Although I disagree with Jonathan Alter that “Democrats in Congress had no choice but to proceed the way they have this week on the war in Iraq,” I suspect he is right when he says “what’s going on inside the Democratic Party now is a family argument about tactics, not principle.”

I’ve seen many assumptions that the Dems folded because they don’t understand War Is Bad or that they secretly support the war and intend to keep it going. But I think Alter speaks for the Dems (and note that I think the Dems are mistaken) when he writes,

The whole “support the troops” meme has become a terrible problem for Democrats. Even though, as Glenn Greenwald has argued in Salon, cutting off funding doesn’t mean soldiers will have their guns and bullets and armor taken away in the middle of a battle, Americans have been convinced that it does. They want to end the war and support the troops at the same time—i.e., send back the food and still eat.

This is not a figment of some spineless Democrat’s imagination but the reality of what he or she will face back in the district over Memorial Day. Democrats who vote to cut funding not only risk getting thrown in the briar patch by Republican hit men in Washington; they also might not be able to satisfy their otherwise antiwar constituents at home.

Alter seems to be right that there is little public support for cutting off funds, even though sentiment against the war itself is at an all-time high. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll:

Sixty-one percent of Americans say the United States should have stayed out of Iraq and 76 percent say things are going badly there, including 47 percent who say things are going very badly, the poll found.

Still, the majority of Americans support continuing to finance the war as long as the Iraqi government meets specific goals. …

… While troops are still in Iraq, Americans overwhelmingly support continuing to finance the war, though most want to do so with conditions. Thirteen percent want Congress to block all money for the war.

Sixty-nine percent, including 62 percent of Republicans, say Congress should allow financing, but on the condition that the United States sets benchmarks for progress and the Iraqi government meets those goals. Fifteen percent of all respondents want Congress to allow all financing for the war, no matter what.

Note: Only 13 percent want Congress to cut off funding for the war. Dems look at those numbers and assume that cutting off funds would be political suicide. That, folks, is motivation. That’s why the supplement bill passed both houses yesterday.

I suspect the Dems have less to fear from “Republican hit men in Washington” than they used to. The days when Republicans could get away with accusing Dems of being allied with Osama bin Laden are long past. The poll also said this:

More Americans — 72 percent — now say that “generally things in the country are seriously off on the wrong track” than at any other time since the Times/CBS News poll began asking the question in 1983. The number has slowly risen since January 2004. Then, 53 percent said the country was “seriously off on the wrong track,” and by January of this year it was 68 percent.

I think if the Dems had made an all-out effort to go to the American people and say Bush is bluffing about the troops running out of money. If you want us to end the war we need you to support what we’re doing in Congress, then they could have put up a better fight and rallied more of the public to their side.

But the Dems aren’t good at doing that. They don’t have the infrastructure of media, “think tanks” and astroturf organizations that the Republicans use to pound their talking points into peoples’ heads. Plus, the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has been dominating national politics for so long that only the very oldest Washington politicians remember those long-ago days when they weren’t quaking in terror under its shadow. Old dogs, new tricks, and all that.

I disagree with Kathy that Dems blinked because they are afraid of the President. I think they are afraid of the VRWC, which is still in place, and which will not be leaving Washington when Bush’s term runs out.

Granted, Tom Hulse wrote a couple of days ago in the New York Times:

Democrats said they did not relish the prospect of leaving Washington for a Memorial Day break — the second recess since the financing fight began — and leaving themselves vulnerable to White House attacks that they were again on vacation while the troops were wanting. That criticism seemed more politically threatening to them than the anger Democrats knew they would draw from the left by bowing to Mr. Bush.

Fear of a colossally unpopular White House might seem laughable, but the Wrath of Bush would still be carried and amplified throughout the Republican echo chamber, and Karl’s talking points would be drilled into peoples’ heads by armies of political commentators in newspapers, radio, and television. The White House spin on funding the troops already has been well presented to the public, which has a lot to do with why only 13 percent of the public want the war de-funded.

I also disagree with Matt Stoller’s take on the Dems’ motivation.

The crazy thing about the fight is that Democratic insiders are convinced that capitulation is the right strategy. They actually believe that this will put pressure on the Republicans in the fall, and that standing up to Bush is a bad idea.

Sorta kinda, but not quite. In their public statements Dems may be applying lipstick to the pig, but I don’t think in their minds they thought capitulation now would put pressure on Republicans in the fall. They’re hoping the war’s own [un]popularity will put pressure on Republicans in the fall. Instead, I think the Dems just want to avoid being a big, fat target for the VRWC over the summer.

It’s been only three years from the time the “Swift Boaters” hijacked the nation’s media and the 2004 election campaign and sold the public a pack of easily debunked whoppers that few in the media bothered to debunk, for example. I don’t think the VRWC could work that same scam quite so easily today. But three years isn’t so long ago that there isn’t reason for concern.

On the other side of this argument, Kos writes,

Well, the blood of a few thousand more of our servicemembers in Iraq should be worth avoiding a little criticism! …

… I’m just wondering when beltway Democrats will realize that no one likes Bush or his war? And when will they realize that every time he opens up his trap, his poll numbers drop another few points?

However, when Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and David Broder and Tucker Carlson and Chris Matthews and the rest of the army of tools that dominate mass media spend the summer speaking on Bush’s behalf while Bush happily chainsaws the last bit of vegetation for miles around Crawford, Texas, who knows?

I’m not saying that the Dems couldn’t and shouldn’t have put up a better fight. I’m saying this is why they didn’t.

I support efforts to target Steny Hoyer and the Blue Dogs generally in next year’s primaries. Dems need to learn they have more to fear from their base than from Faux Snooze.

