Basking in the gulf war's warm afterglow On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

March 08, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Washington

IF THE DEMOCRATS had any doubts that President Bush, formerly derogated as a wimp, has become an 800-pound political gorilla and intends to make the most of it, those doubts surely were dispelled by his Persian Gulf victory speech to Congress.

From the uproarious reception he received entering and leaving the House from flag-bearing fellow Republicans to the gracious nonpartisan Jack W.Germond &JulesWitcoverwelcome from House Speaker Tom Foley, the president's appearance was a clear sign of things to come in the months and weeks ahead as American troops return home from the war zone.

While Bush reported that he had ordered Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to start the first American servicemen homeward ** even as he spoke, there will be no rush to put the gulf war success behind the country. In calling in the speech for "every community in this country to make this coming Fourth of July a day of special celebration for our returning troops," Bush is making sure at the same time that the afterglow lasts at least until then -- nearly four months from now. That nationwide display of flags and yellow ribbons itself is likely to have an afterglow of its own for weeks thereafter.

In the meantime, Bush reportedly is considering going to Kuwait personally for Easter, and towns across the country with local men and women returning certainly are not going to wait for the Fourth of July to turn out the marching bands for heroes' welcomes. This is particularly so because Americans have had a long time waiting for substantial grounds to proclaim the old American pride and patriotism in military success.

Ever since the ignominious flight by helicopter from the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975, the Vietnam experience had hung like a bad dream over American self-confidence in the U.S. military. By comparison to the scope and effectiveness of U.S. might in the gulf war, the earlier Bush invasion of Panama and the Ronald Reagan invasion of Grenada were mere fireworks displays, although not, to be sure, to those who fought in them and in some cases gave their lives. Whether Iraq was or wasn't, as advertised before the war started, "the world's fourth largest fighting force," it was no Grenada either, especially with its own Great Satan Saddam to raise American temperatures and anger.

Bush in his speech did not, as have fellow Republicans Sen. Phil Gramm and House Minority Newt Gingrich, seek overtly to cast the prosecution of the war -- and failure to vote for use of force in the first place -- in partisan terms. He can afford to take the high road, while these hatchet men slither along the low road for partisan ends.

While the president did specifically proclaim that with the war over, "we must bring the same sense of self-discipline, that same sense of urgency, to the way we meet challenges here at home," he said it should be applied to an already stated domestic agenda that is hardly a comparable challenge to the national will.

That agenda was dismissed as old hat and a collection of rehashed half measures by the Democratic leadership when he presented it in January, and despite his challenge to Congress to pass his crime and transportation proposals in 100 days, the Democrats can be expected to move on their own fronts.

Just as Bush understandably would like to keep the nation's attention on his foreign-policy success with a strung-out afterglow, the Democrats want desperately to switch that focus to domestic needs they argue Bush continues to neglect. As they look forlornly toward next year's presidential contest against this new 800-pound gorilla without an openly declared candidate (George McGovern is still considering), their best hope is to seize the domestic battleground. But the Republicans can be counted on to press once again the argument that Democrats believe the only way to solve problems at home is to throw taxpayers' money at them, an argument that has stood them in good stead in recent years.

The outlook, therefore, between now and that promised Fourth of July super-celebration of flags, yellow ribbons and peans to the leadership brilliance of George Bush is for more of the same legislative wrangling of Bush's first two years. Democrats, no matter how intimidated by his military success, can hardly afford to swallow a Bush domestic agenda that they believe is their one remaining legitimate political target if they are to have any hope at all of making a presidential race of it in 1992.

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