YANKTON, S.D. – Democrats should not fear criticizing a popular president's unpopular war, according to George McGovern (search), who lost the 1972 presidential election campaigning on an anti-war theme.
McGovern, a three-term U.S. senator from South Dakota, said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (search) faces the same criticism on Iraq this year that he faced in 1972.
Democrats cannot let themselves be painted as weak or unpatriotic for questioning President Bush and the Iraq war, McGovern said. Such criticism is the highest form of patriotism, he said.
"There is such a need for truth-telling in U.S. politics. This president, out of ignorance or out of some other form of (misguidance), has led the nation into this mess in Iraq," McGovern said.
"I was asked, 'Don't you support the troops, George?' I said, 'Damn right, I do. That's why I want to send them home."'
McGovern spoke Saturday to 450 people during a McGovern Day dinner at Yankton.
On March 17, 2003, right before the war in Iraq, Daschle said the Bush administration had "failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war."
His election opponent, Republican John Thune, said in a debate on "Meet The Press" earlier this month that Daschle's remark "emboldened the enemy."
McGovern said questioning Daschle's patriotism is unfounded. He said both he and Daschle have served in the military as well as in public service.
Daschle also addressed the crowd, turning to a U.S. flag and holding up its corner to the audience.
"They question our patriotism, but that flag belongs to the Democratic Party as much as it belongs to the Republicans," he said.
On Monday, Dick Wadhams, Thune's campaign manager, said no one has questioned Daschle's patriotism. "That's a red herring," he said.
What was has been strongly criticized was Daschle's March 2003 remarks "on the eve of war attacking the commander in chief," Wadhams said in an interview. "This was just another example of Tom Daschle crying 'victim.'
"He practially broke down and cried on 'Meet The Press.' This act is getting pretty tiresome."
Daschle said he has seen pressing domestic needs as he travels the state. South Dakotans are holding down several jobs without benefits, particularly health insurance, he said.
"In Aberdeen, I met two people who said they were chronic gamblers. They said, 'We are gambling with our lives and betting on the lives of our children every single day that we don't have health insurance,"' Daschle said. "How long will it be in this country before we have the same universal health coverage of every other industrialized country? It's time we have it in America."
Wadhams said Daschle is "in the hip pocket of trial lawyers" and won't support medical liability reform. "No one has done more to undermine access to health care than Tom Daschle," he said.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said it's an understatement to say that McGovern built the South Dakota Democratic Party.
"When McGovern took on state (party) leadership, it was all grass roots," Johnson said. "Of 105 state legislators, only three were Democrats. Today, South Dakota has sent three Democrats to the U.S. Congress. It shows what a difference George McGovern has made."