Thursday, January 04, 2007

Trouble on the left flank

Just hearing all those antiwar protestors chanting repetitive slogans and shouting down the speakers so that nobody could get a word in edgewise…well, it was like something out of 1968. I was waiting for somebody to sing something by the Jefferson Airplane.

So it went yesterday on Capitol Hill, as a coterie of left-leaning insurgents led by Cindy Sheehan sought to inform the Democrats that the new congressional majority had not moved quickly enough to end the Iraq war, even though the Democrats had already been in power for...nope, they weren't even in power yet. This is precisely the sort of political headache that governing Democrats will be facing over the next two years: a chronic restiveness on their left flank, with the ongoing potential for great embarrassment.

When new House Democratic leaders, fronted by congressman Rahm Emanuel, attempted at a press briefing yesterday to outline their initial legislative priorities, none of which included Iraq, they were serenaded into silence by a few dozen citizens who intoned, “De-escalate/investigate/troops home now.” Emanuel and his colleagues decided to leave the room and try again later, essentially ceding the fact that that their free-speech rights had been preempted.

Some Democrats, including the ubiquitous cable TV talking head Lawrence O’Donnell, insist that incidents such as can only help the Democrats. O’Donnell said last night that the Democrats in Congress come off as “sensible” centrists whenever folks on the left behave in an unruly manner. In other words, middle-of-the-road Americans will surely conclude that, if the left is ticked off at the Democrats, then the Democrats must be doing something right.

I’m not sure I buy that, probably because I’m old enough to remember how “middle Americans” (as they were called circa 1970) turned against the national Democrats, precisely because they saw the party and the left-leaning antiwar crowd as one and the same.

As conservative blogger and lawyer John Hinderaker put it last night: “I think you had to be there in the 60s and early 70s to fully appreciate the damage the antiwar movement did to the Democratic Party. The party, in fact, has never entirely recovered. The Democrats had an ambiguous relationship with the anti-American activists of that era. The activists focused their ire mainly on the Democrats - think Chicago 1968 - but at the same time, they largely made their home in that party. The idea that history might be repeating itself must appall the Democrats' leadership.” (Obviously, Hinderaker hopes that this history will indeed repeat itself. But his historical recap is not wrong.)

The Democrats on Capitol Hill clearly face a difficult challenge. The liberal activists within their ranks are anxious to advance what they see as the moral rightness of their positions, notably a de-funding of the Iraq war. As Sheehan said yesterday, “These are not requests. These are demands.” And as Deborah Sweet, who runs a pro-impeachment group, said the other day, “We've been told for many years, 12 years now, 'Wait until we get in power. Then you'll see things change.’ We'll give them a couple of months or a few weeks to see what they come up with, but if they don't do something very decisive around the war and these other issues, I think there will be trouble."

But the Democrats basically define politics as the art of the possible, the willingness to accept half a loaf. Hence, the opening 100-hour blitz doesn’t mention Iraq, because the Democrats would rather kick off their tenure with issues that are popular not only with most Democrats but even some moderate Republicans: new ethics rules, a higher minimum wage, lower student loan interest rates, and lower prescription drug costs for Medicare recipients. Democratic leaders have calculated that, if they suddenly adopt an out-now stance on Iraq, or if they try to impeach Bush, such moves would merely imperil the newly-elected Democrats who won seats in swing suburban districts in red states like Indiana and Kansas.

The Democrats broadened their tent in the ’06 elections; they captured 59 percent of all independent swing voters. Whether they can hold those voters over the next two years, while satisfying the shouters on their left flank, is another issue entirely. They probably can’t snag the White House in ’08 unless they find a way.