Of late, Democrats have taken to whining that Bush is politicizing the debate over the war on Iraq. Actually, there’s not much of a debate to politicize–since most Democrats in the House and Senate seemed either resigned or eager to vote for a resolution authorizing George W. Bush to launch a war when he sees fit. (On the way to that vote, Democrats and Republicans may force alterations in the wording of Bush’s proposed blank-check resolution; its thrust, though, is likely to remain the same.) But there’s nothing wrong with politicizing this war or any other–if that means asking voters to decide electoral contests on the basis of a candidate’s position on the war. The Democrats’ problem is that, for the most part, they are unable or unwilling to politicize Bush’s rush to war, for that would entail fiercely challenging Bush’s demand for the authority to use force against Iraq–which is not the Democratic position.

So instead of worrying about the war, many Democrats fret about the politics. Days ago, Vice President Dick Cheney attended a fundraiser in Kansas for Republican congressional hopeful Adam Taff, who is running against Democratic incumbent Dennis Moore, and he proclaimed that electing Taff would aid the administration’s war effort. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat, quickly protested. “I was chagrined,” he said, that Cheney would tell people to vote for a Republican because he was a war supporter. “If that doesn’t politicize the war,” Daschle added, “I don’t know what does.” And when GOP chairman Mark Racicot observed that a vote against the war “could be fair game in the closing days of the campaign,” Democratic National Committee spokesperson Jennifer Palmieri griped, “He’s making a veiled threat, outlining how Republicans would use the Iraq vote against Democrats.”

In reality, it was not so veiled. But that’s not the point. Shouldn’t legislators be judged on how they vote on such a crucial matter? The GOP is perfectly within its rights to urge voters to back Republican candidates who support Bush and his war on terrorism and his war on Iraq to come, and to claim that these are the most important questions facing the United States. It is up to the Democrats, if they so desire, to present a different case. That is the essence of politics. The Democrats can argue they care about national security and domestic matters. They can champion a different definition of “national security” than that embraced by the Republicans. They can assert Bush is using a justified or unjustified war to divert attention from the in-the-dumps economy. Democrats who oppose the war can try to persuade voters they know better. That is what an election is about.

War should not be beyond politics. When Karl Rove, Bush’s master political strategist, earlier in the year was caught suggesting Republicans could gain from the war on terrorism, Democrats howled. But he was really only saying GOPers should position themselves close to a popular President and a popular war, and let the voters decide. When a computer disc containing a GOP briefing that advised Republican candidates to focus on war was found on a street, Democrats again complained about politicization. But this is not politicization. Perhaps exploitation. It also is what every politician does: emphasize the issue that provides a perceived advantage. But a crucial component of a campaign is debating what topics deserve focus.

There is nothing underhanded about defining an election as one between a party in sync with a president and a war (or two) and a party opposed to a president and filled with some who support those wars and some who do not. The Democrats are upset because, split as they are, they do not believe they benefit from such a comparison. (A case of message envy?) As a party, they cannot ask the voters to spurn GOP candidates who would too readily allow Bush to wage what might be an expensive and dangerous war, for many of their own either endorse that position–such as House minority leader Dick Gephardt–or acquiesce because they fear the political consequences of opposing the war. Bush might have (or probably, or definitely) pushed his war against Iraq during election time for crass political reasons–to squash debate and discussion of economic and health-related issues that tend to benefit Democrats. But many Democrats, too, are dealing with the war in a politics-first manner, with Gephardt and Daschle pushing for a fast vote on Bush’s war resolution in order to have a chance to address other subjects prior to the November 5 congressional elections. (Their strategy smells of doom, though. As Representative Dennis Kucinich, a liberal Democratic who’s leading two dozen or so anti-war House Democrats, notes, “If talk of war has pushed debate about the economy off the front-pages and out of the leads of the network news, what do you suppose a real war will do?” But the inverse may be true as well. If Democrats were to vote down Bush’s war–which isn’t going to happen–Iraq would still remain the national discourse’s number-one item until the elections.)

On September 25, an angry Daschle took to the Senate floor to blast Bush for politicizing the war. He cited Cheney’s war-oriented backing of Taff, Rove’s remarks, and the computer disc briefing. But what really ticked him off was Bush’s claim that the Democratic-controlled “Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people.” Bush, though, was referring to the ongoing dust-up over the homeland security bill, in which Senate Democrats are opposing his attempt to exempt employees of the new Homeland Security Department from various workplace protections. Rather than address that specific dispute, Daschle asserted, “We must not politicize this war.”

Bush’s remark had been a low blow. But Daschle, who demanded an apology from Bush, was attempting to score points via partisan bickering. He was, in a way, trying to politicize the politics–arguing not against Bush’s war, but Bush’s politicization of the war.

With the elections looming, the GOP–the war party–is clearly prepared to turn an opponent’s national security position into a partisan issue. The Democratic Party–the half-or-more war party–is not. But not because of any noble principle. It simply is not positioned to do so. Which leaves many Democrats set to cry “foul,” finding it easier to attack war rhetoric than war itself.