If there was ever a time to embrace Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette's theory that compromise undermines progress it is now.
The pioneering progressive reformer of the first decades of the twentieth century never fell for the calculus that said taking half a loaf was better than nothing. "I believe that half a loaf is fatal whenever it is accepted at the sacrifice of the basic principle sought to be attained," argued the senator who led the dissents against Woodrow Wilson's world war, to great complaint at the time but to such eventual praise that he would be ranked by the Senate itself as one of its five greatest members. "Half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf. A halfway measure never fairly tests the principle and may utterly discredit it. It is certain to weaken, disappoint, and dissipate public interest. Concession and compromise are almost always necessary in legislation, but they call for the most thorough and complete mastery of the principles involved, in order to fix the limit beyond which not one hair's breadth can be yielded."
In the Senate where La Follette served so honorably and so effectively for two decades, his successors are not even peddling half a loaf today. They are holding up a piece of crust and trying to convince us that they are serving a feast.
Almost four years into a war that should never have been fought in the first place, with all the evidence that anyone could ask for pointing to the fact that things are getting worse rather than better, senators are trying to muster the will to support a non-binding expression of mild distaste for President Bush's troop surge fantasy.
Non-binding resolutions are the political equivalent of room-temperature tap water served up for toasts at a wedding reception. They beg the question: "What the hell are these people thinking?"
If senators wanted to tell Bush he was wrong, they should have moved a non-binding resolution the day he announced his scheme to surge 21,5OO additional troops into a quagmire of his own creation. Then, they should have gotten down to the serious business of obeying their sworn oaths to uphold a Constitution that requires them to check and balance an errant executive.
Instead, the Senate has dithered for the best part of a month and come up with something worse than a simple objection.
In order to forge a bipartisan alliance, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and the ranking Republican on the committee, Virginia's John Warner, have written a resolution that, in order to allow a few scared solons to place some rhetorical distance between themselves and a failed president, threatens to put the Senate on record as favoring more aggressive fighting in some parts of Iraq and opposing any effort to use the power of the purse to constrain the madness of our current King George.
One senator has objected to the Levin-Warner resolution for precisely the right reasons.
That senator, perhaps not surprisingly, represents not only La Follette's home state of Wisconsin but La Follette's progressive tradition.
"I oppose the weak Warner-Levin resolution as currently written because it misunderstands the situation in Iraq and shortchanges our national security interests," says Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has emerged as the chamber's most consistent critic of the war. "The resolution rejects redeploying U.S. troops and supports moving a misguided military strategy from one part of Iraq to another. The American people have rejected the President's Iraq strategy and it's time for Congress to end our military involvement in this war. We must redeploy our troops from Iraq so that we can focus on the global threats that face us."
Feingold, who has fought an essential struggle to get the Congress to recognize its responsibility as a coequal branch of government to check the president, says that the Senate can and should force the President to safely redeploy U.S. troops out of Iraq by enacting legislation that would prohibit further funding of military operations in that country six months after its passage.
Bob La Follette would warn today's senators not to let the crusty Levin-Warner compromise dull the appetite and destroy the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf that is Feingold's Iraq Redeployment Act of 2OO7. La Follette would, as well, tell today's citizens not to forget or forgive those senators who, when the need to bring the troops home was so evident, chose to engage in non-binding theatrics rather than to act as defenders of the Constitution and the republic for which it was written.
John Nichols' latest book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism.