The congressional Democratic leaders’ big problem: they can’t count.
Given the choice of funding the unpopular Iraq war or being accused by George W. Bush of succumbing to a defeatism that endangers America’s security, a majority of senators and representatives clearly prefers Option One. This group is composed mostly of Republicans. But a slice of Democrats are within its ranks. Such a reality couldn’t be hurdled by Democratic leaders in the House and Senate during the just-ended face-off over an Iraq war funding bill. The Democrats tried at first to have it both ways and ended up with nothing–except a flood of resentment from their core supporters. Amid the debris, there’s a lesson for them.
Led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democrats thought they could cleverly force Bush to end (or, at least, begin ending) the war. They oppose the war, but their plan was to vote for Iraq war funds and attach a variety of conditions, including benchmarks and a withdrawal schedule, to the funding measure. Such a move would have both continued the war and established a glide path for its end (that is, the end of active US combat participation in the conflict). A few Democrats who wanted to just say no to the war bolted, but Pelosi managed to craft a Rube Goldberg measure that won the barest party-line majority possible. (There was doubt whether the legislation would do much in concrete terms, for it contained escape clauses Bush could exploit.) In the Senate, Reid, with his fellow Democrats aboard, passed a less complicated bill that called for beginning a withdrawal in several months. Next, the president vetoed the blended bill that subsequently emerged.
That was no surprise. For the Democrats, the question was, what to do next? Antiwar advocates, such as the members of MoveOn, demanded the Dems hang tough. Former Senator John Edwards, a presidential candidate, called for Pelosi and Reid to keep passing the same bill in defiance of Bush’s veto, as Edwards sought to pressure two rivals, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The media portrayed the episode as a showdown between congressional Democrats and Bush. The key issue: who would blink first?
The answer came on Thursday night when the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate essentially turned tail and allowed votes on a $120 billion war funding measure containing weak benchmarks and little in the way of consequences should the Iraqi government fall short. GOPers provided most of the support for the legislation, but in the House 86 Democrats voted for it (including such leaders as Representatives Steny Hoyer, Rahm Emanuel, James Clyburn and John Murtha). In the Senate, 37 of 50 Democrats went along. Toward the end of the vote in the Senate, Obama voted nay; then Hillary Clinton followed suit.
The war continues. No checks, no balances.
Grassroots and antiwar Democrats who expected their party’s win last November to lead to the war’s end are enraged. As they see it–and accurately so–a Democratic-controlled Congress has failed to halt or slow Bush’s war in Iraq, even though public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans favor establishing a withdrawal timetable. And, worse, many Democrats have now voted to give the war, with the ongoing escalation, another chance. The Democratic Party leaders stand alienated from their base–while congressional Republicans, though out of step with popular sentiment, are in sync with their core supporters.
Was such an unhappy (for the Democrats) outcome inevitable? Probably. The Democrats do not have the votes to stop the war, even in their own caucus–unless they are audaciously willing to defy majority rule (say, by preventing war funding legislation from reaching the floor). Most House Democrats do favor withdrawing from Iraq. Days ago, 169 House Democrats (and two Republicans) voted for such a measure. And 28 Democratic senators voted for a similar bill. Yet a significant minority of Democrats are aligned with almost all the Republicans in opposition to a legislatively-mandated pullback. Some of these Democrats may believe in the war; many probably fear being blamed for the ugly consequences that could ensue in Iraq following a removal of US troops. In any event, the Democrats were mathematically destined to disappoint those hoping they would suffocate Bush’s war in Iraq.
The denouement, though, did not have to be so dismal for the Democrats. If the Democrats had at the start not attempted to outfox an uncompromising commander in chief, they could have reaped the rewards of moral (or political) clarity. Had Pelosi offered a bill forcing a withdrawal of US forces within a year, she would have lost the vote on that measure. But she would have been in a position to declare, “Most of the Democratic Party want to end this war, but because some of our members (and practically all of the Republicans) disagree, we cannot pass legislation to achieve this…yet.” A clear picture would have been painted: the war belongs to Bush and the Republicans.
After that, Pelosi could have permitted the Republicans to bring forward an appropriations bill for the war. The Democrats could have offered various benchmarks, conditions, timetables, and deadlines via amendments. Most would have failed, a few (but no withdrawal deadlines) might have passed. Again, there would be clarity. The narrative would have been that the Democrats first tried to stop the war and then attempted to place limits on the war. If they failed, they failed. Sure, there still would have been anger from the base at those Democrats who bucked the Democratic gameplan. But the party’s grassroots and netroots–and the rest of the public–would have seen that the Democratic leadership had endeavored to change course in Iraq.
The House Democratic leaders can now contend that they did try to force a change on Bush and point to the 140 Dems who voted against the war funding bill. But this claim cannot overcome the appearance of Democratic strategizing gone awry. The Democrats created too much confusing context for their failure. Bush had a simple position: I want my war the way I want it, and if the Democrats don’t give it to me, they’ll be harming the troops and bear responsibility for whatever ill befalls America from the evildoers. The Democrats presented a series of hard-to-follow and hard-to-explain gyrations. They were rolled.
At the end of the day, Bush and the GOP–who are on the wrong side of public opinion on the war–came out political winners. And the Democrats looked divided, confused, and weak. Which brings me back to the first point. In politics, you can sometimes turn a liability (not enough votes) into an asset, if you play for a clean loss that sends the right message. That’s not what happened on this round.
The match is not over. The war slogs on, and Congress will face another vote on war funds in the fall. Lawmakers of both parties are already saying that September will be the make-or-break month, meaning that if there are no obvious signs of progress by summer’s end, even Republicans may start to proclaim enough’s enough. “This is not the end of the debate,” Pelosi asserted before voting against the war funding measure. She’s right about that.
Pelosi and Reid will get another shot at Bush’s war soon. Democrats should wonder what their leaders learned from this defeat.
DON”T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris “the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations” and “fascinating reading.” The Washington Post says, “There have been many books about the Iraq war….This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” Tom Brokaw notes Hubris “is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.