POLITICAL warfare - led by Republicans - has broken out over the Persian Gulf conflict. While the White House maps war strategy against Iraq, senior Republicans are using the Iraqi struggle to fire salvos at Democrats prior to the 1992 campaign.
Democrats respond angrily. Over the weekend, party chairman Ron Brown termed the Republican criticism ``pathetic'' and ``disgusting.''
Clayton Yeutter, the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee, got things going with a preemptive strike against Democrats in Congress who opposed war in the Gulf. Mr. Yeutter charged that Democrats who voted against a war resolution earlier this month will be ``vulnerable'' in 1992.
Behind the scenes, Republican strategists say they've got a hot issue. They insist that leading Democratic contenders for the presidency, such as Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, ``left themselves out to dry on the Saddam Hussein issue,'' as one put it.
Republicans are poring over voting records, turning up the fact, for example, that in 1985 Senators Nunn and Bradley voted against a $53.5 million authorization to reactivate the battleship Wisconsin. The ship was one of the vessels that fired cruise missiles on Iraq during the first night of battle.
Clearly, Republicans hope to portray Democrats in 1992 as weak defenders of American values. ``I would guess 90 percent of them [Democrats in Congress] now wish they had cast their votes the other way,'' Yeutter told a press conference. ``They picked the wrong side.''
But Democrats aren't apologizing. ``Mr. Yeutter ... is wrong to assume I regret my vote,'' said Sen. Robert Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. ``It was a difficult vote, and the difficulty was born of the caution acquired from my own experiences in the Vietnam War.''
Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, speaking Saturday to a new liberal political group, the Coalition for Democratic Values, insisted Democrats were right to resist a quick war in the Gulf. The nation needs the ``courage of patience'' in times of crisis, he said.
And despite GOP bravado, fueled by early coalition military success in the Gulf, the GOP is deeply frustrated by recent national political trends. The war may not change that. While Republicans maintain an iron grip on the White House, the GOP's 10-year drive to become America's majority party has sputtered.
The numbers tell the story. When Ronald Reagan captured the presidency a decade ago, the GOP held 192 seats in the House of Representatives. Today, that has sunk to 167. They had 53 senators, a majority; now they have just 44. Only last year, the Republicans commanded the governors' offices in all three major Sunbelt states - Florida, Texas, California. Today, only California remains.
``It has been a decade of failure,'' laments Edward Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Mr. Rollins will leave his post March 1 after clashing with the White House over the decision last fall to raise taxes.
Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, who is secretary of the policy-setting House Republican Conference, says that in recent years Republicans have been ``victimized by their own success.'' The GOP had some major achievements in the 1980s. It held the White House and built up America's defenses. Republican presidents tipped the balance of the United States Supreme Court toward conservatism.
But in Congress, ``we have failed miserably,'' Mr. Rollins says. The GOP also remains terribly weak at the local and state levels, where it must develop new leaders for the 21st Century.
MAYBE we became too dependent on our money, our national resources,'' Rollins says. ``The bottom line is that we don't care enough. ... I don't like to use the term `fat, dumb, and happy,' but we have [become that] to a certain extent.''
Congressman Weber takes a more upbeat view - pointing to the party's dramatic gains with voters since the Watergate scandal. Today, voters prefer Republicans in the two most salient policy areas, national security and the economy. But, he says, by the end of the 1980s voters were looking at other issues: child care, education, environment, homelessness, and the poor. And Democrats came out on top, as last year's election showed.
What should the GOP do? Weber quips: ``We now have remedied that problem by restoring [Americans'] sense of concern about national security [because of the war] and the macro-economy [because of the recession].'' In fact, the Gulf war does give new urgency to defense issues, he says, and that should help the GOP. But Weber isn't sure the GOP can exploit economic issues as effectively any more. The party is torn, he says, between those who want make the economy grow and those who want to reduce deficits. Often, those goals conflict.
Daniel Mitchell, an economist with the Heritage Foundation, says the GOP lost an edge over the Democrats when President Bush agreed to higher taxes in the current budget. ``Republicans aren't doing as well as they did a couple years ago,'' he says. ``I think there's a very good reason for that. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Republicans were the party fighting government, fighting to keep taxes down, fighting against Washington.''
Now their outsider image is muddled, especially after the White House threw away the tax issue, Mr. Mitchell says.
Rollins suggests the road to Republican majorities on Capitol Hill will be long and rocky. It's a war of attrition, not sudden victory.
What is shocking, Rollins says, is that 55 percent of the American people say they don't care who represents them in Congress.
``It's our fault,'' he says. The party failed to define itself, failed to convince voters that Republicans in Congress can make a big difference in their lives. ``We've got to do something different.''