Searching for a spine


WASHINGTON -- Democrats agonizing over finding their way back from their 2004 presidential defeat got a lesson in how not to do it in the Senate vote to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state.

Explaining why he would vote to confirm the former Bush national security adviser, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Democrat, quoted Samuel Johnson's observation that "a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience."

It was a rationale shared if not uttered by 31 other Senate Democrats who swallowed their dissatisfaction with Ms. Rice's role in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and its aftermath.

Mr. Biden and the others who voted for her confirmation also swallowed her repeated dodging and sidestepping before the committee, labeled in less diplomatic language as lies by some of the 12 Democrats who voted against her.

One of them, Sen. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, observed that while "I don't like impugning anyone's integrity ... I really don't like being lied to, repeatedly, flagrantly, intentionally."

A week earlier, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California had raised Republican hackles by sharply questioning Ms. Rice's honesty before the Foreign Relations Committee.

Ms. Boxer said that she feared Ms. Rice's loyalty to the president had "overwhelmed her respect for the truth," leading Ms. Rice to retort: "I really hope you will refrain from impugning my integrity."

Ms. Boxer later sent a fund-raising letter for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee defending her interrogation of Ms. Rice, an action seized upon by Ms. Rice's spokesman as proof of political motivation.

Ms. Boxer may have undiplomatically leaped ahead in her zeal to detour the Bush freight train. But her vote against Ms. Rice's confirmation, and those of the 11 other Democrats, were some of thefew tangible examples of Democrats' willingness to put their votes where their mouths have been on the war they profess to despise.

These Democrats were not willing, as Mr. Biden was, to put hope before experience in gambling on the course of Bush foreign policy under Ms. Rice.

If the Democrats are to regroup from the post-election wilderness to be a force again in Congress and at the ballot box, they first need to become a credible opposition voice. There was no place better to start than by voting against the confirmation of a chief architect of the Iraq folly that they profess to loathe.

At the outset of that fiasco, important Democrats such as John Kerry of Massachusetts, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Tom Harkin of Iowa tried to have it both ways by warning against any invasion without broad international support and then voting to authorize President Bush's near-unilateral use of force.

Mr. Kerry spent the 2004 campaign trying to explain away his ambivalence. Had he unqualifiedly made himself the Democratic voice against the war, he would have been in a much better position taking on Mr. Bush on the election's decisive issue.

As has often happened since before the Iraq war, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia made the hardest-hitting case against the Rice nomination and in defense of the constitutional right to debate it on the Senate floor. Other Democrats could do worse than to seek a backbone transplant from him.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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