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Wednesday, April 9, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

George Bush's war could be his undoing

A generation ago, Bob Dole, Republican candidate for vice president, referred in a TV debate to the 20th century's "Democrat wars." A howl ensued. Dole had broken a taboo. Wars that have been sanctified by American blood and admitted into the history books are not to be given a partisan label.

But wars do begin with such labels. The two world wars were entered into by Democratic administrations and given suitably liberal objectives: the first, to save the world for democracy and the second to save it from fascism. They began, as Dole said, as Democratic wars.

The first Gulf War was a more down-to-earth affair of ejecting a thief from the oil patch. It was a Republican war.

And the second Gulf War is also a Republican war.

When wars start, the American people rally to support the troops. This is a human instinct that always benefits the party in power. Republicans benefited big from that in last November's elections. But later, the people swing the other way. Consider:

• World War I — A Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, brought America into this war in 1917 with the support of a Democratic Senate and almost evenly balanced House. In 1918, on the eve of victory, the Democrats lost the Senate and House, and in 1920 lost the presidency.

• World War II — A Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, worked for more than a year and a half before Pearl Harbor to involve America in the war. He had most of his party in a Democratic Senate and House. In 1942, the first election after Pearl Harbor, Democrats lost 45 seats in the House; in 1946, the first election after V-J Day, the Democrats lost the House and the Senate.

• The Korean War — A Democratic president, Harry Truman, led us into this war in June 1950 with a Democratic Senate and House. In November 1952, with the war in stalemate, the Republicans took the presidency and both houses of Congress.

• The Vietnam War — A Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, began the build-up in the Vietnam War in 1965 with a Democratic Senate and House. In 1966, the Democrats lost 47 seats in the House, and in 1968, with the war in stalemate, they lost the presidency.

• The Gulf War — In 1992, a year and a half after Republican George H.W. Bush's war ended in a huge victory, Republicans lost the presidency, and majority Democrats made gains in the Congress.

Now, this war. Pollsters say 70 percent of the American people — who so recently were split 50-50 on national politics — support the conquest of Iraq. That also means they support the commander in chief. This surge of loyalty has transformed George W. Bush from the man barely elected to a man of authority. If anyone is looking for unstated motives, there is no need to spin webs of intrigue about oil, Israel or empire. These may apply to others, but for Bush the obvious benefit is to his own political standing.

Does the war-enhanced power of Republicans mean they will push through their civilian agenda? Knute Berger in the Seattle Weekly thinks so. "The liberal programs that once defined America — like Social Security — are doomed," laments this local lefty.

On the contrary: I think it is more likely that the Republicans have just sacrificed Social Security reform. Tax cuts, too. The focus is now on security and unity, not social reform. War trumps everything.

Well, the president has made his choice. Congress, including many Democrats, let him. The people are mostly persuaded. But they will tire.

Some will rue the cost in taxes and death, and turn away from the ugliness. Some will feel that too much attention is going to Iraq and not to them. Some will resent their shoes being X-rayed at the airport, and the thousand other indignities of a wartime government.

A Republican government.

If history is any guide, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of 2004, voters will have an urge to throw the rascals out. And that may happen even as American troops roll triumphantly into Baghdad.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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