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.

24 thoughts on “Excuses

  1. AMEN.

    This kind of should-be-common sense is why you are the first blog I read every day. My only quibble is with your choice of names: instead of Carlson and Matthews, I’d say they’re afraid of Wolf Blitzer and Brian Williams and Bob Schieffer and all the non-controversial media darlings who will push the VRWC line as if were “just the facts.”

  2. Someone needs to say to the Dems what Gen. Grant said at the Wilderness to a panicked subordinate: “I’m sick and tired of hearing that Bobby Lee is going to do a double somersault and land on both flanks at once! Go back to your troops and make Bobby Lee worry about what you are going to do to him.” [or words to that effect.]

  3. I see a parallell between the Iraq government and our own Congress. The govt-in-the-green-zone is Shiite; under Sadaam it was Suni. The Suni minority is pretty much excluded from the spoils and power, and the Shiite majority intends to keep it that way.

    The govt-in-the-beltway (Congress) is Democratic. They were previously the minority party and excluded from the spoils and power. Now they have a majority and they intend to keep it.

    The Shiites have no problem with persecuting Sunis into extinction by genocide or just forcing an exodus. The Democrats (some of them) see the war in Iraq as an opportunity to split the Republican party and leave the opposition in chaos for several election cycles at least.

    It’s a civil war inside the DC beltway; the action in Iraq is ‘not real’ to a true politician except to the degree that it increses or decreases your POWER, relative to the other party. And for the Democrats, the stupidity of this president and the war in general, is a good thing, because it increases their power.

  4. A simple strategy that the dems could have used for this supplementary bill.

    Keep Bush’s 100B$ in and include benchmarks and conditions and whatever else.

    Add in 100B$ (or whatever amount) specifically intended for use to help troops during withdrawal.

    Send these two together as one bill to Bush and let him veto it.

    It is amazing to me that NO ONE seems to have mentioned this simple strategy to solve all problems the DEMS might have faced from the REPUBS. It is equally incredible (and infact suspicisou) that no congressman senator could think of this sort of proposal to solve the problem.

    I am trying to figure out how to publicize this idea … maybe you can help?

  5. Ajay … how would that have been a solution? Bush would veto it, for absolute certain, and the dems would be in basically the same place as they ended up.


  6. I agree with Atrios that the Dems don’t have a handle on when they’re really getting hurt on an issue and when they’re not, because they spend so much time listening to Kleins and Third Ways and Shrums.

  7. “…what Gen. Grant said at the Wilderness…”

    General Grant also said: “I intend to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer”.

    The Beltway Bastards will never fight for anything except campaign contributions…

  8. Ajay — pay attention. Such a measure WAS introduced in the House (McGovern proposal) and Senate (Feingold proposal) and voted on a few days ago. Very briefly, these proposals would have provided funds for the immediate future, but would have provided that the funds be used for “redeployment” and that after a certain date there would be no more money for the war.

    A majority of Dems voted yes for both of these proposals. But a majority of Dems isn’t enough to pass a bill. You need damn near all of them, especially in the Senate.

    Note also that overriding a veto is harder than just passing a bill. Passing a bill requires only a simple majority, but overriding a veto takes a 2/3 vote.

    Here are the numbers to keep in mind:

    Number of Democrats in the House — 233
    Number of votes needed to pass a bill — 218
    Number of votes needed to override a veto, if all members vote — 290
    Number of Republican/Independent votes needed to override a veto, assuming all Dems vote to override— 57

    Number of Democrats in the Senate — 51
    Number of votes needed to pass a bill, if all members vote — 51
    Number of votes needed to override a veto, if all members vote — 67
    Number of Republican/Independent votes needed to override a veto — 16

    Of course, that’s assuming you get 100 percent of the Dems, which so far hasn’t happened on any of the Iraq votes in the House. In the Senate, Joe Lieberman is counted as a Dem to claim a Democratic majority and rights to committee chairs, but he votes with the Republicans regarding Iraq. He’s neither fish nor fowl, as they say. But we get Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on our side on Iraq, so let’s call it a wash.

