WASHINGTON -- The Democrats came not to bury President Bush, but to honor him.
And so, with their Republican colleagues, they prepared yesterday for the president's victory speech before a joint session of Congress, an honor extended to Mr. Bush by the very Democratic leaders who had opposed the use of allied force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's legions.
"I think this Congress feels one of the great things about the military success in the Persian Gulf is the sense of unity and purpose it has brought to the nation and the total absence of a sort of deep partisan bickering over the achievement they want to celebrate," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash. "That is in fact why the Democratic leadership is inviting the Republican president tonight, to help celebrate that."
Not all Democratic members of the 102nd Congress were as sportingly overjoyed at the prospect. Only a year ago, Mr. Bush appeared on the ropes politically, his domestic policies under fire from conservatives within his own party and from liberals in the opposition. Democrats nursed furtive hopes that they might field a presidential challenger to unseat Mr. Bush.
Such dreams have gone up in smoke like so many Iraqi tanks. "It's set anybody's presidential plans way, way back," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Delaware. "Six months at least."
In the mean time, Democrats have been left to tend their political wounds, plan for battles yet to come on a variety of domestic-policy fronts and guard against Republican attempts to turn Mr. Bush's triumph into electoral gold.
"You bet we're going to use it," promised House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia. "I think it means something to people when you tell them that a Republican president manages to direct half a million troops to the greatest military victory of all time while the last Democratic president couldn't get seven helicopters across the desert."
Mr. Gingrich was referring to Jimmy Carter's failed attempt in 1980 to rescue U.S. Embassy personnel held hostage in Iran. Many Democrats express concerns that Republicans will not have to reach that far into history to mine votes from the past month's events.
"I keep saying to myself, 'Remember Clement Atlee, Remember Clement Atlee,' " said a prominent House Democrat, referring to the British prime minister who unseated Winston Churchill after the redoubtable World War II leader held out victoriously against Nazi Germany. "Then a voice comes to me and says, 'Those pills are making you hallucinate again.' "
Nevertheless, Democrats are going to lengths to try to pre-empt GOP strikes against them -- and, Republicans contend, are launching partisan strikes of their own.
Yesterday, for example, Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., one of a minority of Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force against Iraqi troops, took to the floor of the Senate to lambaste "Republican partisanship" that plays "politics with American lives."
"Shame on these Republicans . . . for the disservice they do to the brave American soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country," he said. "Was their blood shed so Republicans would have something to talk about in campaign commercials?"
Those accusations raised temperatures among some Republicans, who ruefully noted the Democrats' own barbs -- including opposition complaints about the fact Mr. Bush invited Syria, Israel's mortal enemy, into the alliance against Iraq.
"They can't say, 'Well, it's a matter of conscience -- nobody dare raise it,' when you've got [Senate Majority Leader George] Mitchell down there speaking to a Jewish audience saying how terrible it is they let Syria in the coalition -- taking cheap shots at the president," grumbled Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas.
"The Democrats should be thankful they didn't win. No saying where Saddam Hussein would be now," he continued. "Probably [would] have taken Saudi Arabia by now, marching toward Jerusalem. And that's just for starters."