WASHINGTON—Support the troops.
Few phrases in American politics sound so innocuous but sting so much.
Republican backers of the Iraq war have revived a tactic from the Vietnam era, trying to put Democrats on the defensive by accusing critics of President Bush's decision to send thousands more troops to Iraq of failing to "support the troops" that are already there.
This line of attack could explode this week, when Congress returns from a short recess. The Democratic majority will shift tactics from seeking nonbinding anti-war resolutions to trying to limit troop deployments and curb funding for the Iraq war.
Historians, political strategists and linguists say that questioning Democrats' loyalty to the troops is probably the best leverage supporters of the unpopular war have left.
"What that reflects is the aftermath of Vietnam and what happened to the Democrats," said Stephen Hess, a George Washington University professor and Brookings Institution scholar who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. Although polls show that solid public majorities oppose the Iraq war, Democrats still can be portrayed as undermining the troops.
The Bush administration and its congressional allies, however, are open to counter-charges that they've overworked the Army and Marine Corps, failed to provide troops in Iraq with adequate armor and neglected serious problems in how the military and the Veterans Administration are caring for wounded warriors.
Democrats also can argue that the best way to support the troops is to bring them home, said Frank Luntz, the pollster and language consultant who shaped the Republicans' 1994 "Contract with America."
Democrats, however, still fear being branded anti-troop, experts say, for reasons as esoteric as the nation's residual guilt over how Vietnam veterans were shunned and as practical as the memory of the 1972 presidential election, when Democratic anti-war nominee George McGovern lost in a 49-state landslide to President Nixon.
"If you're seen as anti-soldier, you're in trouble," said Luntz. "There's been a tremendous resurgence in support for the rank-and-file within the American military. We may have issues with the Pentagon, but as a nation our respect for the troops is back to where it was before Vietnam."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have repeatedly pledged not to endanger ground troops. They've stood in photo-ops and news conferences with Iraq veterans.
But Democrats are still hypersensitive to the phrase.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., went into a rage on the House floor this month after Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., implied that the troops could be left hanging.
"Do not hide behind the troops!" Hoyer barked. "Do not assert that anybody on this floor does not have every intention and commitment to supporting to whatever degree necessary our young men and women!"
Senate Democrats stopped debate, unwilling to reject a Republican resolution that said troop funds should be protected. They feared that approving it might pressure them into giving Bush whatever war funds he seeks, and they know that they may have to put strings on those funds to force a change in Iraq policy—which of course would expose them anew to charges that they don't "support the troops."
Already, Vice President Dick Cheney is ramping up the troop rhetoric. In an interview Wednesday in Japan, Cheney told ABC News: "I do think that the important thing here is that we support the troops and we support the strategy, that we give it a chance to work. ..."
Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan is telling GOP donors that Democrats want to "gradually take away the resources our men and women need to fight the terrorists in Iraq ... limit reinforcements and possibly even close the bases that offer support and shelter for our troops."
Even Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, a Republican known for his long opposition to the war, has called on House Democrats' top defense appropriator to drop plans to tie conditions to war funds.
"Any attempt to `starve' the war as a way of bringing it to conclusion ... would be wrong," Jones wrote to Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. Jones wrote that he promised "our brave men and women in uniform that I will never vote to cut off funding for our troops in the field."
Before Vietnam, the mantra to "support the troops" wasn't a political weapon.
"During World War II it was `Support the troops by buying war bonds,'" said James S. Olson, a history professor and Vietnam expert at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
That changed with the birth of the Vietnam antiwar movement.
By 1966, about a year after massive numbers of U.S. ground troops began going to Vietnam, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas held highly publicized hearings critical of the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That's when "you began to have critics of the antiwar movement charging that the movement itself was causing American soldiers to die by encouraging Ho Chi Minh," Olson said.
Now Republicans accuse war critics of emboldening Iraqi insurgents, al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.
"It's a very difficult argument to counter," Olson said, "because what you have to say is, `Yes, I see that my opposition could be making it more difficult for the troops, but I am so against it that I have to.'"
Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, thinks the rhetorical threat to Democrats may be weaker now than it was in the Vietnam era—partly because antiwar forces use language more sympathetic to soldiers.
During Vietnam, "there were many in the antiwar movement who did attack the troops," he said. That undermined their credibility when they said "support the troops—bring them home."
With Iraq, "the antiwar movement has been much more careful. You never see attacks on the troops. I think the Democrats have actually been aggressive in responding to that, saying, `We don't want American lives lost in this pointless war.' Which is not what was happening in Vietnam, where the left reacted to the war as Western imperialism," Nunberg said.
The best counter-punch for anti-war Democrats seeking to blunt attacks that they don't `support the troops': "`You support them by bringing them home.' That's probably the best line they have at this point," said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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