WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter, the incoming Republican national chairman, rushed in where angels fear to tread the other day when he chose to claim a partisan advantage for his party on the war in the Persian Gulf.
There is indeed going to be a partisan brouhaha over the war at some point. But anyone who starts it before the outcome is clear -- as Yeutter did in an appearance in Nebraska -- obviously is inviting political disaster. He would have been wiser to stick to corn and soybeans.
Referring to those who voted against the resolution giving President Bush immediate authority to wage war, Yeutter said: "I would guess that 90 percent of them now wish they had cast their votes the other way. They picked the wrong side. If the conflict goes well, that will work against them." Those votes, he ,, added, would be "a very significant factor" in the 1992 campaign.
The comments evoked some predictable clucking from those who had supported the resolution that would have required further use of economic sanctions before resorting to force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Sen. Bob Kerrey, whose constituents Yeutter was addressing, called the remarks "an attempt to politicize this war and to define victory in terms of electoral gain rather than policy achievements."
Speaker of the House Tom Foley called Yeutter's comments "a (( political scare tactic" and added: "If anybody's going to regret something, Clayton Yeutter may regret that remark."
But what made Yeutter's remarks so jarring was his failure to understand the context. For one thing, the debate over the competing resolutions in Congress had been distinguished by a pronounced lack of partisanship on either side.
For another, once the resolution giving the president authority to wage war had been passed, all but a few dissenters quickly fell into line behind Bush and the troops. As Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, another opponent of the resolution, puts it: "I made my position known, I made my rationale known and I lost. The president chose to go to war, and I give my full support to our men and women in the field. . . . At this moment, we are all Americans and we are under fire."
It is just such bipartisan support that Bush is counting upon in presenting a picture of national unity to both U.S. allies in the coalition and to Saddam Hussein. And it is just such bipartisanship that is holding together the popular consensus at home that reflects at least three-fourths of the voters solidly behind the president in the conduct of the war.
The anti-war protests are highly visible and sometimes highly vocal, but -- so far at least -- they are not a significant factor in starting a national debate over the policy.
None of this suggests there won't be such a debate later. But the nature of that debate obviously will depend on how the war in the gulf plays out. If Bush achieves a quick, complete and relatively painless success, arguments like the one Yeutter made the other day will be made by many Republicans against Democrats on the other side. That is as sure as death and taxes.
But there is probably at least an equal likelihood that the outcome will not be such a clear-cut success and that there will be a return to the question of whether longer reliance on sanctions might not have been more prudent. If there are heavy casualties, such a case will carry enormous weight.
The implication of Yeutter's comments was that, since the first five days of bombing Iraq went so well, those who had opposed starting the war already were wishing they had put themselves on the winning side at the outset. And the inevitable inference is that the new Republican chairman believes the debate was solely over partisan positioning rather than policy.
In the short run, all Yeutter may have done is enhance the credentials of Kerrey as a national figure by accusing the Nebraska Democrat of reflecting a "negative and depressed" attitude on the war.
Anyone who has been around politics awhile, as Yeutter has not, would see the folly in questioning the credentials of a man who won the Medal of Honor and sacrificed a leg in Vietnam.
But Yeutter also has opened, at least for a moment, a can of worms that President Bush probably would rather see unopened until it is clear how the war is going to play out.
Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's staff appear Monday through Friday.