218 Votes

You may have seen the YouTube video of Rep. David Obey blowing up at an antiwar activist. Yes, Obey was rude, but I think there is fault on both sides here.

Let’s start with activists. Scott Lilly writes,

Tina Richards, the mother of an Iraq war veteran, took the time and energy last week to travel from the rural Missouri Ozarks to her nation’s capital without taking the time to learn what Congress had the power to do with respect to her issue (the war) or what the political realities within Congress made it possible for opponents of the war to accomplish. Accosted by Richards and a crew of young antiwar activists in a Rayburn Office Building hallway, Obey eventually lost patience and responded in the brutally frank but thoroughly honest manner that has been his hallmark. …

…If opponents of the Iraq War truly care about stopping the carnage, it is worth the time and trouble to understand the political process and work for the smartest strategy to end this engagement rather than the one that is most extreme or viscerally satisfying. Passion is only part of the equation. In many instances, passion alone can be counterproductive.

Lilly brings up the Vietnam era. Although the scene in the video isn’t exactly parallel, he has a point that many of the “mindless antics” of protesters in those days didn’t exactly help. This is a point I harp on from time to time; smart activism is grand, but stupid activism is worse than no activism at all.

Harold Meyerson said something similar:

Last week, as he was working to build support for amendments that would impose a 2008 deadline on U.S. combat activities in Iraq, Obey was accosted by Tina Richards, an antiwar activist and mother of a Marine. With YouTube immortalizing the encounter, Richards asked Obey why he was supporting the supplemental war appropriations bill to which the amendments would be attached and why Congress couldn’t just defund the war and bring the troops home now.

Obey erupted. “We can’t get the votes,” he shouted. “Do you see a magic wand in my pocket? We don’t have the votes for it.”

“We’re trying to use the supplemental,” he explained, “to end the war.” Obey has since apologized for blowing up, but that hasn’t deterred some antiwar bloggers from condemning him as some loony warmonger. In a similar vein, other antiwar protesters now ring Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home, calling on her to bring the troops home now.

In effect, what the protesters are doing is making the unattainable perfect the enemy of the barely-attainable good.

Code Pink has been protesting in front of Pelosi’s San Francisco home. I’ll come to that in a minute.

Because Obey is quite right: The votes aren’t there to shut down funding for the war. What he and Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership in both houses are about is finding some way to curtail the president’s determination to pass the war on to his successor regardless of the continuing cost to U.S. interests and lives. Attaching conditions to the appropriations bill is not a foolproof way to accomplish that, as Pelosi and Obey would readily admit. It is merely the best of the imperfect options to wind down U.S. involvement in Iraq, given the narrowness of their congressional majorities and the presence of George W. Bush in the White House.

The antiwar bona fides of Obey and Pelosi are not only in good order, they’re a lot more impressive than those of just about any Democrat running for president. In October 2002, breaking with then-House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, Pelosi led the opposition to the bill authorizing the president to go to war in Iraq. Obey voted with Pelosi and spoke forcefully against U.S. involvement.

Back to Scott Lilly:

Well-meaning people can argue about whether or not such a strategy [defunding] would be good policy or whether or not it would be good politics. But there is little room for argument as to whether such a stance is a viable legislative strategy. There are 435 members of the House and if all are present and voting, 218 must support a proposition before it can even clear the House and be sent to the Senate.

If your opposition to the war extends beyond the blogesphere into the real world where laws are made and decisions have consequences, you have to think about 218 votes, where they might come from and what specific language might make it possible to attain them. It is hard work and it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it is a struggle that we will probably go through repeatedly in the coming months as the Congress and the White House face off on ways to put an end to our tragic involvement in Iraq.

Harold Meyerson:

What Pelosi and Obey understand that their critics on the left seem to ignore is that it will take numerous congressional votes and multiple confrontations with Bush to build the support required to end U.S. involvement. Thanks to the Constitution’s division of powers, Congress and the White House seem bound for months of fighting over the conditions attached to any approval of funds for continuing our operations in Iraq. Over time, as the war drags on, either enough Republicans will join their Democratic colleagues to put an end to U.S. intervention, or they will stick with Bush, thereby ensuring there will be a sufficient number of Democrats in the next Congress to end the war.

