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AS BUSH FLOUNDERS TOWARD WAR, DEMOCRATS PROFIT BY DOING THEIR JOBS

The president's Persian Gulf adventure has members of his own Republican Party in Congress walking around on shards of glass.

A key Democratic staffer wondered aloud if President Bush was trying to mimic President Nixon's "mad act." Henry Kissinger, Nixon's foreign policy adviser, was said to have sent word to the Vietnamese and other adversaries that Nixon was behaving irrationally and was looking for an excuse to use nuclear weapons against them.

It was all Kissinger could do to keep Nixon from blowing his cork, so the story went. These yarns were designed to force Ho Chi Minh to the peace table.

Whatever the cause, Bush's seeming readiness to go to war and his hints about nuclear retaliation have given the Democrats the best political material they have had since Watergate.

What some parents do after Bush does his boola-boola stuff is glance down the dinner table at the kid with with zits and peach fuzz on his chin and wonder if he'll ever see his 21st birthday.

Fantasies about packing away junior's sports gear, earphones and CDs--forever--has made "the war" the most local of all political issues. And the White House has only itself to blame.

Last week, Secretary of State James A. Baker III ordered the administration's third major course correction on Iraq in 130 days. In late July Baker's people were telling Congress we could work with Saddam Hussein. In October, Baker told Congress the embargo against Iraq "is working." Bush on Nov. 6 said "sanctions are taking effect."

Yet last week, Baker said they weren't working and can't work.

In the middle of his recent congressional testimony, Baker, sounding too much like Lyndon Johnson, said that Saddam "cannot receive discordant or confused messages" from our government. Well, neither can the American people. Their gullibility went down the Mekong River. And it was their disaffection over Vietnam and Watergate that sent today's present Democratic leadership to Washington.

So clumsily has the White House handled the issue it is as though Ronald Reagan never revived patriotism.

The administration has so botched things that critics of Bush's gulf policies don't even need to criticize him for what he has done. They can even take "futures" on the possibility of his success by praising his current course.

Democrats are winning points just by asking questions and raising constitutional issues. There's nothing cynical about this. It's what legislators are supposed to do.

Democratic members from New York, for example, are breaking into the holiday season to conduct no-lose "town meetings" back home. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, the earliest and most vocal upstate proponent of trimming back Bush's offensive plans, will hold a meeting in the Rochester City Council chambers Wednesday night and another in Henrietta Thursday.

"I plan to come and to listen," she said.

Rep. Matt McHugh, D-Ithaca, will hold his third district Persian Gulf forum this coming week. McHugh recently became a plaintiff in a lawsuit to force Bush to have a "listening" session in Congress. McHugh is one of several dozen Democrats who joined Rep. Ron Dellums, D-Calif., in a suit blocking Bush from waging offensive war without obtaining a declaration from Congress under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.

Rep. Slaughter joined McHugh Oct. 26 in a statement of concern sent to Bush in which they opposed his taking "offensive military action."

Another signer was Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Tonawanda. But neither he nor Rep. Slaughter is signed on to the Dellums suit. LaFalce told News reporter Jerry Zremski the suit sends "the wrong signals abroad."

"I thought it was going too far," LaFalce said. He added that the Dellums lawsuit was "legally frivolous" and he thought it would not stand up in court.

Rep. Slaughter said she refrained from joining Dellums because she thought the suit was asking the court to do Congress's job. The suit, she said, deals with a hypothetical situation.

LaFalce did sign another letter Dec. 5 warning Bush that statements made by administration spokesmen that the president need not come to Congress before going to war are "a serious misreading" of the Constitution.

"A decision to go to war is the gravest decision this nation or its leaders can make," warns the new letter, being circulated by Rep. David E. Skaggs, D-Colo.

The Democrats have some fair precedents going for them.

Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers that giving the president sole power to make war would give him kinglike authority.

And Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1848 that giving the president this power would hand the office "the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions."

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