WASHINGTON -- Speaking to a meeting of liberal Democratic activists the other day, Sen. Paul Simon said that support for American troops serving in the Persian Gulf "does not mean silence should replace discourse" on the issues raised by the war. Shortly thereafter, freshman Sen. Paul Wellstone told the same group that, although he, too, supports the troops, he will "continue to raise questions about the policy."
In fact, however, neither Simon nor Wellstone -- nor any speaker at the meeting other than Jesse Jackson -- was willing to revive right now the debate over the wisdom of the decision President Bush made when he launched the war against Saddam Hussein.
The liberals may say that discourse should not be stifled, but for those who favored a longer test of sanctions against Iraq there is no way to return to that argument in the foreseeable future -- and perhaps not until the war has been seen to its conclusion. The likelihood is too great of being painted as "undermining" young Americans who have been put in harm's way. The questions that could be raised would be seen as, at best, academic if not downright subversive.
What this means in practical terms is that political leaders who might be expected to lead a peace movement are hamstrung. They can argue about who should pay the costs of the war or whether resources should be diverted from pressing domestic needs or how much should be spent on weapons in the future. But there is no political room for argument right now about whether it was a monumental mistake for the United States to have begun the war at all.
The one political leader who seems insulated from these pressures is Jackson, who feels free to call on Bush to "stop the bombing and start the talking" and to take a prominent role in street demonstrations.
But Jackson is a special case. His position as a "shadow senator" doesn't require him to cast votes or make decisions that have any meaning. His constituency is overwhelming made up of blacks who are predominately opposed to the war and who have never wavered in their support for him because of the extremism of his positions.
The Democrats also are pushed into a corner somewhat by fault lines within their own party. Although most Democrats in both the Senate and House favored the resolution calling for more extended use of sanctions, that view is not universal.
Big city Democratic mayors, for example, are caught in a swirl of crossing currents. Their constituencies include many Eastern European ethnics who strongly support the war but also many blacks who tend to oppose it. The politicians feel pressure to give voice to the fervor of those who support the Bush policy -- but also a pressure to demand that the costs of the war not be used as an excuse not to confront the problems of education, health care and homelessness.
The attitude of American Jews also is a touchy question for the Democrats. This was apparent at the meeting of the Coalition for Democratic Values at which Simon and Wellstone appeared when Hyman Bookbinder, a longtime leader of the American Jewish Committee, rose from the audience. He feared, Bookbinder said, that expressions of doubts about the original policy would make people lose sight of the fact that "we're involved in a just war which must be won." The muttering that diluted the applause that greeted Bookbinder made it clear that TC the concern for Israel is a point on which not all the liberal activists -- or, for that matter, all Jewish Democrats -- are certain .. to agree.
The result of all this is that the Democrats recognize there is likely to be a searing national debate over the war in the Persian Gulf once it is over or, if it goes on too long, even before it is over. The Republicans already have signaled that they intend to make an issue of the votes that were cast for the continued use of sanctions, and they have begun compiling dossiers on the votes potential Democratic candidates have cast against different weapons systems in the past. And the same issues may well arise in the contest for the Democratic nomination in 1992.
How soon that debate opens is anyone's guess. But the one thing that is clear is that even the Democrats most unhappy with the decision to attack Saddam Hussein must tread lightly right now. There is not a lot of room for dissent these days.
Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's staff appear Monday through Friday.