A `grim reminder' of war's high cost

August 05, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - President Bush, at the start of his month-long vacation in Texas, called the deaths of 21 Marines in Iraq in two days from a single Ohio Reserve unit a "grim reminder" that we're in a war.

It certainly was that, and one that most Americans did not need, even though the president has done little to put the nation on a war footing by asking them to make sacrifices at home.

Except for the families of America's fighting men and women in Iraq, many of them from similar Reserve and National Guard units whose family fabric has been torn apart by repeated call-ups, life at home is going on largely unimpaired.

Congress has gone off on its summer vacation after having engaged in a late spending spree of nearly $300 billion to pay for energy, highway and other bills in excess of Mr. Bush's budget requests.

Even as American deaths in Iraq have passed 1,800 and Mr. Bush's favorable poll ratings are stuck in the low 40s, the public largely remains curiously complaisant. Protests are muted, visible mostly on the Internet and not in the streets.

What the war opposition clearly has lacked has been an effective and credible political figure, especially in the Democratic Party, to stir this strange complacency. Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts have beaten the drums against the war, but each also carries political baggage that limits his impact on public fence-sitters.

Yet in the Buckeye State, especially tormented this week by the human cost of the war, a special congressional election in the Republican stronghold of southwest Ohio has yielded some evidence that what's happening in Iraq may be having tangible negative ramifications for Mr. Bush and his party. A pointedly anti-war, anti-Bush Democratic candidate and Marine Reserve veteran of Iraq, Paul Hackett, came within about 3,500 votes of upsetting the Republican candidate, Jean Schmidt, for a House seat in a district held solidly by the GOP for two decades and carried by the president by 64 percent in 2004.

Mr. Hackett was not a casual critic of Mr. Bush. He called Mr. Bush's dare to Iraqi insurgents to "bring it on" the "stupidest" remark he had ever heard from a president. That observation led Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which oversees and helps finance GOP House races, to declare that the party would "bury" Mr. Hackett.

Despite having more than $300,000 in TV advertising against him on the final weekend of the campaign, Mr. Hackett came surprisingly close to winning. With the counterpart Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee failing to match that outlay, anti-war bloggers moved in to help Mr. Hackett via Internet fundraising.

Special elections customarily do not draw large turnouts and are not always reliable indications of trends that will affect later general elections. But the vote in this Republican stronghold in the Cincinnati area, in which the popularity of the president was made a central issue by the nature of Mr. Hackett's direct and bitter denunciation and the local Republican defense, clearly was a warning message to the administration.

In the last days of the Vietnam War three decades ago, successes and near-successes of anti-war, anti-Lyndon Johnson candidates in similar special House elections signaled trouble for the Democratic administration in the off-year elections of 1966. With private citizen Richard M. Nixon campaigning aggressively for Republican candidates around the country and taking advantage of public revulsion to young, long-haired street protesters and marchers against the war, the Republicans picked up 47 House, three Senate and eight gubernatorial seats.

In the absence of similar street turmoil, the GOP could escape such a setback in the 2006 off-year campaign. Much may depend on how many more "grim reminders" occur to bring home the cost of the war in Iraq.

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

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