As a strategy for ending the war, that may not be a thing of beauty. It is, however, the best that our political and constitutional realities allow.

There was an op ed in yesterday’s New York Times by a couple of Clinton Administration justice department officials titled “The Purse Isn’t Congress’s Only Weapon.” They make a very strong argument that the “defunding” option is far from the only way to go, and may not be the best way to stop the war.

But Tina Richards got it into her head that the options are defunding or nothing. Tina Richards was on Hardball last Friday, and I will tell you frankly that she annoyed the hell out of me, because for someone who presumes to be an activist she is grossly naive and uninformed. Here’s part of the exchange.

MATTHEWS: You‘re smart. You‘re lobbying this issue. Why do you think a guy like Obey—he said it to you. I heard him say that. I watched the tape two or three times. He said, We can‘t cut off the funding because if we cut off the funding, we will be accused of cutting off armor and equipment for the soldiers fighting in the field.

RICHARDS: Exactly. And then he says that we can‘t get the votes. Yet you have the leadership of the Democratic Party, you have Nancy Pelosi, you have Steny Hoyer, you have Chris Van Holland (ph) all saying that, We can‘t get the votes, and then they use the Republican talking points as to what is happening if they do stop the funding. And it makes no sense. If they…

MATTHEWS: Well, they‘re saying two things. They‘re saying they don‘t have the 218 to pass the majority, and then they‘re saying, But if we do pass the majority, they‘ll kill us politically by saying, They‘ve cut off reinforcements to our troops in the field. You know that‘s what they‘re going to say.

RICHARDS: You know what? Yes. And I understand that the Republican talking points are exactly that. And the point is, is that our sons and daughters are dying over there every day. …

… MATTHEWS: How do we—how do you achieve your goal of ending this war in Iraq? How do you do it?

RICHARDS: There is the Lee amendment that asked for the fully funded withdrawal of the troops, which Obey had responded as a dismissal, not even to consider it, that I didn‘t know what I was talking about, without even looking…


MATTHEWS: … Barbara Lee of Oakland and Berkeley, yes.

RICHARDS: Yes. And he didn‘t even want to discuss that. And that was partly why I‘ve been on the Hill every single day…

MATTHEWS: But how many votes…

RICHARDS: … trying to lobby Congress.

MATTHEWS: … do you think Barbara Lee‘s proposal would do, where it says, We‘ll spend enough money to bring the troops home but not to keep them there? How many votes do you think that would get in the Congress?

RICHARDS: I think that if Nancy Pelosi…


RICHARDS: … and Steny Hoyer and the Democrat leadership stopped exerting pressure to hush everybody that is coming out against it and started to support it, I think that they would have the votes to pass it.

MATTHEWS: But they don‘t think so.

RICHARDS: Because they‘re not trying. They‘re using the Republican talking points. As long as they‘re using the Republican talking points…

MATTHEWS: Are you saying that they‘re really for the war?

RICHARDS: I‘m saying that they‘re trying to do what‘s politically savvy and not what‘s best for our troops.

MATTHEWS: How do you think they can actually get the 218 votes that are necessary to pass a majority and cut off the money?

RICHARDS: Well, I think…

MATTHEWS: They say they can‘t find those votes. I heard Obey yelling at you. He got overwrought there. You got him excited.

RICHARDS: I was hearing that, and then…

MATTHEWS: And he was saying, We just—I don‘t have a magic wand. He opened up his coat like this, he says, I don‘t have a magic wand in here. Where‘s my 218 votes? Could you help him do it? Would you have—do you have enough power in your group, or anybody in the anti-war forces, to get 218 Democrats to end this war?

MATTHEWS: I‘m just one person. I‘m a mother.

MATTHEWS: I know. You got…

RICHARDS: And I spoke with Reverend Nearwood (ph) the other day, and he said the power of a mother‘s love can bring down nations.

MATTHEWS: But can it get 218 votes in the House of Representatives?

