GOP again plays the patriotism card

November 26, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Any small doubt that the Bush re-election team would equate criticism of the war in Iraq with a lack of patriotism has been erased by the Republican National Committee's television ad running in Iowa.

The ad, which says "some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists," is a crude distortion of the Democratic candidates' criticism. The nub of their charge is that rather than focusing on the war on terrorism, President Bush has diverted attention with his invasion of Iraq.

Most of the Democrats argue that the nation's resources should have been directed first to the unfinished business of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden and wiping out his al-Qaida perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In response to the RNC ad, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark heatedly observed: "I'm not critical of President Bush because he's attacking terrorists. I'm critical of the president because he is not attacking terrorists. Not only was this war unnecessary, it distracted us from the war on terrorism."

Earlier, on a Sunday television talk show, Mr. Clark said the ad suggested that the Democratic candidates were "somehow aiding the enemy" and thus violated "the pledge the president made not to exploit 9/11 for political purposes." In a debate in Des Moines on Monday, Mr. Clark charged that Mr. Bush was "trying to strip us of our patriotism."

The ad in question also charged that "some call for us to retreat, putting our national security in the hands of others." Two of the longest shots for the Democratic nomination, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and the Rev. Al Sharpton, have called for the United Nations to take over the Iraq effort. But the rest say the United States cannot simply pull out amid the existing chaos.

The ad takes the same general lack-of-patriotism tack as the GOP assault on Democratic critics in the 2002 congressional elections, when it charged them with being unpatriotic for opposing the bill creating the new Department of Homeland Security.

The Democrats based their opposition on grounds the bill's provisions undermined job security protections for federal employees to be transferred to it. Ironically, it was the Democrats who proposed the creation of the new department, an idea at first dismissed by Mr. Bush.

The Republican ad has brought swift responses in television ads from the Democratic side. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who supported the Bush war resolution but has been sharply critical of Mr. Bush's handling of the aftermath of the invasion, is running an ad in Iowa, site of the first Democratic precinct caucuses Jan. 19, that says, "America's united against terror." In the Des Moines debate, Mr. Kerry charged that Mr. Bush was "trying to silence debate, and we're not going to be silenced."

Another responding ad in Iowa, by former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, says Mr. Bush "misled the nation about weapons of mass destruction, and we went to war when we shouldn't have. Howard Dean is committed to fighting terrorism and protecting our national security."

Collectively, however, because the Democratic candidates as a group are split on whether the invasion of Iraq should have taken place at all, their criticism of the president who launched it risks coming across as muddied.

What unity they have now is in their agreement that the president should have allowed more time to corral specific U.N. Security Council sanction for the invasion and should now yield a greater political role to the United Nations in the security and reconstruction of Iraq.

The Democratic split is manifested in the intramural criticism being heard in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. Dr. Dean, in a tight race there with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who also voted for the Bush war resolution, charged: "Faced with the toughest decision of his career, Dick Gephardt took the easy way out at the expense of our country and our party."

Such internal disagreements make it more difficult for the Democrats to focus on, and counter, the misleading Republican allegation that they are "attacking the president for attacking the terrorists." But wrapping oneself in the flag to combat criticism and dissent mocks real patriotism, and we are likely to see much more of it in the presidential re-election campaign ahead.

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

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