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JOAN VENNOCHI

The new machismo

IT'S MACHO time in America.

When Democrats challenge the Bush administration regarding its policy in Iraq, Republicans challenge their patriotism and toughness.

On Friday, the Republican National Committee released a new Web video. It features a white flag of surrender and this theme: ''Our country is at war. Our soldiers are watching, and our enemies are too. Message to Democrats: Retreat and Defeat is not an option." The video highlights recent critical comments about the Iraq war made by Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Senator Barbara Boxer of California.

In essence, to the GOP, ''staying the course" is a measure of strength and masculinity, whether or not the course proves to be successful. And some top Democrats buy into the thesis.

''When people feel uncertain, they would rather have someone who's wrong and strong than somebody who is weak and right," Bill Clinton said in a much-quoted speech to the Democratic Leadership Council in December 2002.

This ''wrong and strong" theory helped George W. Bush win reelection in 2004. This ''wrong and strong" theory continues to help Bush at a time of great doubt about an unpopular war in Iraq.

When it comes to national security policy today, only the most macho of men can afford to show their ''sensitive" side. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, can call for the country to renounce torture because of his personal credentials -- a POW who was tortured by the enemy during the Vietnam War. Others are labeled as weaklings and cowards if they suggest that stooping to the enemies' tactics is poor policy that so far achieved poor results.

Democrats who question administration policy regularly find their manhood under attack. It happened to Kerry during the last presidential contest, even though he was the Vietnam War veteran running against an opponent who served stateside in the National Guard.

Just last month, Vice President Dick Cheney thought nothing of questioning the backbone of Representative John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat whose speech calling for a speedy withdrawal of troops set off a national debate. But Murtha, a Marine intelligence officer in Vietnam, did not take Cheney's attack quietly. He shot back angrily: ''I like guys who've never been there that criticize us who've been there. I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done."

Bush, sensing who had more machismo in this matchup, ended the hostile exchange by calling Murtha a fine man and a supporter of the military. But Democrats remain afraid of looking weak if they sound too antiwar; and the GOP is masterful at exploiting that fear, as the new RNC video demonstrates.

Take Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, whose position on Iraq is no immediate withdrawal, no open-ended commitment to remain there. Her stance infuriates Democrats on the left, a consequence which delights centrist Democrats. Standing up to the peaceniks is not only cool, it's tough. It's another variation of the Clinton-Bush credo: Wrong and strong beats weak and right.

Charles Knight of the Commonwealth Institute, a public policy research center in Cambridge, has spent time analyzing what he calls the ''toughness discourse" in American politics, especially after 9/11. When it comes to national security, he says, ''tough" means ''using violence as a priority tool for international relations."

Backed into a corner by conservatives who equate ''liberal" with unmanly and weak, Democrats are buying into their opponents' definition. Accepting it means agreeing that a punch is the answer to every insult, that violence solves every dispute.

It is believing brawn always beats brains, a conclusion that defies logic, reason, and reality.

Toughness defined in a strictly physical way does not always achieve victory. Might does not make right, nor does it always make everything right. And it is not unmanly to say that.

Might makes right is the credo of the warrior. But there is simple power in right as might.

It is the power of great leaders in religion and politics, from Jesus Christ to Martin Luther King. Throughout history, brave men and women have taken the high moral ground.

Only in America today do we dare call them wimps.

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

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