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 nationâ€™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.
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 everyoneâ€™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.
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 Isnâ€™t Congressâ€™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: Youâ€˜re smart. Youâ€˜re lobbying this issue. Why do you think a guy like Obeyâ€”he said it to you. I heard him say that. I watched the tape two or three times. He said, We canâ€˜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 canâ€˜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 canâ€˜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, theyâ€˜re saying two things. Theyâ€˜re saying they donâ€˜t have the 218 to pass the majority, and then theyâ€˜re saying, But if we do pass the majority, theyâ€˜ll kill us politically by saying, Theyâ€˜ve cut off reinforcements to our troops in the field. You know thatâ€˜s what theyâ€˜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 weâ€”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 didnâ€˜t know what I was talking about, without even looking…
MATTHEWS: … Barbara Lee of Oakland and Berkeley, yes.
RICHARDS: Yes. And he didnâ€˜t even want to discuss that. And that was partly why Iâ€˜ve been on the Hill every single day…
MATTHEWS: But how many votes…
RICHARDS: … trying to lobby Congress.
MATTHEWS: … do you think Barbara Leeâ€˜s proposal would do, where it says, Weâ€˜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 donâ€˜t think so.
RICHARDS: Because theyâ€˜re not trying. Theyâ€˜re using the Republican talking points. As long as theyâ€˜re using the Republican talking points…
MATTHEWS: Are you saying that theyâ€˜re really for the war?
RICHARDS: Iâ€˜m saying that theyâ€˜re trying to do whatâ€˜s politically savvy and not whatâ€˜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 canâ€˜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 justâ€”I donâ€˜t have a magic wand. He opened up his coat like this, he says, I donâ€˜t have a magic wand in here. Whereâ€˜s my 218 votes? Could you help him do it? Would you haveâ€”do you have enough power in your group, or anybody in the anti-war forces, to get 218 Democrats to end this war?
MATTHEWS: Iâ€˜m just one person. Iâ€˜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 motherâ€˜s love can bring down nations.
MATTHEWS: But can it get 218 votes in the House of Representatives?
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 Presidentâ€™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.
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.