With George W. Bush intent on escalating the war in Iraq, Congressional Democrats face a choice: Do they pass legislation (like the Carl Levin-backed Senate resolution) that condemns the escalation but does nothing to stop it, or do they attempt to use their constitutional authority to allocate funds to prevent the escalation from actually happening, as Senator Edward Kennedy proposes in the legislation he has sponsored? Hillary Clinton has lined up on the former side, Barack Obama, seemingly (though still unclear), on the latter. The choice promises to be the central question Democrats face over the next two years: Will their opposition be one of words or of deeds?

This question carries more urgency now that Democrats are finally in a position to shape policy. “Six months ago, I would have been thrilled with a Senate resolution condemning the war,” a net-savvy progressive organizer recently told me. “Now it seems kind of wimpy.” Under the GOP Congress and Bush White House, all the Democrats had was their ability to spread their message across platforms and communicate to voters their opposition to the Republican agenda, a reality not lost on the much-maligned netroots. That said, as important as message was, it was easy for an Internet-powered grassroots progressive movement–which uses media (e-mail and blogs) that are logocentric by their very nature–to make a fetish of it. When a Democrat, even a conservative one like Robert Byrd, gave a particularly eloquent condemnation of the war in Iraq or the abuses at Guantánamo, he would garner approving quotes and links. But evaluating politicians chiefly by their rhetorical passion made for some strange bedfellows: Many supported Paul Hackett over a much more progressive, though less bombastic, Sherrod Brown, and Jim Webb, who is downright conservative on some issues, became a progressive cause célèbre.

But now Democrats have some real power, and we must rethink how to evaluate their performance. What are the relative values of words and deeds–speechifying and legislating? It’s a question that’s been gnawing at many in the blogosphere who worked hard to bring the Democratic Congress about. “Now that we are in the majority, we need to move past endless parsing of the words our leaders say, and focus instead on the policies they intend to pursue,” wrote MyDD’s Chris Bowers in response to outrage in the blogosphere over a quote from Harry Reid that appeared to support escalation. “It was ridiculous in the first place to think that Reid supported troop escalation in Iraq, considering that he voted for a timeline thirteen months ago…. We are not in the minority anymore, and we are not Republicans…this means that our politics is more than our message. It is time we started acting that way.” Duncan Black, on his blog, Eschaton, echoed Bowers’s sentiments: “We all need to come to terms with…the fact that the Democrats actually have power now. Messaging is still important, and they still shouldn’t screw it up. But it isn’t the only power they have now, and it isn’t the most important power they have.”

But old habits are hard to break. Only a few weeks before this post, Kos diarists piled on Obama for a three-month-old interview in which he said he found Daily Kos boring and predictable. Bowers wrote an impassioned piece on MyDD expressing his frustration with Obama’s habit of setting up unnamed left-wingers as foils to his own sober moderation. (In front of a New York magazine reporter, Obama told supporters that he’s “not one of those people who cynically believes Bush went in only for the oil.”) “Why,” Bowers asked, “is it necessary for Obama to preface his opposition to the war by saying that he isn’t like some crazy, left-wing stereotype that he never names or quotes?”

It’s a fair question, but the answer is pretty straightforward. Like anyone running for the highest office in the land, Obama wants to make sure he grabs the centrist mantle. If the American people are rhetorically conservative and operationally liberal, as political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril once noted, then it shouldn’t be surprising that Democrats with national aspirations adopt a similar stance. And if a presidential run entails compromise, better that it be rhetorical betrayal (taking potshots at the netroots and other lefties) than a substantive one (voting for a disastrous war to boost your national security bona fides, or a heinous bankruptcy bill to please your donors).

The GOP seems to have a good grasp of this: In 2000 Bush ran as a centrist compromiser, not as the radical he has been in office, and current GOP frontrunner John McCain continues to craft an aura of independence that masks a conservative record.

As we enter the new era of Democratic control of Congress and the early stages of the presidential campaign, it’s important to keep our eye on the ball. We need to end the war in Iraq, repeal the bankruptcy bill, raise taxes on the rich and move toward universal healthcare. If a Democratic politician wants to support all that while bashing Daily Kos, or The Nation, then please, by all means go ahead. Sticks, stones and all that.