WASHINGTON -- The political message in the willingness of so many Democrats to support further use of sanctions in the Persian Gulf over an immediate military attack is that the Democrats may have finally shaken off their self-consciousness on questions of national defense.
The situations are by no means comparable, but there is a distinct contrast between the Democratic response this time and that -- to cite the most obvious example -- when President Reagan invaded Grenada in 1983. Democrats then, with only a handful of liberal exceptions, were too intimidated by their image as "soft" on military matters to raise objections to an exercise that many of them now agree was a disgrace.
The Democrats have been burdened with this perception ever )) since they nominated George McGovern for president in 1972. He was an anti-war candidate leading an anti-war party committed to reducing defense spending and reordering national priorities away from preoccupation with the threat from the Soviet Union.
The soft-on-defense issue did not destroy McGovern, but it clearly played a part in the dimensions of his defeat.
The same perception, moreover, dogged a succession of Democratic presidential candidates -- Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale against Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis against George Bush in 1988. Indeed, the one issue that seriously split the Democrats during the intraparty contest for the 1988 nomination was the charge by Sen. Albert Gore Jr. that his rivals were advocating weakness by such things as their opposition to aid for the contras in Nicaragua and to protecting ships in the Persian Gulf.
But now Democrats -- including such obvious possible presidential candidates in 1992 as House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and Sen. Sam Nunn -- felt free to take a position that in other times could have come back to haunt them.
The new freedom these Democrats feel is first and foremost a function of the difference in the context. The end of the Cold War and the de facto collapse of the military threat from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1989 has made the issue of "standing up to communism" essentially moot. The Democratic demands for diversion of more resources away from the Pentagon to domestic concerns, including the budget deficit, now are impossible to dismiss as weakness. Even the Republicans weren't quarreling with huge cuts in the defense budget envisioned before the gulf crisis arose.
Beyond that, the Democrats' call for more reliance on sanctions could hardly be interpreted as weakness. The language they supported was just as adamant as President Bush has been in the attitude it expressed toward Saddam Hussein. The difference was one of strategy and approach rather than goals. The critical factor was the call for prudence.
As Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell phrased it, "This is not a debate about American objectives in the current crisis. There is broad agreement in the Senate that Iraq must fully and unconditionally withdraw its forces from Kuwait. The issue is how best to achieve that goal . . . It may become necessary to use force to expel Iraq from Kuwait, but because war is such a grave undertaking, with such serious consequences, we must make certain that war is employed only as a last resort."
It is impossible to predict now how the controversy over approach will play out politically in the next campaign. If Bush launches an attack that is successful without a high cost in casualties, Democrats who argued for delay may be accused of having been incorrect in their judgment and almost certainly will be accused of having lacked the requisite backbone. But the evidence is strong that most Americans are not willing to pay a high price in the lives of young people and they are not likely to mistake wisdom and prudence for weakness.
When President Reagan invaded Grenada, he seemed to touch some exposed nerve in the American psyche. The breast-beating satisfaction with that military "triumph" was all out of proportion to its intrinsic significance, perhaps because Americans generally were feeling they had been pushed around once too often and wanted the pleasure of striking back.
But the Persian Gulf is not Grenada, and the Democrats are no longer spooked by the fear they will be seen as too soft.