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"Blank-check' babble could be candidates' pink slip

Prowar Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry and John Edwards are trying so hard to make amends with the party's antiwar activists that they've gone from being incoherent to being irresponsible.

These two senators say they stand by their votes to authorize President Bush to go to war against Iraq, but they recently voted against the president's $87.5-billion budget request to fund U.S. military operations and the reconstruction of Iraq. They say they opposed the aid package because Bush has failed to come up with a long-term plan for postwar Iraq and has not done enough to gain more military and financial support from allies.

On Monday we will see whether they will stand by their votes against the funding request. Either way, they'll have some explaining to do. A House-Senate conference committee last week gave the president most of what he had asked for _ $65-billion for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and $18.6-billion in aid for Iraq. It's the same bill Kerry and Edwards voted against last month. Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, explained his vote by saying he is not willing "to give George Bush a blank check."

Well, the blank check that really matters was written last fall, when Congress, with Kerry and Edwards voting aye, gave the president the authority to take the nation to war. It's a little late for Edwards to be worrying about blank checks. Bush has already filled in and cashed the one that counts.

There is plenty of room for Democrats to go after Bush on the mess he has made of Iraq. However, the way things are going, Democrats, and especially the party's presidential candidates, are in danger of losing their credibility on the issue. The righteous posturing we've seen from Kerry and Edwards may play well with antiwar activists, but it could alienate voters who don't like the war but believe we have an obligation to stay the course.

The fact is, the security of our troops, not to mention the ultimate outcome in Iraq, depends on rebuilding that war-ravaged country and improving the daily lives of the Iraqi people. And that is going to cost money _ lots of it. Surely Kerry and Edwards understand that.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman and U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt _ also presidential contenders _ voted for both the war resolution and for the president's funding package, and they have been as harsh in their criticism of Bush's handling of postwar Iraq as either Kerry or Edwards. But unlike Kerry and Edwards, they could not bring themselves to vote against the $87.5-billion in additional funding, despite their concerns about some of the details.

"I think we all try to do what we think is right; that's what I was trying to do," Gephardt said. "In the end, you're presented in the Congress with a vote, up or down on $87-billion. And I can't find it within myself to not vote for the money to support the troops."

At the Democrats' recent presidential debate in Detroit, Lieberman wondered "how John Kerry and John Edwards can say they supported the war but then opposed the funding for the troops."

Kerry, a much-decorated Vietnam veteran, all but sniffed: "Well, Joe, I had seared in me an experience which you don't have, and that is the experience of being one of those troops on the front lines when the policy has gone wrong."

Frankly, Kerry is in danger of overplaying his Vietnam card, which he tosses on the table almost every time one of his opponents challenges him on foreign policy. The one thing Kerry should have learned from Vietnam is that Congress should never give a president another Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which is exactly what the Massachusetts Democrat and other lawmakers did on Iraq when it seemed to be politically popular.

Meanwhile, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, a latecomer to the Democratic presidential race, keeps stammering and backtracking on Iraq. After announcing his candidacy, he first said he would have voted for the war resolution had he been in Congress. The next day he said he would have voted against it. More recently, when the political bullets began flying over the president's aid package, Clark tried to duck. Because he is running for president and not Congress, he said had no position. As one of his aides explained: "Just as he (Clark) would not ask John Kerry how he would have commanded troops in Kosovo, we don't think it's in John Kerry's interest or anyone else's to be demanding of us how he would vote in the Senate."

The former NATO commander finally came out against the president's funding request.

Is this kind of leadership we can expect from a President Clark?

Howard Dean, who has ridden his party's anti-sentiment to the front of the pack, opposed the war from the start. The former Vermont governor says he would give Bush his $87.5-billion, but only if it is paid for by rolling back the president's tax cuts for the wealthy. That would be the right thing to do, but as Dean well knows, it's not going to happen.

Democrats need to get a grip on themselves before they become casualties of Bush's war. They could do worse than heed the words of Bill Clinton. "I'm not against helping the Iraqi cause," the former Democratic president said recently. "We acquired responsibility because of what we did . . . We just can't walk away from this."