A century ago the American satirist, Will Rogers, was asked about his politics. He said "I belong to no organised political party. I am a Democrat". Nothing much has changed. As I watch the likeable Senate Majority leader, Tom Daschle, who holds a position akin to Leader of the Opposition to President Bush, trying to herd the Democratic cats over Iraq, I'm sure he'd like a bit more collegial spirit from them. Daschle wanted to secure changes to the White House resolution so that it upheld United Nations principles. And he wanted it through Congress as soon as possible. But as Daschle tried, two House of Representatives Democrats were just back from Iraq where they pushed Saddam Hussein's line. Other Democrats were scribbling a variety of amendments to Daschle's proposed resolution, while Al Gore, the Democrats' last presidential standard bearer, tortuously argued against the Bush doctrine, but had no credible line of his own. Then the Democratic senator from New Jersey suddenly quit his race for re-election, and on the very day when Daschle needed support from his congressional colleagues, the House Democratic Minority Leader, Richard Gephardt, and former Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, appeared at a press conference with Bush, pledging their support of the President's resolution, not those being worked on by Daschle's colleagues.
Like the Labour parties in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and the Social Democrats in Germany, the American Democratic Party has many minds of its own. Counter culture parties of the centre-left have always been thus; the urge for change produces more acrimonious debate than defence of the status quo. Strong, popular leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Norman Kirk, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Helen Clark appear infrequently, and for the rest of the time the centre-left's children play games without much thought for their collective welfare. To be out of power when there's a war in the offing only makes things more difficult. Hard heads, realists and dreamers have difficulty coalescing at the best of times. Without office there are no diversions Tom Daschle can engineer, let alone offers of preferment to those troubled by talk of war. I well recall Labour's unease before the 1966 election when young activists like me endeavoured - with only partial success - to convince Norman Kirk that we should unequivocally oppose involvement in Vietnam and withdraw our few troops at the earliest opportunity. War stirs all kinds of primitive reactions from those in the public who are gungho. Support it or oppose it: everyone can be a crusader.
What makes the Democrats' current position so difficult is that the party is - to use Jesse Jackson's term - a patchwork quilt. Black Americans are devout Democrats, but they tend to be against intervention in Iraq; some show sympathy for the Palestinians' plight. White Democrats are more mixed in their views: southerners are keener on war than northerners. Polls show that Hispanics - Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Dominicans and Central and South Americans - are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. Numerically, compared with forty years ago when I was at graduate school, Hispanics are politically significant. But there is no cohesion among them, nor a clear attitude to war. Besides, less than 50% have registered to vote.
Set against this, however, a major new poll by the New York Times shows that a majority of Republicans and even more Democrats feel that the President isn't spending enough time on the economy. With the sliding economy come fears about job losses plus a sense - ill-founded I suspect - that war will be bad for recovery. But constant war talk pushes such concerns into second place. Bush and his co-religionists at the White House always believed talk of war would prevail, and the President while asking that Americans speak with "one voice" on Iraq, has constantly lambasted the Democratic Party even though a majority of democrats is on his side.
Pity poor Tom Daschle. While he worked hard to achieve a more moderate resolution on the war, he knew he'd lost, and that many of his colleagues would vote with the President. Amongst those Democrats who were always on Bush's side are several presidential hopefuls, Daschle's rivals, such as the promising new face, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. While Daschle tried hard over the congressional resolution, he made himself roundly detested by extreme Republicans. Such is the dislike being whipped up against him by fanatics that recently a congressional candidate transposed a photo of him so that he had his left hand on his chest during the Pledge of Allegiance. Underneath it was the caption "Daschle shows his true colours". Frankly, I've never seen anything quite like the present war fever amongst Republicans. I suspect the mood they are engendering will carry them on election day, but I'd love to be proved wrong.
Michael Bassett is currently Fulbright Professor of American History at Georgetown University, Washington, DC.