Flag Issue Breaks Along Party Lines

Many Democrats back an amendment but worry GOP will wave it at them in next campaign. CONSTITUTION AND OLD GLORY

WILL Republicans turn flag-burning into a partisan issue? The lines are being drawn, even though President Bush says a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning ``transcends politics and partisanship.''

Democrats fret that Bush will link them with flag-burners, just as he tied Democrat Michael Dukakis with opposition to the Pledge of Allegiance. Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts once vetoed a pledge bill, and during the last presidential campaign Bush never let him forget it.

Virtually every Republican has quickly mustered behind the President on the flag-burning issue. They are demanding an amendment to outlaw desecration of the Stars and Stripes.

Democrats generally agree. But some important Democrats, including Joseph Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, argue that an amendment is not needed. Instead, Mr. Biden would prohibit flag-burning with a carefully-crafted bill that tries to skirt the constitutional problems in previous flag-burning laws.

Yet Democrats are concerned. This is one of those emotional, hot-button issues that can quickly scorch a lawmaker. Many legislators, even those who have doubts, just throw up their hands and go along with the political current.

At the same time, some voices of dissent are being heard - though they are a minority. The dissent comes from the left, right, and center of the political spectrum. Often they see Bush's stance on flag-burning as political posturing; but their greatest concern is that for the first time, Bush would put a limitation on First Amendment rights into the wording of the Constitution.

Richard Pildes, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, notes: ``We have never before had an amendment which would limit political speech when directed at who our leaders should be, and what their politics should be.''

The Supreme Court ruling involved ``core political speech'' - something that would normally have the highest priority protection under the First Amendment, Mr. Pildes says.

William Lasser, a political scientist at Clemson University, says Bush's call for an amendment ``disturbs me a great deal.''

Professor Lasser calls it ``a selective weakening of the First Amendment. But that cannot be done if it is to endure. It must be kept broad.'' This is not just another partisan, Republican vs. Democrat issue, says Lasser.

Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire, chided his fellow senators for rushing to condemn the United States Supreme Court for allowing flag-burning as a form of political protest. Said Mr. Humphrey: ``No one likes desecration. But this [vote] just seems to me an exercise in silliness and even a little bit of hypocrisy, if I may say so.''

Some Democrats, like Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California, are trying to point out the dangers. He says: ``There's a lot of panic out there. A lot of fear.''

Nelson W. Polsby, a political scientist at the University of California (Berkeley), doubts the issue will backfire on Bush, even if criticism mounts. But he adds: ``You never know. The idea that whenever public policy seems wrong you want to change the Constitution isn't terribly appealing.''

While Bush, an avowed conservative, is eager to ban flag-burning as a form of political expression, Mr. Polsby says the court's ruling was ``was a fundamentally conservative decision, and it was a decision that was very, very respectful of Constitutional rights. That's something people want to conserve.''

Paul Simon (D) of Illinois exemplifies those senators trying to find a middle path. He explains: ``First, we should avoid amending the Constitution every time we disagree with a court decision. If that had happened in the past, our Constitution would be loaded with trivial, unnecessary amendments. ... Second, this decision was a 5-to-4 ruling on one isolated case. ... We should not rush in with a sledgehammer on something that can be fixed with a pair of pliers. Third, it is probable we can correct this matter with legislation.''

Senator Simon calls the decision a ``misjudgment,'' but adds: ``Before we tinker with James Madison's handiwork on the Bill of Rights, we ought to try to solve the problem by changing the law.''

But some Republicans make it clear that walking a middle path may be hard in Washington.

Rich Galen, president of the American Campaign Academy, a GOP organization, notes that flag-burning could be a hot issue in any race where a Democrat fails to oppose the court decision.

If he were advising a Republican candidate running against such a Democrat, Mr. Galen says: ``I would attack him ... for being in favor of letting people who've never lifted a finger to help the country being able to sneer at it and burn the flag.''

If a Democrat is politically foolish enough to defend the court decision, ``any political operative worth his or her salt could think of 150 ways to make the election turn on that issue,'' Galen says. Experts say that is why the amendment will probably breeze through Congress, despite many doubts.

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