    The point is that as long as all the Republicans are holding out, the Dems cannot by themselves override a veto and can barely pass a bill. You can be suspicious all you like, but that’s the truth of it.

  9. I agree with Atrios that the Dems don’t have a handle on when they’re really getting hurt on an issue and when they’re not,

    Yes, unfortunately, that’s the truth.

  10. I wonder if the Dems could allocate funds in three month chunks, but make part of the debate for each allocation the number of troops killed, the number wounded seriously, etc., and demand to know what specific accomplishments the President has had over the past three months that justifies these losses. “Mr President, you must tell us now. Why have 40 of our service men and women lost their legs? What has that gained for us? Why have another 30 lost hands or arms? What has that gained for us?”

    They have to find a way to turn things from “If we stop, it will hurt” to “because we haven’t, we’re hurting”.

  11. Am I missing something or isn’t there a reverse argument available to the Democratic Party that removing funding for the Iraq war supports the troops because Bush would have to bring them home and then they would not be caught in a civil war?
    Why don’t the Democratic leaders make that point?

  12. Good job, Maha.

    Reps and Senators continue to find themselves on the horns of a dilemna. Do they do the right thing, or do they do what will get them re-elected.

    Would that doing the right thing and getting re-elected amounted to the same thing.

  13. Do see There’s Votes and There’s Leadership over at Liberal Oasis. Excerpt:

    “Color LiberalOasis unimpressed with Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama waiting until the very last minute to announce they were voting against the Iraq bill.”

    “When you’re a Senator, the bottom line is how you vote. ”

    “When you’re auditioning for President, the bottom line is: How well you lead. How well you frame the debate. How well you push back against bogus conservative attacks.”

    “Out of those in presently serving in Congress, Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Dennis Kucinich were trying to lead. Clinton and Obama were on the defensive….”

  14. It seems to me the bottom line is that the Republicans have control of the language and the Dems don’t.

  15. removing funding for the Iraq war supports the troops because Bush would have to bring them home and then they would not be caught in a civil war?

    Well, see, there’s a catch. I’m not at all sure Bush would bring the troops home if funding were cut off.

  16. It felt like a punch in the gut to get the news about this latest blank check issued to Bush and his destructively incompetent ‘war team’. And I suppose that getting punched in the gut does cause one’s knee to jerk up defensively.
    So, now there’s a whole melee of knee jerking reactions going on, almost as though the bleeping itching urge to just throw punches trumps everything else.

    Gosh, watching this phenomenon of turmoil and blame-throwing, and frustration with and turning against one’s own side, sensing the despair underneath, makes me imagine how severe the knee-jerking must be for, say, the Israelis and Palestinians citizens, or for that matter, the Iraqi citizens.

    Are we w

  17. “I’m not at all sure Bush would bring the troops home if funding were cut off.”

    Direct hit, Maha. He wouldn’t. He won’t. We should all probably sit back and relax as we wait for January ’09.

    Doesn’t anyone else think that one individual in a republic should not have the power to wage war all by himself? That power began with WWII; it was aided and abetted by way of the Cold War; it will continue LEGALLY through the endless years of the so-called war on terror.

    It’s time to call a Constitutional Convention ala 1787.

  18. Great post, and you make a lot of excellent points. But a few things which I don’t think are getting enough emphasis….

    First, by framing it as, “If Bush vetoes funds for the troops, we’ll get blamed for not providing funds for the troops,” the Dems have conceded: ending the war will now take 67 votes, not 51. This seems like tragically bad legislative strategy. Am Ii missing something?

    Second, why do people like Tester and Webb have to reinforce the Bush frame and undermine the party’s national message? Dems in red or reddish states can vote how they need to, but there’s no need to gratuitously undermine the national party.

    And, finally, what would Gen. Petraeus possibly say in September that would peel off significant Republican votes? He’ll say the surge is just taking hold, there are some good signs, some problems, we should keep it up. What Republican (or waffling Dem) — directly in the face of Gen. Petraeus recommendation — is going to say no? Nothing will be different in September, or October, except that many more dead, that much more money wasted.

