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Editorial: War of words / Bush overreached, Democrats overreacted

Saturday, September 28, 2002

Loose lips can sink not only ships but also bipartisanship. Fortunately, President Bush and congressional Democrats seem to be calling a truce in a war of words prompted by the president's crack -- in a very specific legislative context -- that the Democratic-controlled Senate was "not interested in the security of the American people."

That comment was not a generalized swipe at the Democratic Party's interest in protecting the American people. Rather, it came as part of Mr. Bush's complaint that Democratic senators were insisting -- against his wishes -- on extending civil service and union protections to employees of a proposed Homeland Security Department. They were more interested, he said, "in special interests in Washington" -- presumably public-employee unions.

It was a cheap shot and a poor choice of words. But in reacting to the comment on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle displayed a disproportionate hurt and horror. "High dudgeon" is inadequate as a description of Sen. Daschle's sense of grievance. In a speech on the Senate floor, he told Mr. Bush that "you tell those who fought in Vietnam and World War II they are not interested in the security of the American people. That is outrageous."

Sen. Daschle's Republican counterpart, Trent Lott, said the majority leader's outburst was "over the top" and he has a point. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, a defense against charges of lack of patriotism is sometimes the first reflex of a politician.

But if Sen. Daschle overreacted, Mr. Bush gave him something to overreact to. Whether or not one accepts the notion that the United States is "at war" against terrorism, post-Sept. 11 conditions do call for more civility and fewer partisan sound bites -- and so does the debate over military action against Saddam Hussein.

As Sen. Daschle said in one of the less emotive sections of his speech: "Let's get this job done right. Let's rise to the occasion." That's good advice for both parties.

After Sen. Daschle's speech, Mr. Bush's press secretary declined the opportunity to reaffirm the president's original comment. It also should be removed from any campaign-related Republican e-mails. For their part, Sen. Daschle and other Democrats should stop defending their own impugned patriotism.

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