Democrats close ranks around commander in chief - for now

March 24, 2003|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The overwhelming congressional support voted for President Bush on the war - by 392-11 in the House and 99-0 in the Senate - is a measure of the recognition that once American forces go into combat, Congress has no alternative but to close ranks behind them, and him.

But the debates that ensued over the wording of the latest war resolutions revealed continuing strong doubts, especially among Democrats, about Mr. Bush's political wisdom and justification in launching the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq without international solidarity.

In both the House and Senate, Democrats niggled over the language of the resolutions to make certain they put equal or greater emphasis on support for the troops fighting the war as on backing of the president.

The wording of the Senate resolution, which "commends and supports the efforts and leadership of the President, as Commander in Chief," implies a distinction between the constitutional hat Mr. Bush wears as head of the American military and the one he wears in his role as the nation's, and his party's, political leader.

So does the House resolution, which expresses "unequivocal support and appreciation of the nation to the President as Commander in Chief for his leadership and decisive action in the conduct of the military operation in Iraq as part of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism." In fact, many Democrats continue to question whether the president ever made a persuasive case for a link between Iraq and the war on terrorism.

Nevertheless, it is Mr. Bush's role now as commander in chief that dominates the public dialogue, overshadowing any questions about his performance as the politician in chief. Of the 11 House members who voted against the resolution supporting him as boss of the war, nearly all were members of the Black Caucus, who are seldom with him on anything.

The furthest the two most outspoken congressional war opponents, Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Republican Ron Paul of Texas, would go in protest was to vote "present," thereby not taking issue with the part of the resolution commending the troops.

As Congress moves on to the critical matter of appropriating necessary funds to equip and safeguard those Americans in combat, the president in his commander-in-chief hat has a commanding hand. Democrats may continue to complain about his holding back, for political reasons, estimates of the huge costs involved, but their gripes won't impede the flow of money for the war.

The onset of the war has already caused great political uncertainty for the small army of 2004 Democratic presidential candidates, both those who support Mr. Bush's invasion and those who don't. Any criticism by them of Bush the politician risks being interpreted by voters as criticism of Bush the commander in chief.

The two strongest war hawks, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, obviously have the most to gain by a swift victory in the field. That expected outcome would not only put them on the winning side as certified patriots, it would also free them, without much concern about voter backlash, to take issue with Mr. Bush on domestic issues.

All of the other more critical Democratic presidential aspirants, however, are going to have a difficult time getting voters to see President Bush as wearing any headgear other than his commander-in-chief cap. By November 2004, events may restore his persona as a politician, as happened to his war-victorious father in 1992.

But once again, barring any military setback, the Democrats, as in November's congressional elections, are faced with needing to change the subject from war to domestic concerns if they hope to make political headway in cutting the larger-than-life commander in chief down to size. They failed then; the outlook now is no better.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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