Not very hidden agendas

October 04, 2002

STANDING BESIDE President Bush in the Rose Garden on Wednesday as part of a center-right coalition backing a U.S. war in Iraq, House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt must have realized his presence sent a political signal both powerful and jarring.

With Mr. Gephardt on board, whatever prospect there had been for resisting or significantly delaying Mr. Bush's drive for war was gone. Many Democrats, who had shared the trenches with the generally liberal Mr. Gephardt, assumed that his departure from them now must have something to do with his possible bid for the White House in 2004.

Mr. Gephardt felt compelled to protest that the debate over war and peace "should not be about politics" but rather "what is right for the security of the nation."

But, of course, the Iraq debate is all about politics. Coming on the eve of an intensely waged congressional election - and with many of the key players harboring White House ambitions - how could it not be?

For Americans trying to make up their own minds on the Iraq question, it's important to understand there is a subtext underlying much of what their national leaders are saying. Their words can't always be taken at face value.

For example, how much of President Bush's campaign against Iraq is driven by a desire to divert attention from the stumbling economy and the mixed success so far of his war on terrorism?

Is Mr. Gephardt, who now says he made a mistake in opposing the Persian Gulf war resolution in 1990, trying to fashion a more hawkish image now in the event he decides to challenge Mr. Bush's re-election bid?

Is it just a coincidence that also with Mr. Bush in the Rose Garden were other once and perhaps future White House hopefuls, Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain?

What of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who took the president sharply to task last week for politicizing the war? Does he now need to at least change a few commas in the deal struck by Mr. Bush and Mr. Gephardt so he can claim victory?

Then there's Al Gore. After nearly two years of silence following his defeat to Mr. Bush, the former vice president made two major policy speeches, attacking Mr. Bush last week on Iraq and this week on the economy. Not much question what he's up to.

Meanwhile, two guys who can't be faulted for currying political favor are the anti-war Democratic congressmen, David Bonior of Michigan and Jim McDermott of Washington, who criticized Mr. Bush from Baghdad. They probably cost their party votes.

As Congress approaches a vote as early as next week on the war resolution, Americans are trying to wade through the political cacophony to find an argument that rings true - whether it's self-serving to those who make it or not. Their leaders have a responsibility to give them that much.

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