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JOAN VENNOCHI

Democrats buy into Bush's war

THERE WAS a rare expression of candor concerning the Iraq war on Tuesday night. It did not come from President Bush. It came from Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Kerry, who was interviewed on ''Larry King Live" after the president's speech, was asked by substitute host Bob Costas if he and other Democrats were ''too docile and too compliant" in the weeks leading up to the US invasion of Iraq and failed to ask tough, skeptical questions in the run-up to war.

Replied Kerry: ''Many of the questions were raised, but not enough. I plead guilty. And I think a lot of people in the party would."

It was an acknowledgement of political truth from the former Democratic presidential nominee. For the most part, Democrats bought into Bush's war when he first promoted it, and they share some responsibility for it now.

And despite their noisy criticism of Bush, they still do buy into his war. Democrats complain about the deception that got us into Iraq in the first place and the mythical link between Iraq and the September 11 terrorist attacks that Bush continues to advance. Still, leading Democrats seem to agree with the president: We can't leave now.

The post-speech critiques from Democrats like Kerry and Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware focused on US troop strength, the training of Iraqi forces, and Iraq's porous borders.

But, when Kerry was asked by Costas, ''Is Bush getting an unfair shake?" Kerry answered: ''To some degree, I think that's true. And I've said that publicly. We've made progress." Kerry also rejected Senator Edward M. Kennedy's labeling of Iraq as ''an intractable quagmire." Said Kerry: ''No, I don't believe it is that today. But it could become that if we don't make the right choices."

In interviews given after Bush's speech, Biden criticized the president for his references to the 9/11 attacks and for a lack of candor about how long the United States will remain in Iraq. Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also acknowledged progress in Iraq. " We cannot afford to lose," said Biden.

If you listen carefully, you realize Democrats like Kerry and Biden are saying that this war is being fought the wrong way, not that this is the wrong war. They have bought into the Karl Rove argument that might makes right. And they are also accepting Rove's analysis that real men don't question war, only wimpy liberals do. Senator Hillary Clinton of New York endorses the same Rovian analysis.

As long as Democrats accept that premise, Republicans win and Democrats lose. Rove knows exactly how to push the Democrats' buttons and keep it that way. His recent speech about the difference between conservatives and liberals is a prime example. Conservatives, said Rove, watched the Sept. 11 attacks and ''prepared for war." Liberals ''wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy."

The main message of Bush's speech in Fort Bragg, N.C., was: ''We're in Iraq because we can't leave." Afterwards, even some of his harshest critics in the Democratic Party agreed: We can't leave.

Why can't we leave? Because we can't be liberal wimps. Advantage: Bush.

An overnight poll of speech-watchers showed Bush making some headway when it comes to one presidential mission -- buying time. A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll of 323 people who watched the speech showed that after the speech 54 percent of those polled said the United States is winning the war on terror; 63 percent said Bush has a clear plan for Iraq; and 70 percent said we should keep troops in Iraq. This poll is considered to be skewed more to Bush supporters. More polls along these lines will head off calls for troop withdrawals and timetables for withdrawal.

At some point, Democrats must confront the devil, and it is not Rove. It is their willingness to buy into the conservative definition of might and political manliness.

Democrats bought into this definition when they initially failed to question the administration's blind passion for war with Saddam. It is to Kerry's credit that he will now ''plead guilty" to a failure to ask all the questions that should have been asked in the run-up to war.

Now Kerry and other Democrats are asking tough questions about how Bush is fighting this war. It is a step in the right direction. But it is a long way from asking what it will take to end this war.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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