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Liberal Democrats Debate Gulf War, ’92 Campaign

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Frustrated by the Gulf War’s overshadowing of domestic politics, Democratic Party leaders and activists Saturday launched an effort to draft a postwar political agenda--and a blueprint for recapturing the White House in 1992.

“We are united behind our forces in the Persian Gulf, but we must see to it that they come marching home to an America that cares,” declared Ohio Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum as he opened this first partisan meeting of Democrats since U.S. bombs and missiles began falling on Iraq 10 days ago.

The daylong session was aimed at building grass-roots support for liberal policy positions in the 1992 campaign. Speakers included at least two potential 1992 presidential contenders--the Rev. Jesse Jackson and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.

Typical of Democratic gatherings in war or peace, this conference, sponsored by a new organization of liberal Democrats called the Coalition for Democratic Values, was marked by a certain amount of acrimony, particularly about the war itself.

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During the question period, Hyman Bookbinder, erstwhile lobbyist for the American Jewish Committee, contended that the conference was doing “our troops a disservice” by not voicing more ardent support for the war.

But Tom Chorlton of the D.C. Statehood Party complained just as vehemently that the meeting should be more forceful in condemning the war, which nearly all the lawmakers on hand had voted against during deliberations on Capitol Hill earlier this month.

“If we don’t stand up and say it, who the hell will?” Chorlton demanded of the approximately 300 attendees.

But most of the party leaders who spoke made it clear that they had come not to support or protest the war but to look beyond it to the renewal of political debate on domestic issues from the economic recession to civil rights to health care.

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“After this war concludes successfully . . . America must turn to fight other wars,” Gephardt declared. He cited “the war to revitalize our economic strength, the war against drugs and crime, the war against illness and despair.”

Until now, the Mideast crisis has made it hard for Democrats to make themselves heard, and domestic issues Democrats hope to use to challenge President Bush have been relegated to the back burner. Some Democrats fear that any criticism of the commander-in-chief might seem unpatriotic.

Thus, Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, another potential 1992 candidate, had long planned to deliver a series of speeches on domestic policy bristling with criticism of Bush. But in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, Bentsen postponed them, an aide said, “for a more appropriate time.”

Several speakers used the imagery of the war to sharpen their rhetoric. “The light of battle casts a harsh glare on the shortcomings in our own land,” Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy declared. “We ask our soldiers to lay their lives on the line. But too many of them get letters from home saying their parents are standing in unemployment lines.”

Contending that Bush “has a blank check” to cover the costs of the war, Jackson asked: “Where is the blank check to wage a war on poverty? Where are the resources for the war on drugs and a war on AIDS?”


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