Ever since US forces marched into Iraq, conservatives in Congress and their media stenographers have been at war with Americans who fail to read from the Bush Administration’s political script.

US Sen Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky, was ranting the other day about charging former MSNBC correspondent Peter Arnett with “treason,” after the always controversial journalist gave a ill-conceived yet thoroughly inconsequential interview to Iraqi television. Then, last Friday, 104 Republican members of the US House of Representatives signed a letter demanding that Columbia University fire an assistant professor of anthropology whose extreme — if not extremely significant — statements against the US war had made him a favorite target of the New York Post’s patriotism police.

Members of Congress, who should be performing their constitutionally-mandated advice and consent duties with regard to the war and its aftermath, are instead asking: “Would you like a witchhunt with those Freedom Fries?” By and large, the Republican torch bearers get points from their constituents and are written off as yahoos by everyone else. But there is a political point to this demonization of dissent and discourse. And it has been evident in the attempts to discredit US Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has emerged as something of a frontrunner in the race for his party’s 2004 presidential nomination.

Kerry is not exactly a threatening figure. Indeed, the Massachusetts senator is less than the sum of his parts. He is reasonably smart, reasonably liberal, reasonably handsome and possessed of a distinguished record of service in the Vietnam War. This ought to make him a dream candidate for Democrats who are still casting about for an alternative to George W. Bush, who has no record of distinguished service — in times of war, or peace. But Kerry tends to waffle on big issues — he raised great questions about granting Bush Fast Track authority to negotiate sweeping new free-trade agreements, yet he voted for legislation authorizing Fast Track; he has expressed concern about threats to civil liberties, yet he voted for the draconian USA Patriot Act. He seemed to object to Bush’s rush to war with Iraq, yet he voted for the October resolution that continues to provide the White House with a flimsy excuse for launching a preemptive war against a sovereign state.

So why are conservatives all hot and bothered about Kerry?

During a discussion at the town library in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Kerry was campaigning in anticipation of next year’s first-in-the-nation primary, the senator let loose with a comment that echoed posters, bumper stickers, campaign pins, reasonable magazine commentaries and casual comments heard across the United States in recent months. Speaking of Bush’s inept approach to international relations in advance of the current war, Kerry said, “Regardless of how successful the United States is in waging war against Iraq, it will take a new president to rebuild the country’s damaged relationships with the rest of the world,” Kerry told the overflow crowd. “What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States.”

Turning the Bush Administration’s rhetoric about “regime change” around on the White House has obvious rhetorical appeal — especially among grassroots Democrats. The word “regime” generally refers to a government that lacks credibility because of how it came to power or how it exercises its authority. That description is one that many Democrats would apply to the Bush Administration. After all, George W. Bush failed to win the popular vote in 2000 and only assumed the presidency after the Florida recount debacle and a controversial intervention by a 5-4 majority of the US Supreme Court. Since they swept into Washington, the Bush team has been rocked by scandals linking key administration figures to corporate corruption, official secrecy, power grabs, assaults on Constitutionally-protected freedoms and abuses of the checks and balances system.

Kerry was not reading out a detailed indictment of the Bush Administration. Rather, he was discussing the challenge of repairing the US image abroad in the aftermath of what Kerry described as Bush’s ”end-run around the UN.” “I don’t think (other nations are) going to trust this president, no matter what,” Kerry explained. ”I believe it deeply, that it will take a new president of the United States, declaring a new day for our relationship with the world, to clear the air and turn a new page on American history.”

Coming in this context, Kerry’s “regime change” was precisely the sort of savvy, somewhat-serious, somewhat lighthearted reference that a candidate who is in touch with his audience would offer. It certainly did not put Kerry, who is anything but adventurous, outside the circle of accepted discourse.

But this did not prevent conservative “message” teams, talk radio ranters and Republican members of Congress from spinning the senator’s statement into a political firestorm that may well end up aiding Kerry’s candidacy — indeed, Kerry said it was a “pleasure” to be attacked by the chair of the Congressional Yahoo Caucus, House Majority Leader Tom Delay, who failed to serve in Vietnam but seldom fails to question the patriotism of Democrats who did wear the country’s uniform. Delay can usually be counted on to embarrass himself and the House. But in the dispute over Kerry’s remarks, Delay was not the source of the most ridiculously partisan statement. That came from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who said, “With our commander-in-chief facing a deadly conflict overseas, Senator Kerry’s comments certainly cause one to wonder whether he has the sensitivity and the judgment commensurate with the office he seeks.”

Frist seems to forget that US troops are the ones who are marching into a deadly conflict – just as Kerry did in Vietnam. President Bush, who like Frist successfully avoided serving in Vietnam, will not be hearing the sound of bullets any time soon. And it is absurd to suggest that the war effort could be threatened in any way by the suggestion that Americans may decide in 2004 to replace Bush with someone who has a little more military experience.

Ironically, Frist’s attack on his Senate colleague contained the perfect rejoinder to the GOP criticism of Kerry. “Free and open discourse is one thing,” Frist said, “but petty, partisan insults launched solely for personal political gain are highly inappropriate at a time when American men and women are in harm’s way.” Frist’s silly grumbling about Kerry’s sensitivity and judgment provides an exceptional example of what “petty, partisan insults launched for personal political gain” sound like.