Never Kick A Guy When He's Up

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., gestures during his speech to the Democratic National Committee at the party's winter meeting in Washington, Friday, Feb. 21. 2003.
In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch looks on as the Democratic presidential candidates hammer away at the nation's popular wartime president.

"Never kick a guy when he's up," Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist warned those are thinking about criticizing President Bush. "This is going to be George Bush's day for a while," he told the Washington Post. It was advice which was summarily ignored by all the Democratic presidential candidates this week.

The nine Democratic Presidential hopefuls avoided attacking Bush personally and steered clear of phrases like "regime change" but it was open season on the Bush domestic agenda in two forums held in Washington.

The Democrats bashed away at the president's tax cut and his economic and social programs hoping desperately that history would repeat itself and a big victory in war would be followed by defeat in the next election which would turn on domestic issues.

The first event was a meeting of the Building Trades Unions held in a cold dark room at the Washington Hilton, at a time when most of America was riveted on the TV pictures of the toppling of the statue of Saddam.

The Democratic doves, Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, who have centered their candidacies recently on opposition to the Iraq war, ignored the topic entirely in remarks to the socially-conservative union members.

Dean also avoided discussing abortion and civil unions, two of his key stump staples, but emphasized the fact the he thought the Democrats had gone too far on gun control. That's one of Dean's conservative issues and the former Vermont governor did more bobbing and weaving than straight talking at the meeting.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman took the occasion to gloat about his support of the war, but the lunch bucket crowd didn't seem overly impressed. The standing ovations during the session were reserved for proclamations of support for the Davis Bacon wage protections, universal health care, repealing NAFTA and enacting Dick Gephardt's international minimum wage.

If the morning was all meat and potatoes, the evening session was warm apple cobbler. The forum sponsored by Marian Wright Edelman's Children Defense Fund and organized by Democratic activist Donna Brazile featured all nine announced Democratic candidates on stage together for the first time.

This was the earliest joint appearance in recent primary history. But despite the predictions of fireworks, the forum, like CDF itself, was nice and bright. There was a video of kids talking about leadership and an opportunity for all the candidates, prodded by puffball questions, to articulate their commitment to the welfare of children.

The first question by moderator Judy Woodruff did force the candidates to talk about their positions on Iraq –- whether they wanted to or not. Again Senator Lieberman preened about his commitment to the war and this audience (of about 2,500 health-care providers and social workers) didn't seem all that impressed either. They seemed more empathic with his sheepish admission that he didn't serve in the military and his hope that his work on the Armed Services Committee in the Senate had compensated for it.

Neither the campaigns nor the atmospherics encouraged the candidates to "distinguish" themselves from each other, although when John Kerry was asked directly what made him unique, he came up with his Vietnam service (and his later opposition to the war — remember this was a liberal crowd) and his "blowing the whistle" on Ollie North.

The overwhelming impression by the end of the two-hour forum the was the similarity of the candidates on domestic issues and their eagerness to attack President Bush's tax cut and domestic agenda.

Sen. Bob Graham, appearing with the others for the first time still wearing his Florida tie (it doesn't come off until he officially announces later this month when he switches to a patriotic motif), boasted that he was the only senator running tried to kill all of President Bush's tax cuts. Sen. John Edwards wanted all know that he'd pay for all his ambitious programs -- including college for all -- with the money saved from the tax cut. Dick Gephardt bemoaned the loss of the surplus under Bush.

The odd juxtaposition of these forums on domestic issues with the overwhelming events in Baghdad didn't seem to phase either the candidates or the audiences. The large number of candidates and the intensity of the Democratic campaign at this stage stands in stark contrast to the political landscape at this point in 1991 when Democrats assumed that President Bush was unbeatable.

One wonders whether this crowd is fighting the last race or, if, as Joe Lieberman said, this President Bush can be defeated too. Lieberman said to the roar of the crowd that he knows it can be done, because he and Al Gore did it in 2000.

By Dotty Lynch