Harold Meyerson:

There are those, of course, who object to Pelosi’s even having a strategy to end the war. The lead editorial in yesterday’s Post, for example, took Pelosi to task as playing politics with the war by attempting to craft legislation that could actually win votes from all wings of her party. “The only constituency” that “Pelosi ignored in her plan,” The Post complained, “are the people of the country that U.S. troops are fighting to stabilize.” Rather than heeding the needs of Iraqis, Pelosi is concentrating on the 2008 elections, The Post concluded.

My paper, I fear, is off by two years. If the United States is still in Iraq come November 2008, the Democrats will sweep to power. It’s the 2006 elections that are to blame for this nefarious Democratic plan to wind down the war, for the Democrats ran on precisely that platform, and, more to the point, they won on it. The only constituency that The Post ignored in its assessment of Pelosi’s plan, and the chief constituency she is trying to heed, is the American people. They have charged the Pelosis and Obeys with the messy task of ending this fiasco, which, to their credit, is exactly what Pelosi and Obey are trying to do.

That doesn’t mean activists should go home. Scott Lilly:

At a very minimum, I would urge my fellow Ozarker, Tina Richards, to refocus her efforts in at least one respect. Your representative in Congress is not Dave Obey; it is Jo Ann Emerson, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee. Unlike Obey, however, she does not (at least openly) agree with you on the President’s Iraq policy. If you, your friends, and your neighbors would spend more time talking to Emerson, then Obey might find the votes for language that you and he would both like better than the language on which he will likely be forced to settle.

Exactly. Go after congress critters who support the bleeping war. Instead of whining, work to round up those 218 votes. I’ll say the same thing to the Code Pink twits who are camping out at Pelosi’s home — stop being stupid. Stop grandstanding and throwing publicity stunts and put your energies into compiling those 218 votes. There are plenty of other people in the House, including many Democrats, who need their feet held to fire; Pelosi is not one of them.

At Talk Left, Big Tent Democrat complains that Scott Lilly endorsed “doing nothing.” No, dear; he’s asking people who presume to be activists to stop being stupid about it.

I’ll say it again: The Vietnam era experience taught us that stupid activism is worse than no activism at all. Stupid activism plays into the hands of the opposition. If you’re going to be a stupid activist, please stay home. But if you can do your homework, understand the issues, and appreciate which people in congress are working for us and which aren’t, then by all means — be an activist.

I’m not going to let Pelosi and Obey off the hook entirely. I think they could be doing more to keep us informed of what they are up to. There’s so much noise in media that it is hard to separate what’s real from what’s propaganda. I checked Pelosi’s congressional web page, and there is no information on where she is at this moment on the Iraq issue. We need direct communication between Congress and people who oppose the war, and bloggers can play a part in that. For that matter, they could post information on Huffington Post or several other well-trafficked sites. There’s no excuse for anyone in Congress to rely only on the MSM to get their message out.

Tina Richards is from Salem, Missouri, which is a lovely community not too far from where I grew up. Her son, a Marine, has served two tours of duty. She is obviously sincere and passionate about ending the war, and she says on her web site that she wants Rep. Obey, who has apologized to her, to join her “in a calm and respectful dialogue that will allow us to find common ground to end ‘this stupid war.'”

But respect goes both ways, and frankly if I were Congressman Obey I wouldn’t want to “dialogue” with anyone — especially [someone who is] not a constituent — who hasn’t even tried to understand what the options are. If you are going to presume to be an activist on a particular issue, you really ought to learn something about it first. Just being passionate and well-intentioned is not enough.

David Sirota

Saul Alinsky’s famous mantra is that successful organizers and activists have to start with the world as it is, not as the utopia we want it to be. That is the difference between people serious about challenging power and people serious only about blowing off steam and promoting themselves. The war is too huge an issue to allow the latter to substitute for the former. We can stop the war – but only if we buckle down, get serious and do the hard, unglamorous work that it will take to be successful.

8 thoughts on “218 Votes

  1. First of all, I’m amazed that anyone from Salem managed to kick over the glass of Koolaid long enough to become a war protestor.

    Second of all, I’m in love with this post because it says so much that people need to learn about serious and effective protest, as opposed to I-feel-good-because-I-protested protesting.

    Finally, I snark at Salem because I grew up in Rolla, and I’d be amazed if people there had managed to push the Koolaid glass away long enough to complain, too. Espcially given the mindset of the editor and owner of the local paper.

