By Bruce Ramsey
On Memorial Day, a political rival condemned Sen. Maria Cantwell for her votes in support of the war in Afghanistan. He urged her to demand that the U.S. military "withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible."
Regarding civilian contractors, the rival said, the United States should "be more wary of involving a profit motive for corporations in these wars."
Was this a Seattle Democrat, thundering from the left? No. It was state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, 36, Republican of Spokane. After next Tuesday's primary election, he will likely be Cantwell's opponent in November.
Baumgartner speaks from experience. He served in Iraq for the U.S. State Department and in Helmand province, Afghanistan, as a civilian worker in counternarcotics work. Afghanistan is a tribal country. It is a place, he says, "too poor and too remote for our massive American war effort to make any sense," and it has been corrupted by American cash. American soldiers should leave, he says, and let Afghanistan "revert to the norm."
Mitt Romney doesn't talk that way, nor do the four Republicans who represent Washington in Congress. One example: "Our country remains under threat from terrorism," says Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler's Web page, "and we can't allow Afghanistan to turn back into a safe haven for those who wish to see America's destruction."
That's Bush-Cheney Republicanism. It's old stuff, not credible and not what I'm hearing this year from Baumgartner and some other new voices.
Take the 6th Congressional District. It has the Naval Shipyard and the Trident sub base. For 18 years, the 6th has been represented by Rep. Norm Dicks, the quintessential military Democrat. Next January, Dicks retires. The leading Republican contender to replace him is an ex-Marine businessman who returned to the Corps in middle age to serve in Iraq. His name is Bill Driscoll.
At his endorsement interview at The Times, Driscoll, 49, starts by talking about the death, destruction and debt from war. "We need tighter control of the use of the military," he says. "Our military has been used too frequently."
And for the wrong things. "Democracy does not come from the barrel of an M-16," Driscoll says.
Move to the new 2nd District. The incumbent, running again, is Rep. Rick Larsen, Democrat. The main Republican challenger there is Boeing 747 instructor Dan Matthews, 62. Matthews served as an Air Force pilot in Vietnam and Desert Storm. He calls President Obama's intervention in Libya "premature," and says of Afghanistan, "We ought to get out."
Explaining himself, Matthews says, "Americans are not militaristic. We are a peaceful people. We are not out there building an empire."
Sometimes it feels like an empire, and not a successful one. For a decade, Republican leaders who had never been in a war supported wars that went on and on to no good end. They lost elections and were replaced by Democrats who promised change and delivered only a little of it.
The three candidates quoted here -- Baumgartner, Driscoll and Matthews -- sound a different tone. They speak from experience. They know war.
Whether any of them will win in November I don't know. The odds are against all of them. But if they don't change Congress, at least they are changing the conversation in their own party. Regarding war, the Republican Party needs to get beyond the slogan, "Support our troops."