West Wing Story: The Sounds Of Washington

Smooch. That's the sound of Republicans kissing up to President Bush these days. Most, it seems, want to get on the war bandwagon even before they know exactly where it's headed.

AT A RECENT fund-raiser for the Republican Governors Association, Connecticut Gov. John Rowland gave a gushing introduction of Bush, praising his handling of Iraq so far. "Because of our president's courage and because of his leadership," Rowland said, "the American people will sleep well tonight." It was an eerie echo of what Jack Valenti used to say about his boss, LBJ, the man who put us deeper into Vietnam: "I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently, because Lyndon Johnson is my president."

The Democrats have been making a noise of their own: Screech! That's the sound of congressional leaders doing a 180 on Iraq. After vowing to put up a fight and postpone a vote, Sen. Tom Daschle et al are now likely to give Bush a resolution on Iraq with only minor changes in the next few weeks. The language the Bush administration sent up is being compared to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which gave LBJ sweeping war powers. The Democrats, who have their eye on the ballot box, have decided to fight Bush on the flagging economy, not Iraq. As one gloating senior administration aide put it: "You can still see the skid marks on Pennsylvania Avenue from how fast the Democrats did a U-turn."

It fell to Al Gore of all people to sound off against Bush during a speech in San Francisco this week. Gore did not argue that Saddam Hussein was an illegitimate target, but rather that going after him would distract from the war on terror and further erode international support. The partisan crowd hummed "Hail to the Chief" as Gore walked to the podium for the hastily thrown together event. Until recently, Gore has been press shy; he has felt burned by the coverage he has gotten the few times he has gone public since 2000. He was not shy Monday. "By shifting his early focus after September 11th on war against terrorism to war against Iraq," Gore said, "the president has manifestly disposed of the sympathy, goodwill and solidarity compiled by America and transformed it into a sense of deep misgiving and even hostility."

A political hack at the Republican National Committee dismissed Gore as a "political hack." The president went out of his way to ignore Gore, avoiding responding directly or even mentioning him by name. Instead, several White House aides dismissed him as "irrelevant" and suggested that the former vice president was trying to use the talk of war for his own political gain. Imagine that! Even the White House admits to politicizing the war. While aides dismiss the "wag the dog" theory that Iraq was conjured up to distract from domestic problems, political operatives concede that they are using the midterm elections to leverage a vote on the Iraq resolution. Senator Daschle tried to score political points this morning from the Senate floor by scolding Bush for making Iraq a political issue: "We ought not politicize this war. We ought not politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death," Daschle said.

The congressional elections themselves have stayed mostly focused on domestic issues. "I don't think there's a partisan issue over the war--yet," RNC Chairman Marc Racicot told a group of reporters this week. While candidates might not be stumping on Iraq, they are campaigning more generally on national security. And while Racicot says he will discourage ads attacking anyone who votes no on the pending congressional resolution on Iraq, he admits he can't control it. Already the National Republican Senatorial Committee is running ads in the hotly contested South Dakota race against Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. The spot criticizes Johnson for accepting money from the Council for a Livable World, which the ad calls "one of the most dangerous antimilitary groups in America." (Incidentally, Johnson's son is in the 101st Airborne and served in Afghanistan.)

Tuesday night, there was another familiar sound in Washington: Kaching! Bush raised $400,000 for Johnson's competitor, John Thune, at the posh Willard Hotel. That's chump change for a president who has now surpassed even Bill Clinton as the fund-raiser in chief. Bush has set a new record for midterm elections. The White House says that it's not keeping a tally, but others estimate that Bush has raised well over $100 million this campaign season. (Clinton, no stranger to glad-handing for cash, raised $39 million during the first midterm election of his presidency.) "I have great admiration for his skills," Racicot says of Bush's political ability. Whether Republicans use their deep campaign chest to beat the drums of war remains to be seen.