By SHERYL McCARTHY
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
I saw a cartoon of Sen. Barbara Boxer in a newspaper the other day. In it her face and body were contorted with rage as she hovered like a wild animal over a ladylike Condoleezza Rice sitting at a desk.
Since their testy exchange during Rice's Senate confirmation hearings, Rice has been sworn in as secretary of state. Meanwhile Boxer, D-Calif., has been branded a crazed harridan who incites rage in Republicans and embarrasses Democrats.
On conservative blogs and TV shows she's been portrayed as obnoxious, babbling, a crybaby and a loud and threatening person -- even though she's a tiny woman -- for daring to ask Rice embarrassing questions. House Majority Leader Tom Delay called her the leader of the "X-Files wing" of the Democratic Party, and hardly any Democrats have stepped up to defend her.
Stunned by President Bush's victory, and perplexed by why more than half the nation's voters don't seem to like them, the Democrats have become frozen into timidity. Boxer's behavior, in contrast, shows how timid they've become. For a man who wasn't considered very smart when he was first elected, Bush has developed an amazingly Teflon presidency. He was helped by the events of 9/11 and by the fact that we're at war, but another reason the mistakes of his administration don't stick to him is that the Democrats are afraid to make noise.
Take the certification of the presidential election by Congress. There were as many irregularities in the Ohio voting as there were in Florida in 2000, but you wouldn't have known it if it weren't for Boxer. Granted, no one had the stomach for another long fight over a contested election and Bush won the popular vote, but the fact that a lot of Ohio voters -- most of them Democrats and people of color -- felt cheated deserved to be acknowledged. Officially contesting the Ohio vote required at least one senator, and only Boxer stepped up. For her effort, she was awarded with a cartoon of herself sitting in a toilet, stirring its contents with a plunger.
When Rice was nominated for secretary of state, there was no doubt she'd be confirmed. Republicans had the votes, and with her credentials, brains, charm, her compelling personal story, and the fact that she's a black woman, Rice also had that Teflon quality. This allowed her to get away with making gross misstatements in promoting the war with Iraq: the nuclear weapons Saddam Hussein was supposedly cooking up and could have ready in a year, that scary mushroom cloud.
At her confirmation hearings she deserved to be called on this. Yet when Boxer asked if she recognized the implications of what she did, given that people are still dying in Iraq, Boxer was treated as if she'd committed a major breach of etiquette.
Democrats are trying hard to appear conciliatory and may want to save their energy for more important battles, such as the Supreme Court. But they've become so timid that I wonder what they'd do if Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to be chief justice. Thomas is far less qualified for that job than Rice is for hers, and a fight would be in order. But would they be cowed by the race issue? Would they say he's already an arch conservative and already on the court, so it wouldn't change the numbers anyway? Would they shy away from asking the hard questions and from stating the obvious, because they don't want to make waves?
Let's hope they'd take their cue from Boxer.
X McCarthy is a Newsday columnist. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service