Friday, August 25, 2006

Democratic Vets Take On Republican Civilians
Democratic Vets Take On Republican Civilians
By Margaret Carlson

Aug. 24 (Bloomberg) -- The most stirring part of the annual white-tie Gridiron Club dinner where the Washington establishment celebrates itself, is the playing of the military anthems. Those who served in each branch stand as the band strikes up the appropriate melody.

Each year fewer rise to be honored as the number of veterans in Congress has steadily diminished from almost three-quarters of the members after World War II to less than a quarter today.

But this year dozens of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq threw their hats into the ring for the 2006 races. Although Republicans cast themselves as the party of the troops, many more Democrats ran than Republicans. Among those who survived the primaries, five are Democrats and one is a Republican.

A few have an excellent chance of winning, even as President George W. Bush himself this week took up the mantra of Karl Rove that Democrats are weak on defense and will make the world a more dangerous place should they be put in charge.

I caught up with retired General Wesley Clark, who has formed a political action committee to support Democratic veterans, as he toured the country fundraising. Clark says having served is the best way to reverse the military inferiority complex inflicted by Republicans.

``These veterans want to win the war on terror,'' Clark said during an appearance at the Amagansett (New York) American Legion Hall in mid-August. ``They just don't believe the Iraq war is the way to do it.''

Pennsylvania Battleground

One of the interesting contenders in what was once an uphill race to unseat an incumbent Pennsylvania congressman is Admiral Joseph Sestak, 54, a 31-year Navy veteran who served six tours of duty, including combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is running against Republican Curt Weldon, who isn't used to getting much of a challenge.

As Sestak has drawn almost even in fund raising, Weldon has gone on the attack. The Pennsylvania Republican Party tried swift-boating Sestak, accusing him of violating the Uniform Military Code by wearing his uniform while campaigning. Sestak struck back with language from the code allowing the uniform to be worn at memorial services, which is where he wore it while reading the names of the war dead at a Memorial Day ceremony.

Some of Weldon's attacks have fizzled. He accused Sestak of plagiarizing his health-care plan from the Progressive Policy Institute until the policy research group said it had offered it to him. Another broadside flopped when Weldon criticized Sestak for having his daughter treated at Children's Hospital in Washington rather than a local hospital in Pennsylvania. Sestak, whose child is recovering from a malignant brain tumor, quickly won that point.

Find the WMDs

One of Weldon's self-inflicted wounds remains open. The congressman, who never served in the military, said the ``jury is still out'' on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a statement at odds with the findings of commissions set up to investigate. Even the president has now said that WMDs weren't in Iraq.

The largest recipient of Clark's PAC money is another veteran, retired Army Major Tammy Duckworth, who is running against Illinois State Senator Peter Roskam to replace retiring Congressman Henry Hyde. It's a race that has attracted national attention.

Duckworth, 38, doesn't have to say much about Iraq -- with two legs lost in a helicopter attack, she is a symbol of what has been lost there. She has made a point of running on other issues -- showing how she differs with Roskam on taxes, embryonic stem- cell research, immigration and abortion. She's done what few candidates dare to do, promising to practice fiscal responsibility by not bringing pork to the district via congressional earmarks.

Race for Cash

The race, which both sides call close, is now a race for cash. Last week, first lady Laura Bush came to raise money for Roskam. Duckworth has had help from her party's stars, including Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Former President Bill Clinton comes on Oct. 23. Both national parties are committed to pouring in money in the fall.

The dearth of leaders with military backgrounds making decisions about going to war brings to mind General George Patton's line that the idea is not for you to die for your country, but for someone else to do so. He meant the enemy. But the admonition now has meaning domestically, as those sending someone else to die are removed from peril, as are their children.

Facts may not matter. Just look at the last presidential race. When the opposition was done besmirching the Democratic nominee's war record, you would have thought Bush, who protected Texas on weekends when he could find the time, had won more medals for bravery than John Kerry, a decorated war veteran.

A poll released this week showed a public growing weary of the administration's efforts to merge the war in Iraq with the war on terror. Voters may take the word of candidates who have fought there: Criticism of the Iraq war doesn't mean weakness on the fight against terror. Then we could have a real debate on just who has made the world a more dangerous place.

(Margaret Carlson, author of "Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House" and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at