Gulf war vote has Democrats on the defensive On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

March 13, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Washington--ARGUMENTS OVER patriotism make for ugly politics. That was true when candidate George Bush exploited the American flag in 1988 to suggest that Michael Dukakis was lacking in patriotism. And it is true today when such Republicans as Sen. Phil Gramm seek to exploit the vote so many Democrats cast against the war authorization resolution in January.

It is also true, moreover, when some Democrats counter with a reminder that Gramm and Rep. Newt Gingrich, another Republican leading the charge on the issue, avoided military service during the war in Vietnam. Draft deferments were made available as an expression of national policy, and the fact that someone took advantage of them shouldn't be used to suggest either a lack of patriotism or personal courage.

But American politics today is so driven by slogans, shorthand and sound bites that ugly politics is far more effective than thoughtful argument. That has never been more apparent than in the current controversy over that vote in January.

Nobody ever raises the patriotism issue explicitly, of course. Bush's complaint with Dukakis was that the Massachusetts governor had vetoed a bill that would have required teachers to lead their classes in the pledge of allegiance to the flag. Dukakis protested haplessly that he was acting on a legal opinion that the legislation would be unlawful, and Bush scoffed that it was a question of "judgment" and "values." But Bush was really making a case that this liberal Democrat wasn't sufficiently patriotic to be president. It played like gangbusters.

Similarly, the Gramms and Gingriches are braying today that this is not a question of patriotism but of the "judgment" of those who opposed the war resolution. But in a fund-raising letter written in his capacity as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Gramm attacked them as "appeasement-before-country liberals" -- a phrase that clearly goes beyond questions of judgment.

The problem for the Democrats is that the issue is too complex to be summarized in a slogan. Although the war in the Persian Gulf was a howling success, there were sound reasons to be concerned about the potential cost in casualties when the vote to continue the use of sanctions was taken -- reasons based on, among other things, the testimony of United States military leaders.

Moreover, the notion that the Democrats failed to support either the troops or the president or, as Gramm put it, "undercut" the president, was patent nonsense. If there has been any American politician who didn't support both Bush and the troops, it has been a well-kept secret.

But such arguments sound hollow today. Winners are automatically right because they have won, and heaven knows no one has won a bigger success than President Bush. The Democrats have little choice but to try to change the subject to something on which Bush has been less successful.

Chances are, nonetheless, that the patriotism issue, even if not called that, will be a major one in the 1992 campaign. The Republicans have made no bones about targeting senators who voted against the war resolution, including Wyche Fowler of Georgia, Terry Sanford of North Carolina and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina. And they are talking about recruiting veterans the Persian Gulf to run in House races.

There was, of course, a way the Democrats might have anticipated the political consequences and perhaps forestalled them. After failing to win approval for the resolution urging continued use of sanctions, they could simply have fallen in line behind the president and voted for the war authorization.

But the atmosphere here when those votes were taken two months ago was quite different from what it is today. There was no party position as such, and senators and congressmen made much of the fact that these were votes of conscience on which each individual felt obliged to deliver his best judgment.

In that climate voting for both resolutions might have seemed like the crudest kind of political positioning. But by failing to protect themselves, the Democrats are now the targets of partisan politics that is equally crude -- and, if the George Bush precedent is a reliable indicator -- extremely threatening to their survival.

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