “aren’t a whole lot different than Osama bin Laden.” Instead of apologizing, Hackett declared, “I said it. I meant it. I stand behind it.”

Suddenly, the state and national Democratic leaders were changing their calculations, favoring a more traditional and experienced Democrat, someone like Rep. Brown, a longtime fixture in Ohio politics.

So, according to Hackett, for the past two weeks, party leaders, including Senators Harry Reid and Charles Schumer, have urged him to drop out and run instead for a House seat, an option that Hackett had previously forsworn.

While agreeing to withdraw from the Senate contest on Feb. 13, Hackett said he would not go back on his word to other Democrats about not running for the House seat.

“This is an extremely disappointing decision that I feel has been forced on me,” Hackett said. “For me, this is a second betrayal. First, my government misused and mismanaged the military in Iraq, and now my own party is afraid to support candidates like me.” [NYT, Feb. 14, 2006]

The Hackett fiasco upset rank-and-file Democrats trying to recruit Iraq War veterans to challenge Republicans. “Now is a time for Democrats to be courting, not blocking, veterans who want to run,” complained Mike Lyon, executive director for the Band of Brothers, a group urging veterans to run as Democrats.

Lose-Lose

The Democratic base also is fuming. It has long despised the consultant-driven Democratic hierarchy in Washington, which is seen as putting political machinations ahead of principle – and still managing to lose.

Many of these Democrats blame this cozy community of Washington pollsters, strategists and ad consultants for the “triangulation” strategies that have failed to give the Democrats control of Congress since 1994. This timidity also has been blamed for Bush taking the White House in 2000 and 2004.

For instance, during Campaign 2004, national Democratic operatives were so spooked by Republican charges that the Democratic convention would become a “Bush hate-fest” that the organizers started censoring critical comments about Bush out of many speeches.

The convention’s keynote address, delivered by then-Senate hopeful Barack Obama, didn’t even mention Bush’s name or give any reason for ousting him. The mild-mannered convention ended up giving Democratic nominee John Kerry a zero bounce.

By contrast, the Republicans held a convention that bashed Kerry at every opportunity – with GOP operatives even passing out “Purple Heart” band-aids to mock Kerry’s Vietnam War wounds. Disgruntled Democratic Sen. Zell Miller excoriated Kerry in the Republican keynote address – and Bush opened up a double-digit advantage.

Bush’s lead eroded only after he stumbled through the first two presidential debates. Kerry, with his strong debate performances, took the momentum and appeared headed for victory. But his consultants again intervened, urging caution and convincing Kerry to pull his punches in the third debate.

In that pivotal last debate, Kerry once more looked like the indecisive figure who had failed to impress the voters over the summer. Down the campaign stretch, Kerry seemed to be coasting, rather than driving for a clear-cut win. He gave Bush a chance to regain his political balance and pull almost even.

On Election Day, amid widespread complaints of voting irregularities, Bush wrested the White House again from the Democrats. Though Kerry had vowed to make sure every vote was counted, he listened to his advisers who urged him to concede the day after the election, dooming hopes for a meaningful recount in the pivotal state of Ohio.

New Divisions

The divisions between the Democratic base and the Democratic leadership have widened again in 2006 as Senate Democrats fought only a half-hearted battle against Bush’s Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito.

The base saw Alito’s radical theories of the “unitary executive” as tipping the court balance toward a majority in favor of an all-powerful President and thus endangering civil liberties and the Founders’ concept of checks and balances. But the Democratic leadership feared the political fallout of an all-out fight to block Alito’s confirmation.

Though the Democrats had enough anti-Alito votes (42) to sustain a filibuster, Senate Minority Leader Reid refused to invoke party discipline and 19 Democrats joined with the Republicans in closing off debate, thus ensuring Alito’s confirmation. Many in the Democratic base were livid.

Now, the rank-and-file Democrats see the party hierarchy adopting the same old “safe” strategies that have failed to restore the party to the majority. Ahead in the latest opinion polls and counting on the Republicans to self-destruct, congressional Democrats are seeking out establishment Democrats who can raise big bucks and avoid controversy.

Political analyst Jennifer Duffy told the New York Times that Hackett’s bluntness – while loved by the Democratic base – made the Democratic leaders nervous.

“Hackett is seen by many as a straight talker, and he became an icon of the liberal bloggers because he says exactly what they have wished they would hear from a politician,” Duffy said. “On the other hand, the Senate is still an exclusive club, and the party expects a certain level of decorum that Hackett has not always shown.”

But many rank-and-file Democrats see something besides decorum at stake. Some conclude that the national Democratic leaders are addicted to losing, content as long as the party holds some seats and the consultants get shares of the campaign ad buys.

Some angry Democrats compare the party’s performance to an exhibition basketball game between the razzle-dazzle Harlem Globetrotters and the slow-footed Washington Generals. While the Globetrotters (or Republicans) need an opponent in order to have a game, the Generals (or Democrats) aren’t supposed to win.

The Generals stand around looking befuddled as the Globetrotters make fancy passes and dribble behind their backs and between their legs. It wouldn’t do for the Generals to start jumping into the passing lanes and stuffing shots into the faces of the Globetrotter stars.

The problem for the Democratic leaders is that the Democratic base has grown tired of watching these exhibition games with their predictable outcomes. Many grassroots Democrats actually believe the Bush administration has put the fate of the democratic Republic in jeopardy and that decisive action is needed.

To them, it’s not a game anymore. They don’t want politics as usual. They want the Democratic Party to compete to win. They want leaders who understand that they can do what’s right and what’s smart.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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