WASHINGTON – Symbols are everything in politics. They can get you elected — or defeated.
That's why Democrats fear getting singed by a proposed flag-burning ban, forced into a vote that Republicans will cast as a test of patriotism.
The GOP-led House voted 286-130 on a measure Wednesday that would give Congress authority to ban desecration of a U.S. flag. Its prospects aren't good in the Senate, but Republicans could still get what they want — an issue that divides or even conquers Democrats in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Democratic Party leaders generally don't want to tamper with free-speech rights in the Constitution, but they were split on whether to bow to political pressure. After all, the flag means more than ever after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and Republicans are not shy about evoking Sept. 11 in political fights.
They did it in the 2002 congressional elections, gaining seats, and again in 2004, when terrorism remained the defining issue of congressional races and President Bush's re-election bid. Republicans returned to Sept. 11 in the flag-burning debate.
"Ask the men and women who stood on top of the Trade Center," said Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham (search), R-Calif. "Ask them and they will tell you: 'Pass this amendment.'"
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (search), D-N.Y., whose district includes the site of the former World Trade Center, accused Republicans of exploiting the attacks.
"If the flag needs protection at all," he said, "it needs protection from members of Congress who value the symbol more than the freedoms that the flag represents."
Still, some Democrats, mostly moderates, said the power of that symbol shouldn't be underestimated.
"I can't imagine when it gets down to it that any Democrat would vote against the ban," Democratic strategist Ray Strother said. "Something strange is happening in this country. More than ever, people seem to be looking for symbols. What does this flag amendment really mean? Doesn't matter; it's a symbol for something else. People, particularly the conservative movement, are trying to leave a trail of signs that have larger implications."
He pointed to the Georgia Senate race in 2002 when Sen. Max Cleland (search), who lost both legs and an arm in a grenade explosion in Vietnam, lost his re-election bid after Republicans ran ads with pictures of Usama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein that blamed him for thwarting Bush's plans for a Homeland Security Department. Strother said the ad was an assault on Cleland's patriotism, a sample of what Democrats can expect if they don't rush to the defense of the flag.
"Democrats ought not put themselves in a position of fighting symbolic fights that are meaningless," said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane of San Francisco. Instead, he urged Democrats to find wedge issues that can be used against Republicans, such as passing a congressional resolution demanding to know why bin Laden is still free.
But many Democrats say it's cowardly not to fight the ban, and are convinced they won't be punished by voters for doing so.
"Voters simply don't believe Democrats are hostile to the American flag," Democratic strategist Jim Jordan said.
Still, he conceded the issue "makes Democrats' knees wobbly," and said some politicians are in a tough spot — "surrounded by staff and consultants and supporters who are probably more worried about this than they ought to be."
According to a 2004 poll by the Freedom Forum, the most recent available, 53 percent of Americans believed the Constitution should not be amended to make flag-burning illegal, while 45 percent supported a ban.
An informal survey by The Associated Press found 35 senators on record as opposing the amendment — one more than the number needed to defeat it if all 100 senators vote.
It will not be an easy vote, as evidenced by the carefully worded statement issued by New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. "I support federal legislation that would outlaw flag desecration, much like laws that currently prohibit the burning of crosses, but I don't believe a constitutional amendment is the answer," she said, adopting a position similar to the one taken by her husband, former President Clinton, when he was in office.
Her aides said there is no contradiction in being against the flag-burning amendment and for a flag-burning law.
They say she believes a federal law would not trample First Amendment rights because, like laws against cross burnings, it would ban flag desecration that is deemed to pose a threat to others — and not acts of political expression that are protected by the First Amendment.
However, a law like the one proposed by the senator would likely be challenged in courts because Congress has no clear right to outlaw flag burning. That is why supporters of the ban want to add a one-line amendment to the Constitution that says, "The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."
Whether it passes now, later or never, the proposed amendment complicates the lives of chastened Democrats. Says Strother: "We now know the power of these symbols."