NEW REPUBLICAN national chairman Clayton Yeutter gave it as his opinion the other day that the war with Iraq was going to be a major political issue in 1992, and that the Democrats, most of whom voted against the resolution authorizing the president to use military force, were going to find themselves to have chosen the wrong side. Leading Democrats were indignant that Mr. Yeutter should seek to make a partisan issue out of what had been a solemn expression of individual conscience. Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska was articulate and eloquent in response: "Mr. Yeutter is right that we will all be held accountable for our decisions. However, he is wrong to assume I regret my vote. I do not. It was a difficult vote, and the difficulty was born of the caution acquired from my own experiences in the Vietnam war. ... The fact that Mr. Yeutter thinks Democrats and Republicans made up our minds on the Gulf according to some political calculus says more about his approach to foreign policy than ours."

Mr. Yeutter asked for it. For starters, he was clumsy and heavy-handed. To his credit, he is not a convincing gut-fighter, and, anyway, in terms even of the most cynical Republican self-interest, it is too early for this sort of thing since the president is still trying to build and solidify support for the war. Another Republican, Sen. Phil Gramm, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sent out a fund-raising letter even as Mr. Yeutter was speaking, that illustrates the kind of truly cheap politics both parties should be avoiding, asking for contributions to defeat "these appeasement-before-country liberals." Whereas Mr. Yeutter is a repentant amateur at this sort of thing, Sen. Gramm is an unrepentant pro. But war is a terrible business, and those who try to exploit it for political or any other reasons mock the sacrifices they invoke. So do those who, knowing better, try to twist the argument over using force into a question of patriotism; that is a precipice both parties ought to fear.

But there is and will be a legitimate, non-dirty political issue here and that is the point: it should not be misused or cheapened. No decision is more fateful than to go to war, and surely the pitfalls of discussing it do not preclude discussion forever. It is absolutely true that at some point all the participants, from the president through every member of Congress who voted for as well as against the resolution empowering him, will be held accountable for their positions on the war. In a democracy they should be.

If the war goes well, Republicans will say the policy was right and proof their party is the one to be entrusted with the nation's highest offices. And if the war should go badly -- if in the end it seems to a large part of the population that it cost more than it won -- will the Democrats not use that point against the president, say he led the nation recklessly into loss of life and treasure and/or influence when sanctions would have done the better job? Of course, they will. The decisions of conscience on both sides of the issue taken in the past several weeks have not been political in the sleazy sense of expedient or self-serving, but they have been utterly political in that each participant assumes responsibility for his action and its outcome and these are a valid basis for electoral judgments. We expect the public is, as so often is the case, ahead of the politicians in being able to tell the difference between discussing these matters seriously and distorting and exploiting them for quick partisan gain.