WASHINGTON -- Sen. Phil Gramm, the Texas Democrat-turned-Republican, and Sen. Charles Robb, a stiff-backed former Marine and now a Democrat from Virginia, got down in the trenches yesterday.
The issue was patriotism, Mr. Robb said.
No, said Mr. Gramm, it was leadership.
In fact, it was the war vote and politics. Mr. Robb said now is not the time to be exploiting the Persian Gulf war for partisan advantage.
Nonsense, said Mr. Gramm, if the Mideast war became partisan it's because the Democrats made it so. And since they did, it's fair to point out that they're not fit to lead the country, he added.
"Let me suggest," replied Mr. Robb politely, "that that's hogwash!" And so it went for a half-hour as the two talked at, around and over each other while their television interlocutors, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak of the Cable News Network, struggled to be heard.
"We're not on the floor of the Senate where filibuster is an attractive habit," said Mr. Evans, somewhat plaintively. "We're on the 'Evans and Novak' show. We're going to ask some questions."
Mr. Gramm had said previously that "If Jimmy Carter, Fritz Mondale, Dukakis had been elected, the Berlin Wall would still be standing and Saddam Hussein would probably be in Saudi Arabia."
Mr. Robb, asked whether such a statement was acceptable, said he didn't believe that it was. Moreover, he said, it was not only unseemly to start politicking so soon after the war, but it was bad politics to impugn the patriotism of those who lost the prewar debate over resolutions on the use of force.
Undeterred, Mr. Gramm explained that a vote against the resolution on Jan. 12, when the situation required a show of support for the president, was a sign of bad judgment and caused the president to lose international credibility.
The Democrats, Mr. Gramm explained, "cannot be trusted with foreign policy and defense matters."
Indeed, he suggested, it might be "dangerous" for Thomas S. Foley of Washington to remain speaker of the House and George J. Mitchell of Maine to remain Senate majority leader.
Mr. Robb, one of the Democrats who voted in favor of the war resolution, referred to his combat experience in Vietnam.
And he said -- without mentioning names -- "I always get tired of those who haven't actually fought the war wrapping themselves in the flag and then telling me the Democrats are unpatriotic."
He did not say that during the Vietnam War Mr. Gramm had a deferment to teach school.