    I think, far from moving the ball forward, we’ve taken our cleats off and walked off the field.

  19. SF — Dems should have pushed back against the “support the troops” frame; Glenn Greenwald has been writing a lot of good stuff about this. But I don’t see any way Congress can stop the war through constitutional means without a veto-proof majority, because I don’t think Bush would bring the troops home even if funds were cut off. Ending the war will take 67 votes in the Senate and 290 in the House, no matter what the frame is.

    In fact, it’s possible that Bush would refuse to comply even if a veto-proof majority voted to end the war. We’ve been in constitutional crisis for a while, and Congress has pretended not to see it, but that might force them to have to acknowledge it and deal with it.

    I don’t think what Gen. Petraeus is going to say in September will make any difference, one way or another. The real deadline Republicans are looking at is a little matter called an “election,” to be held in 2008. A whopping huge majority of the public hates the war and hates Bush, and this is increasingly true even in many “red” districts. A whole lot of GOP congress critters are going to have to make a public break with Mr. Bush and his war before serious campaigning begins early next year or face certain defeat. That’s one reality even a wingnut can’t ignore.

    I’ve been predicting a stampede of Republicans away from Bush and his war for awhile; the wonder to me is that it hasn’t happened already. The “surge” business wasn’t really about “winning” in Iraq as it was about keeping Republicans in the corral, as it were. The Republicans were caught in their own spin; they couldn’t abandon the war just as Bush was making a big public show of doing something “new,” or the GOP Noise Machine might lump them together with the “Defeat-o-crats.”

    The White House is already making noises about the glorious new “post-surge” strategy that will lead us to victory, and we’ll see if that’ll do the trick one more time. If current trends in Iraq (and the polls) continue through the summer, I don’t think Bush will get away with that trick so easily next time.

  20. “If current trends in Iraq (and the polls) continue through the summer, I don’t think Bush will get away with that trick so easily next time.”

    See GG. They got away with it repeatedly already. Honestly, I’m with Big Tent over at Talk Left … funding requires positive action. The MAJORITY truly has the upper hand here … a filibuster or veto doesn’t get you funding. I’m sorry. They didn’t seem to act like that was the case. They assumed failure. See also GG re Levin/Obama.

    Anyway, good discussion overall. One thought that came to me …they didn’t HAVE to take Memorial Day off. Apropos to Grant, they could have fought the line all Summer. Oh, and why the mention of Webb and other newbie senators by some quarters? He was JUST ELECTED. He comes up in ’12!

  21. funding requires positive action

    You and Big Tent assume that not-funding will force Bush’s hand to end the war. I think you’re both utterly and disastrously wrong on that point. Bush will not end the war under any circumstances. I’m certain he won’t end it if funding is cut off; he’ll just move funds around from other parts of the budget. I doubt he will end it even if a veto-proof majority votes to end it. I think the only way the war will end before 2009 is if Bush and Cheney are removed from office.

    Think. You sit on appropriations, yet the war goes on and on. What’s your next move? Do you have a next move?

    Think. Removing Bush from office requires either a two-thirds vote in the Senate or armed rebellion.

    I say the only possible hope is to aim for that two-thirds vote. Make Bush either UNLAWFULLY defy the will of the Senate or end the war.

    As for the Republicans “getting away with it” — they do to the extent that the Dems let them, which is GG’s point, and also mine. The Dems now are in a stronger position than they have been for years, but they have been functioning in a weak position for so long they don’t know how to use strength. They’re still operating under the old rules that helped them survive when they were weak.

  22. All the democrats had to say is “We provide funding for 100,000 troops” and all their problems go away. It then falls to Bush to say why he is going to leave more there than he has funds for.

  23. Charles, have you been paying any attention at all? I guess not.

    Catch up, son. I’m tired of explaining the same damn thing 20 times a day.

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