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Mary McGrory

Mistaken Patriots

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, October 17, 2002; Page A21

Are Democrats making a major effort to reduce voter turnout in the coming election? Or are they just trying to fight free of the trap they diligently fashioned for themselves on the subject of war with Iraq? By their conduct on the issue in the recent congressional debate, they seemed eager to show there was no difference between them and the Republicans -- a strategy that guarantees voters will ask themselves, when it comes to digging out on a cold November morning, "Why bother?"

By way of preparing for the election, Democrats decided to get the war issue "out of the way." By overwhelmingly backing President Bush's desire to blow the bugle without the blessing of the United Nations, they ensured that the commander in chief will be at center stage. The papers throb with accounts of his minions moving troops and launching training exercises as if war had been declared.

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Sheepish Democrats continue to show the electorate that when it comes to the fateful business of sending young Americans into battle, they are at one with the Republicans. They turned aside the known skepticism of the uniformed military. They were undeterred by the newly enunciated doctrine of "preventive war," which all previous presidents have rejected. While they declared in their floor speeches that they were uncertain of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein, their votes said they were mindful of the danger to themselves and they were taking no chances.

Candidates around the country were on their own in trying to make judgments about the right thing to do. The debate won't help them much.

The votes in both houses of Congress for the new Tonkin Gulf resolution are still being studied for surprises and contradictions, particularly by liberals, who, according to The Post's Thomas Edsall, are outraged by the absence of strong convictions on the part of their leaders. Senate Democrats are quick to blame House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, who has wraparound ambitions -- to be either president or House speaker.

They say a coalition of moderates from both parties, who wanted U.N. approval of any use of force, fell apart when Gephardt emerged as Bush's chief lobbyist on the Hill. Republicans said they didn't want to be "to the left of Gephardt," and the coalition collapsed.

The whole slate of Democratic presidential hopefuls lined up for the president's right to make war unilaterally. Of them all, Sen. John Kerry had a unique foreign policy perch. A decorated war veteran who also came home and led a brilliant demonstration to end the war, he delivered a sophisticated critique of the botched hunt for Osama bin Laden. But he joined the gang voting for the president -- such notable peaceniks as Tom Harkin, Chris Dodd and Tom Daschle -- not to mention Hillary Clinton.

The majority leader hated to do it, but in the end he threw in the towel to show the world the country is "unified" on the issue.

The country is ambivalent. On the one hand it is all for a short, sharp replay of Gulf War I that would be relatively casualty-free.

But bring up body bags and they recoil. Polls show that the country would rather have the president protect it from the wolf at the door -- layoffs, market collapses and the like -- than from the beast of Baghdad, who might nuke us if he got the right stuff.

Teddy Kennedy made daily speeches against going to war. He and Robert C. Byrd, long ago rivals, did their best, but Kennedy couldn't even convince his son in the House, Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, that he should give peace a chance. Rhode Island did, however, offer the Senate's only Republican profile in courage: Lincoln Chafee, faithful to his father's legendary independence, voted no.

The Democrats hope that with the war issue "settled" they can drag voters' attention back to the economy, which can be criticized without fear of their being called unpatriotic. Bush brushes them off. You don't like my tax cuts? Okay, you want to rescind them? No, of course not, the Democrats protest.

Pollster Peter Hart thinks the economy doesn't need much rhetoric. The ravages are all around and brought home in people's reports about their 401(k)s. And people can recall the Clinton boom to be reminded of how different things can be.

At the height of the debate, House Whip Nancy Pelosi implored Democrats to remember that while a show of force in Iraq would surely demonstrate U.S. power, negotiation and diplomacy would show our strength. Her colleagues were not listening.

Democrats know exactly how they feel about prescription drugs and the privatization of Social Security, but when it comes to war and peace, people dying and all that, they really have no comment.

They just salute the commander if chief and hope voters mistake them for patriots.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company