  2. Thanks for this level-headed look at the Tina Richards / David Obey encounter and the poor utilization of Tina’s passion and need to end the Iraq war in helping advance what legislators like Obey are actually trying to accomplish in Congress.

    A friend of mine put up a lengthy comment at Dailykos which adds some needed perspective:

    Ships Passing in the Night

    What is the role of activists in the legislative process? How does their role differ from what legislators actually do?

    These questions frame a never-ending source of confusion and misunderstanding, which is not surprising given the paradox at the heart of this activist/legislator relationship. How often are activists disappointed that some legislator failed to fight as hard as they had expected? And how often do you hear of legislators who are frustrated by their interactions with activist communities? (And note that this phenomenon is not partisan.)

    It is the nature of activists to be pure of heart and purpose. They know what they want, and they will accept no compromise. I would argue that as activists, it is their duty and their responsibility to be as aggressive and bull-headed as possible in pushing their goals.

    It was not for nothing that Frederick Douglass, one of the keenest activist minds in the country’s history, famously observed:

    “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

    I’ve heard that quote a million times. This time I did a little research, and discovered the much richer material from which this quote was abstracted. Here’s the complete text:

    “Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

    “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”

    Looking at this relationship from the legislator’s side, it is the nature of legislators to compromise. The legislator’s heart is torn between holding out for the ideal, and taking any step forward, however incremental that step may seem. There are times when doing nothing may be the best that can be done. But the legislative process is decisively tilted in the direction of getting all parties to stop talking past each other and identify whatever common ground can be found.

    This tendency can be gamed, for better and for worse. For example, it is common for legislators to attach legislation that could not pass on its own to “must pass” bills, forcing legislators to decide whether to accept something they would vote against on an Up or Down vote, or vote against the entire package.

    In the end, I do not believe that there is any happy meeting place between deeply committed activists and their legislative representatives. If activists believe that their cause is just and absolute, then compromising is anathema. By the same token, legislators who are leaning in the activists’ direction will struggle to understand why activists are not happy with half a loaf, or two-thirds of a loaf.

    The answer to this paradox is mutual understanding of the different roles they play, not changing the roles. Legislators should not be hurt or angered when people whom they think of as supporters continue to demand more than the legislative process of compromising can deliver in the moment. Activist pressure is absolutely essential if the proffered compromises are not to become even weaker, much less empowering the legislators to go back to the table once again and push for more.

    At the same time, activists should understand that even the best legislators are hemmed in by the legislative process, and that taking a stand that removes the legislator from the table may produce worse results because of the absence of that voice.

    This is not to say that activists should in any way reduce the pressure on legislators to do what activists think is right.

    by richardbelldc on Fri Mar 09, 2007 at 04:30:42 PM EDT

    As I said elsewhere,

    Yes, Tina is fighting for her son but she needs to fight smartly. Whoever helped her prepare for this encounter failed her. They failed all of us in not preparing Tina to maximize the opportunity she had to connect with Rep. Obey, who is a good-hearted and honorable man who has fought many unpopular battles in Congress. Tina failed to listen to what a veteran representative from the US Congress who is sympathetic to her cause was telling her. She needed to really hear him… More could have been accomplished in this encounter than was.

    Being rightfully angry is fine but don’t let it get in the way of accomplishing what you need to accomplish.

  3. Well, without comment preview my blockquoting didn’t quite work out above.

    The text between the second & third quotes is still part of the quote from richardbelldc. The 3rd quote is his quotation of the Douglass quote. The text after the 3rd quote continues to be part of richard’s quote all the way down to where it says “by richardbelldc”.

    After that, it’s my commentary.

