Watching the "debate" on the floor of the House of Representatives 10 days ago over a resolution to withdraw our troops from Iraq, I couldn't believe my eyes or my ears. There, in full juvenile mode, were the people's representatives, engaged in screaming matches and threatening body language that were enough to make even Jerry Springer cringe. I know I did.

Just beneath the surface of this fracas, though, lay a larger political problem for both parties. In a time of war and deep uncertainty in the world, the American people are looking for leadership, sound judgment and bipartisan consensus; instead they're getting infantile behavior in the guise of national debate. So it's no surprise that they're losing faith in their elected officials. While this is worrisome for the Democrats, it could prove disastrous for my party -- the GOP.

I saw nothing wrong with my fellow Republicans coming to the defense of President Bush and the administration's rationale for the war in Iraq after Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, an early Democratic supporter of the war, called for pulling out U.S. troops within six months. But the behavior of some GOP members, and the personal invective they hurled at Murtha, gave me pause and caused me -- and many other Republicans I know -- to worry about what's becoming of our party and where it's headed.

For Republicans, all the intense, newfound focus on Iraq that the Democrats and some in the media are avidly promoting is coupled with a sharp rise in partisanship and both real and politically motivated ethics problems in the GOP (I consider the questions facing former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to be mostly politically motivated, while those surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Rob Ney are very troublesome). And it raises a critical set of questions: "Who are we, what have we become, and what do we, as a party, stand for?"

For while it takes two parties to govern -- or embarrass themselves -- it is the Republicans who control the White House and the Congress and thus have the greater burden to lead. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we seem to have lost vision, belief in our platform and a commitment to higher ethics.

Since 1994, when Newt Gingrich led the revolution that gave us our first House majority in 40 years, Republicans have sold the American people on the premise that we are the party of national defense, character, morality and ethics. But that premise is getting tougher to defend with each passing day. Whether it's valid or hyped, nonstop news about the problems of former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby, about the administration cooking the intelligence books on Iraq, about GOP ties to "Big Oil" and a host of other damaging stories has caused a perception problem that's going to have a direct impact on the reelection chances of Republicans in 2006 and 2008. For GOP "leaders" to deny this is to deny the obvious.

Over the last two years, I've lost count of how many Republicans have said to me, "We have become what we defeated. Arrogance and a sense of entitlement now permeate much of our party."

An example of that arrogance was Rep. Ernest Istook's recent "punishment" of 21 fellow Republicans who dared to ignore his warnings and voted to support funding for Amtrak, an entity that Istook despises. As chairman of the House subcommittee on transportation, treasury and independent agencies, the Oklahoma Republican took it upon himself to single-handedly eliminate or drastically reduce money in an omnibus bill that was destined for these members' districts. In other words, in order to teach GOP lawmakers who would defy his grand edicts a "lesson," Istook chose to punish their constituents.

Little wonder that no one seems more disillusioned than the party's conservative wing. Many conservatives feel that the people they helped elect to positions of power in Washington have betrayed them many times over. I have spoken with strict conservatives, both here in Washington and in other parts of the nation, both inside government and out, who wonder out loud why Republicans aren't pushing harder to secure our borders against the influx of illegal immigrants and possible terrorists. They wonder why Republican legislators inserted massive amounts of pork into the transportation bill the House passed this session. They wonder why Republican leaders remained mostly silent when Cunningham, who hails from California, sold his home for a greatly inflated price to a defense contractor who had business before his committee.

In the end, too many have said to me that while they would never vote for a Democrat in next year's midterm elections, they simply won't vote, period. Time and future Republican actions will tell whether a measurable number of conservatives really will sit out the 2006 and even the 2008 elections. I suspect not, but the GOP leadership has uncounted miles of fence to mend, and not a great deal of time to accomplish the task.

In the meantime, the Democrats smell blood, and some, led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and his House counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, are going to obstruct and blame as long as possible. While that is a tried and true strategy, it could prove to be a suicidal tactic.

Both parties seem to be making the inexcusable mistake of not giving the American people enough -- or any -- credit. But voters are on to the game. After 9/11, the voters have little patience for inside-the-Beltway antics, the politics of destruction or the shirking of responsibility. How angry will they be when they learn that each party seems to believe that its greatest strength going into the midterm elections is the complete ineptitude of the other? Some Democrats seem to think that even if they are intellectually bankrupt on Iraq and other issues, it's better not to offer any ideas or solutions while the GOP is self-destructing.

If that's their strategy, then there's still a possibility for Republican redemption. We can still govern, and we still have time to do the right things -- chiefly, not waver on Iraq. But is the Republican Party truly prepared to "stay the course" as we approach the elections? GOP members need to stand shoulder to shoulder with the president in this increasingly unpopular but necessary war, and not put finger to wind and decide that self-preservation comes first.

I strongly disagree with Pennsylvania Rep. Murtha and his desire to bring American forces home soon. That would prove disastrous for Iraq, and ultimately harmful to the interests of the United States. While I don't know Murtha, I do know George W. Bush a bit. I got to know him on his father's campaign in 1988, where I served as a writer. On occasion, I worked out of young George's office, and I had a number of serious conversations with him. What they told me then, and what his actions tell me now, is that he is an incredibly decent man of strong character. No matter the revisionist history now swirling about him, he believes he took our nation into Iraq for the right reasons. But with the clock ticking and support for the war in Iraq waning, can he convince Congress, his own party and the American people of that?

He must first reinforce this conviction within his own party. As the Democrats and some in the media pound him on his "failed" Iraq policy, more and more GOP members of Congress are being questioned by their constituents back home. These questions, combined with the president's somewhat media-manufactured (in my view) low poll numbers, are causing some members not only to rethink their position on the war, but even to question whether they want Bush to appear with them when they campaign for re-election.

If these Republicans abandon the president because of their own worries, then the damage to the nation and to the Republican Party will be incalculable. We will have squandered any chance of democracy in Iraq, and potentially large parts of the Middle East. This is something that many Americans -- and more Republicans -- will not soon forget.

Instead of turning Congress into a sandbox, leaders of both parties should demand serious and extended debate over the war. While there is clearly no support, even among Democrats, for Murtha's call to bring the troops home, there is also very clearly no coherent strategy for the future of the war coming out of Congress. Many members still refuse to be held accountable for their votes on it.

Enough with the name-calling, charges and counter-charges. Forget how we got there and focus on how we can and must prevail. The least that members of Congress and the administration can give our troops is a dignified and serious reflection on why they have put our soldiers in harm's way. Both parties are in trouble at the moment. And Republicans have the most to lose.

Author's e-mail:

dmackinnon@sandw.com

Douglas MacKinnon was press secretary to former Senator Bob Dole. He is also a former White House and Pentagon official, and an author.