Rove Waves Flag For G.O.P. Candidates

Remember the inspiring Presidential rhetoric that unified the nation against terrorist assaults? Remember when politicians of both parties gathered on the steps of the Capitol to sing “God Bless America”? Remember how “United We Stand” suddenly showed up on billboards, bumper stickers and storefronts as the slogan of a nation at war?

Well, that was last year, and Karl Rove says you should forget about all that. According to him, bipartisan unity will soon be set aside in the interest of higher goals–such as winning this year’s midterm elections and insuring his party’s domination of Congress.

As the chief political strategist for George W. Bush, Mr. Rove was the featured luncheon speaker at the Republican National Committee’s annual winter conference on Jan. 18. That was when he revealed his plans to regain control of the Senate and retain control of the House by turning the war into a partisan weapon.

His wording was blander, of course, but his meaning was perfectly clear. “We can go to the country on this issue, because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America,” he said. He might as well have added that the Democratic elected representatives who have–with a single lonely exception in the House–supported the American military campaign in Afghanistan are a bunch of suckers.

The notion that Republicans are “better” on issues of national security is a myth that has long been exploited for partisan purposes, but Mr. Rove’s eagerness to do so while American men and women are on active duty is especially offensive. It is the kind of demagogy that men like him ought to avoid, since–like so many military enthusiasts on the right–he chose not to serve when the opportunity arose during the Vietnam War.

As executive director of the College Republicans in the early 70′s, Mr. Rove vociferously supported American intervention in that bloody misadventure without seeing any reason why he should participate personally. In that respect, he resembles several Republican pols whose re-election he now deems more urgent than patriotic cohesion. The rude epithet for such individuals is “chicken hawk,” which has been aptly used to describe, among others, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Texas Senator Phil Gramm and House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

That Mr. Rove may succeed in misusing military symbolism for his own narrow purposes only shows how badly informed most Americans are about the respective war records of the two major parties. Among those targeted by the White House political guru for defeat next fall, for instance, is Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat. Unlike Mr. Rove, Senator Harkin happens to be a Vietnam veteran.

No doubt the Rove argument will be that Republicans spend more on the Pentagon and are therefore more trustworthy as the stewards of our security. Stuffing the bank accounts of defense contractors is not necessarily the most reliable measure of martial competence, however, although it does ensure generous, regular contributions to the G.O.P. from those same companies. Despite Republican complaints about defense policy during the Clinton administration, the military that has prevailed so easily in Afghanistan was bequeathed to Mr. Bush by his predecessor in excellent condition.

Republicans demand patriotic unity, but their own conduct in wartime isn’t quite so reliable. Back when President Clinton committed American power to the NATO intervention in Kosovo, the loudest voice lending aid and comfort to Slobodan Milosevic was none other than Mr. DeLay’s.

But if the Republican argument is hollow and hypocritical, it is nonetheless understandable. For Mr. Rove, the imperative of the moment is to distract the electorate and the press; he would much rather hear talk about Afghanistan than Enron.

While there are too many Democrats who took too much money from the bankrupt energy-trading outfit, any close examination of the causes of the Enron debacle will point public attention to the Congressional Republicans. It was the Republican majority, whipped mercilessly by Mr. DeLay, who killed reforms in accounting practices sought by Arthur Levitt Jr., the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman. It was those same legislators, attentive to Mr. Armey, who killed stronger oversight of the offshore tax havens abused by Enron.

As for Mr. Rove, he was not merely a longtime Enron stockholder. He had so much clout with the company that he could pick up the phone, call someone at the Houston home office and arrange a nice consulting job for his pal Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition director. (Mr. Rove says he doesn’t remember who took that call, but Mr. Reed got the job.)

So when the White House wraps the flag around Republican candidates, by all means forget bipartisanship–and remember what they’re hiding under Old Glory.