But it’s shortsighted and immature to abandon the entire party. Because, frankly, we need them as much as they need us. Lots of people aren’t going to want to hear that, but it’s the truth. Back in the 1970s progressives and liberals busted up the old New Deal coalition and then walked away from party politics. And for nearly 40 years we liberals have been shoved to the fringes of power, handing out fliers to people who don’t give a shit and sending checks to myriad single-issue advocacy groups, most of which have been stunningly ineffectual at everything but direct mail fundraising.

The truth is that if you want to have a say in what goes on in government, you have to do it through party politics. And another truth is that there’s not going to be a viable, national third party in my lifetime. Maybe there’ll be one in yours if you are very young, but in any event bolting to a third party is no remedy to our current problems. The practical reality is that our only hope of effecting a progressive agenda in the U.S. in the foreseeable future is to take the Dems into hand and mold it into a party that responds to us.

It’s not about our supporting the Democrats; it’s about training the Democrats to support us. It’s going to take more than one or two election cycles to accomplish this. I’ve been saying that all along.

And on that note I will turn to Chris Weigant at Huffington Post, who says:

Back in January, the tally of hard anti-war Democrats in the House was estimated to be around 70. Recently, though, 171 House members and 29 senators voted for a straight-up “get out now” bill, which shows that the anti-war wing is gaining strength. That’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, only 142 House representatives voted against yesterday’s bill, and only 14 in the Senate voted likewise. That shows a certain softness to the anti-war caucus. That’s a bad thing.

Overall, though, this group is gaining in strength, and will continue to do so (in my opinion). And that’s a really good thing, because it’s moving in the right direction.

The final bill didn’t contain Jack Murtha’s troop readiness language, which is a very bad thing, and which disappointed me personally. While I knew the Democrats were going to eventually cave on the timetable, I was extremely discouraged to see that they didn’t fight harder for Murtha’s language.

And completely out of left field, Democrats snuck in the minimum wage increase into the final bill. I certainly didn’t see that one coming, but it is indeed a very good thing.

Go read all of this post. I have some small quibbles with it, but on the whole I think Weigant is right.

Update: See also E.J. Dionne:

The decision to drop withdrawal timelines from the Iraq supplemental appropriations bill is not a decisive defeat. It is a temporary setback in a much longer struggle for minds and votes that the administration’s critics are actually winning.

The progressives’ anger is not hard to fathom. Bush’s botched war has been immensely harmful to our country. Polls show that most Americans want out. Democrats won the 2006 midterm election in significant part because of the public’s exhaustion with the war and with the Bush presidency. According to the Real Clear Politics Web site, the president’s disapproval rating across a series of polls averages 61 percent. Opponents of the war feel the wind at their backs. Why, they ask, did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cave in?…

…Pelosi’s case is that the war’s congressional opponents have already helped move the debate by passing antiwar measures and by prying Republicans loose from the president’s policy. “It is just a matter of time,” she says, before Republicans can “no longer stay with the president.”

She gets support from one of the House’s most vociferous opponents of the war, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), lead sponsor of the strongest House withdrawal proposal. McGovern sees Pelosi as a passionate opponent of the war who is in it to win in the legislative process. “For her, it’s not therapy,” he says.

He notes that the agreement to go forward with the funding bill passed yesterday (a majority of House Democrats, Pelosi among them, opposed it) included a promise to take up his withdrawal amendment this fall. This gives teeth to Pelosi’s pledge — “we’ll see you in September” — to continue to battle Bush on the war.

As a tactical matter, it could have been useful for the Democrats to move another bill containing timelines to Bush’s desk for a second veto, simply to underscore the president’s unwillingness to seek bipartisan accord on a change in policy. But these are the brute facts: Democrats narrowly control the House but don’t have an effective majority in the Senate since Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) votes with the Republicans on the war and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is still too ill to vote.

Democrats, in short, have enough power to complicate the president’s life, but not enough to impose their will. Moreover, there is genuine disagreement even among Bush’s Democratic critics over what the pace of withdrawal should be and how to minimize the damage of this war to the country’s long-term interests. That is neither shocking nor appalling, but, yes, it complicates things. So does the fact that the minority wields enormous power in the Senate.

What was true in January thus remains true today: The president will be forced to change his policy only when enough Republicans tell him he has to. Facing this is no fun; it’s just necessary.

Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said recently that no one remembers how long it took to reverse the direction of American policy in Vietnam. Obey is hunkered down for a lengthy struggle.

In a divided system, democracy can be frustratingly slow. But it usually works. Critics of the war should spend less time mourning the setbacks of May and begin organizing for a showdown in September.

Update 2: David Sirota

E.J. Dionne has a piece in the Washington Post saying it’s AOK to wait until September to deal with the Iraq War. “See you in September!” he cheerily tells us. What’s amazing is that he doesn’t take even one line to explore how many American troops will be killed or maimed between now and when we “see you in September!”

It’s sick – it’s a big game to all these people in Washington. When people use the metaphor “blood on their hands” it is columns like Dionne’s that they are referring to.

The argument is mostly between people who think the Dems could have stopped the war if they’d tried harder, and those who think the Dems did the best they could and will have a better shot at ending the war in a few months after more Republicans have jumped ship.

You may have noticed I am right in the middle. I am not persuaded the Dems did everything they could to tie Bush’s hands, but I never believed the showdown over the “emergency” supplement bill by itself was going to end the war.

Nor do I think E.J. Dionne is “cheerily” saying that we should all just passively wait until September to end the war. I think there is much work to be done by antiwar activists and Democratis senators and representatives to prepare the ground for a successful effort.

Step one is to find out how your representative and senators voted, and send them either a thank you or a bleep you, according to the vote.