  4. THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!This is what I have been trying to say exactly!!!!!WHY WHY WHY is anyone even talking to those whom we already have the vote from???What a total waste of time.Talk about preaching to the choir!!!Those who(for good reason) piss and moan about ending the war need to put relentless pressure on those who we DON’T have the bloomin vote /support of…DUUUUUHHH!Those who still support this war ought not be able to use the restroom in peace the pressure should be so intense and if we ALL had been focused in that direction for the past several months who knows we may have the votes by now.There are close to 400 million (?) or so people in this country..so what,? roughly 250 million adult voices that could be heard right about now?And that many people couldn’t put more pressure on those still supporting this war than karl rove??Please.
    Sadly, what joe six pack and his family don’t seem to understand is yes,they did their jobs in nov , trying to send a message to those who are paid to represent us that we want an end, but the job is far from done.The problem is there is no one to point that out to the masses.Those who were elected by the people but who seem to think they”serve at the pleasure of the president” didn’t seem to hear us in nov..Perhaps it is time for the American people to speak a little louder to those people.
    And to those on the left in congress and the senate, no, they don’t get a free pass either.What are they doing to make life a living hell for those congress critters who won’t get on board???Pork for states that support the war, ah,hell no!No little pet projects for senators and congress who won’t listen to the will of the American people.Screw rewarding bad behavior.There are a million ways that these people can be punished.Call sat votes so they can’t go home…roll out the damn cots.Congress and the senate can become a real crappy place to work.It is no sin to make those who support a war that the American people do not uncomfortable…the troops sure as hell are not comfortable.
    It is time to make those who still support this lives unbearable want a vacation with your family in private?So do the troops.Bring them home and support the American people and we won’t have to bother your vacation asking you to do your job.You want to use the bathroom in private?So do the troops…imagine trying to have a few minutes privacy in a war zone.Bring home the troops and we won’t have to bother you in the restroom asking you to do your job and carry out the will of the American people for whom you work.WE ARE THEIR BOSSES AND WE HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO NAG THEM IF THEY DON’T CARRY OUT OUR WILL.But why nag those who are willing to do what the American people have asked?
    Perhaps the DNC or someone should put up billboards in states with representatives who will not serve the will of those who sent them to Washington to do just that telling voters WHO is stopping the war from being ended.And telling voters to call this congress critter daily and voice their displeasure.
    Obey was an asshole, but he was exactly right. So what are we gonna do about it?Bills in our state senates to condemn certain members for their vote to keep the war going?Petition drives with voters names delivered to senators who won’t listen? What?I vote for pressure so intense that the senators in question WISH they were in bagdad serving in a nice peaceful war zone.If their aides went home crying at the end of the day from the mass of calls they took it wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all.If they felt so trapped by the voice of the people on their shoulders it wouldn’t be half of what they are subjecting our troops to.If they need that much pressure to do their jobs I say it is worth it to save the lives of our young men and women…but I also say it needs to be made clear to the voting masses that these people refused to do their jobs until they were forced and maybe we need to look for their replacement.

  5. Great post. I have long wondered why the anti-war left focuses so much energy on purity of approach. It is a common phenomenon — I saw it among anti-apartheid groups in south africa in the 1980s too — but not productive.

  6. Hi there,

    I am actually the one with Tina in the video. It is true we are their bosses! Rep. Obey was extremely rude and arrogant; if I had talked to my boss the way he talked to Tina — I would have been fired. He is known for this style. Frankly, I don’t know if he is a good-hearted man or not, but he didn’t handle himself well. I am glad he apologized — to Tina (I didn’t need it).

    You are right we did not do a very good job preparing. I didn’t even recognize his face, but Tina did. But come on she is a military mom not a professional lobbyist. Anyhow, she is doing the best she can walking those halls of power and corruption day in and day out.

    The point is the Dem leadership has not tried very hard to get the 218 votes. They almost immediately went to work putting window dressing on Bush’s military supplemental request.

  7. Petein —

    Anyhow, she is doing the best she can walking those halls of power and corruption day in and day out.

    “The best she can” is not going to cut it. I believe she is doing more harm than good.

    The point is the Dem leadership has not tried very hard to get the 218 votes.

    Bullshit. Jerrold Nadler — who for years has been one of the staunchest and most reliably progressive members of Congress — believes that if the Dems push too far they’ll get nothing. If Nadler says this, you can take it to the bank.Pelosi is pushing a proposal that she believes has a shot at passage. The proposal may be imperfect, but it’s way better than nothing.

    Both of you — go home. Please. Let people who know what’s actually going on walk the halls of power and corruption.

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