President Bush and Vice President Cheney can be excused for thinking that the U.S. Congress is as consequential as a fly that hovers and buzzes before zipping away. Because they are basically right.
Ex-congressman Cheney, in particular, understands that the legislative branch, hampered by both its rules and the divergent political interests of its members, is notoriously incapable of acting in unison or speaking with one voice. And its deference to the White House has grown far more pronounced in the half century since World War II and the onset of the Cold War. So when Cheney confidently tells CNN that Congress won't stop the escalation of the war in Iraq, he is (finally) uttering something true.
Let’s just take stock of where things stand at the moment, as Congress continues its struggle to find some words, or maybe some actions, to express its opposition to, or skepticism about, Bush’s decision to ramp up U.S. involvement in the Iraqi civil war. (Cheney thinks that any congressional gesture “would simply validate the terrorists’ strategy,” but let’s go wild and assume, for the purposes of this blog entry, that our elected lawmakers do have the right, as members of a democracy, to offer an opinion about a war that also appears to be troubling roughly 75 percent of the American electorate.)
Even with respect to the option that senators most prefer – empty talk, in the form of a non-binding resolution – the Democrats are fractured as usual.
There are red-state senators who don’t want to be perceived as picking on Bush too harshly, for fear of alienating centrist voters back home; this camp includes Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is discomfited by the Biden-Levin-Hagel resolution, which declares that Bush’s escalation “is not in the national interest.” Moderate Democrats, wary of empty tough talk, prefer empty mild talk – as exemplified by Virginia Republican John Warner’s proposed resolution. This camp also includes Ken Salazar of Colorado and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, although they might actually go for the empty tough talk, if it can somehow be merged with Warner’s empty mild talk. Even though Warner doesn't want to merge.
Then there’s another Democratic camp, comprised of ’08 presidential candidates who are mindful that liberal antiwar voters wield considerable clout in early primary states. Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd (both of whom enabled Bush in 2003 by voting to authorize the war, and now seek to make amends wherever possible) not only support Biden-Levin-Hagel, but want to go further, by capping the number of troops via legislation or amendment. They are joined by another ’08 hopeful, Barack Obama.
Then there’s another Democratic camp, comprised of liberals who don’t have to worry about facing a national electorate – for instance, Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, who doesn’t think that even capping the troop tally goes far enough. He’s planning a hearing next Tuesday that will explore whether Congress has the right to sever funding for the war itself. Congress does have that right, actually. Cheney and his dwindling band of Capitol Hill loyalists are happy to point this out. They have been goading the majority Democrats to take that route, so that the GOP can brand the Democrats as being “against the troops.”
But the congressional Republicans are all over the place, too:
There are the bitter-enders, such as Texas Senator John Cornyn, who is readying his own empty-talk resolution, which declares that the Decider’s escalation plan “should be given a reasonable chance” to work. There are the political calculators, notably ’08 candidate John McCain, who is trying to balance his Bush-friendly hawkishness with his own proposed resolution, which would put the burden on the Iraqis to demonstrate progress via benchmarks. There are the escalation skeptics who are nevertheless too timid to sign on to Biden-Levin-Hagel, because (in the words of Minnesota senator Norm Coleman) they don’t want to be seen as “taking a shot at the president." After all, rank and file Republican voters are not known for their antiwar fervor; the White House is reportedly trying to remind GOP senators of this fact.
In other words, we have a deeply unpopular president, who’s sitting somewhere around 30 percent in the polls, and the purportedly co-equal branch of government is not only incapable of taking any real action, it’s essentially tongue-tied as well. The polls also show that, by roughly 30-point margins, most Americans want Congress – not Bush – to take the lead on Iraq policy. But the Bush war team knows full well that this will never happen.
One big reason is that Congress has been complicit in this war all along. Most of the people currently serving have voted to authorize the war money from the very beginning, with virtually no strings attached. I have read a number of pieces by legal scholars who argue that Bush’s legal authority to wage this war has been repeatedly validated by those congressional actions, and would thus be very difficult to reverse. (And political analyst Walter Shapiro, who points out that Congress in 1971 repealed its 1964 Vietnam war authorization vote, to no avail.)
These empty-talk resolutions are slated for full debate during in early February, with the possibility of horse-trading on language that will do nothing to arrest Bush’s escalation strategy. (A test vote on Biden-Levin-Hagel is slated for this Tuesday.) Thus far, in other words, I have seen nothing that would shake me from the opinion I expressed in a print column last Nov. 2, on the eve of the midterm balloting: “In terms of forcing our elected leaders to roll up their sleeves and find a feasible way forward, this election might have no more impact than a speed bump at a demolition derby.”
I don’t want to suggest that empty talk serves no purpose, however. Congressional restiveness over Vietnam, which played out over a period of about seven years, helped shape public opinion against the war (or, at the least, it helped validate antiwar sentiment in what Richard Nixon liked to call “middle America”). But today, antiwar sentiment is already the mainstream opinion; it’s Congress which is struggling in fits and starts to catch up.
It remains to be seen whether Congress can tame its cacophony of voices and find its footing. That may require a measure of courage that the institution has long been reluctant to display, especially in wartime. But Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, seeking support for the stronger anti-escalation resolution, has been pleading with his timorous colleagues to put themselves on the line, for a change.
Let’s call it the quote of the week: “If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes.”