Richard Reeves

Your Political Parties in Peace and War

WASHINGTON -- I have a friend who obviously does not like the idea of George W. Bush as president. "Every time he speaks," she said the other day, "I have the feeling that if he says just one more sentence, he will finally reveal what a dope he is."

I do not think my leader is a dope. An ignorant zealot perhaps, but not a fool. Then last Monday he did tack on that extra sentence. Speaking in Trenton, N.J., the president said that he needed a congressional resolution for the war on Iraq and he needed it now. "The House has responded," he said, praising the members of the Republican-controlled body of Congress.

He could have stopped there, but he didn't. "But the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people."

The Senate, of course, is controlled by what used to be called the loyal opposition -- now, said the president, they are disloyal, serving those special interests. One "interest," which he did not mention, is organized labor. The president does not want the federal employees shifted into his new Department of Homeland Security to have the right to join unions.

It was a mistake, Bush must now know, to have attacked Democrats in the Senate that way, particularly since many of them did what he avoided, that is, fight in a war for their country. The leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Tom Daschle, no veteran, demanded a White House apology in the name of Sen. Daniel Inoyue of Hawaii, a Democrat who lost and arm and won a Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II.

The president's mistake was an honest one -- and a revealing one. You don't have to be around this town long to know that Republicans see themselves as more patriotic than Democrats. The president was a cheerleader at Yale and he still is, a real flag-waver, like many other members of both parties. He does, however, have a problem remembering when he should be uniting the country and when he should be dividing it.

"Not interested in the security of the American people" is a line that will live in infamy. Apologies are a joke in American politics -- "If I offended anyone, I am truly yada, yada, yada" -- but this time Daschle was right. The president, probably inadvertently, crossed the line in putting Democrats in the same category as Saddam Hussein or German voters in the you're-either-for-us-or-against-us recesses of his mind and heart.

That does not absolve the Democrats of blame in the twisted war debate going on here. Patriotism is not the Democrats' problem. Political cowardice is.

Bush and the Republicans are having their way with the Democrats, both in the House and Senate, because the conventional wisdom, backed up by conventional polling data, is that members will lose votes this November if they are seen as insensitive to the White House's pressing need to destroy Saddam Hussein before he ... well, we have not been told convincingly by either side why invading Iraq now should be the government's overriding priority.

But whatever is really going on out there, there is political danger for the ducking Democrats. It was amazing to see how heartened members were when their onetime leader, former Vice President Al Gore, stood up in San Francisco and actually questioned whether the White House knew what it was doing and whether it had considered the possible consequences, intended and unintended, if we charge into the Middle East. Those Democrats, and some Republicans, too, were thrilled that somebody had actually questioned whether the emperor was wearing any clothes these days. But all that is being said in private.

We seem to be stumbling into war, rushing to the dark at the end of the tunnel -- and it is hard to see anybody with a lantern to stand up and make the president explain, in only a few sentences, why taking this bend in the tunnel is so urgent. Why, someone might ask, is this more important than the war on terrorism or domestic economic problems?

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