Monday, February 26, 2007

Democrats "couldn't find a unified message if it was tattooed on their butts"

The Democrats appear to have a special talent for incoherence. Here they are, holding the reins of power in both congressional chambers, and enjoying solid majority support from the American people, yet apparently they still don’t have a clue how to best confront an unpopular president who is waging a disastrous and unpopular war.

Leave aside the '08 Democratic presidential contenders (the top three have three different plans), and come with me to Capitol Hill. Congress is back in session this week, and the Democrats, yet again, have gone back to the drawing board in search of a strategy that will unite its various factions while also perhaps attracting enough Republicans to give it bipartisan cover. The problem is, the Democratic Senate has one new idea what to do (although the Senate idea isn’t popular among GOP war skeptics), the Democratic House has another idea what to do (although the House idea is already considered dead on arrival), and the party’s antiwar left is still at odds with the party’s moderates over what to do. Or vice versa.

Somehow I am reminded of the Democratic incoherence that prevailed in the autumn of 2002, when President Bush was hyping the specious case for war. Back then, we had Democratic doves who said that war with Saddam Hussein would be madness, and that we should stick with containment and weapons inspections; we had outright Democratic hawks who said we should back Bush and take Hussein out; we had moderate hawks (or were they moderate doves?) who said it was time to get Hussein, but only if the United Nations said so, or only if we could be assured that the broader war against al Qaeda wouldn’t suffer, or only if Bush offered proof of a Hussein-al-Qaeda link, or maybe we should scrap “regime change" and just destroy Hussein's most lethal weapons…

Seriously, you needed a scorecard. I think Charlie Cook, the nonpartisan Washington analyst nailed the Democrats best that autumn when he told me, “They couldn’t find a unified message if it was tattooed on their butts.”

Not much has changed. The current Democratic Senate, which couldn’t get enough votes even to debate a toothless anti-escalation resolution, is now floating the idea of amending the 2002 war authorization - narrowing the combat mission, decreeing that our soldiers limit themselves to the training of Iraqi forces and to counterterrorism thrusts against al Qaeda…with the ultimate objective of withdrawing all combat forces within 13 months. The political problem is, only a couple Republicans are reportedly prepared to vote for this idea, which means that it’ll never get out of the Senate anyway.

Meanwhile, the House Democrats haven’t looked at that idea, not yet anyway, because lately they have been too busy shoveling dirt on the idea that they were ballyhooing barely a week ago: the John Murtha plan to hamper war funding. It sounded daring when Speaker Pelosi was talking it up. Murtha wanted to bar new troops from going to Iraq unless they could first meet tough readiness and equipment standards; he wanted to attach these conditions to Bush’s new $100-billion war money request. It sounded like a good way for Democratic war critics to show that they were “for” the troops.

The problem was Murtha himself; 11 days ago, he unveiled his plan on the antiwar website by saying that his plan “will limit the options of the president” – a statement that didn’t sit well with moderate Democrats from swing districts who are uncomfortable with anything that sounds like congressional micromanagement in time of war. (More on them in a moment.) Meanwhile, the liberal antiwar House Democrats (members of the Out of Iraq Caucus) don’t think that Murtha’s idea goes far enough, anyway.

Note how the Republicans deal with all this. Supposedly they are the folks playing defense, but you would never know it. They just spent an entire week banging away at the Democrats with one repetitive buzz phrase: the argument that the Murtha plan was a “slow-bleed” strategy. And they didn’t even invent that slogan; they just borrowed it from a story that appeared on, the new Washington website, and made it their own. It’s perfectly visceral for their purposes, because it conjurs the image of hampered U.S. troops, their life blood inexorably draining away.

So the Republicans have taken this slogan, and they have used it to dramatize the one Iraq issue that breaks their way in the polls. Almost every Iraq indicator favors the Democrats; as the latest AP-Ipsos and Gallup surveys demonstrate, a landslide majority of Americans believe (among other things) that the war was a mistake, that it’s right to criticize the war, that his troop escalation idea is wrong, that the troop hike will fail to work, and that Congress should establish a pullout timetable. But when asked whether Congress should cut off war money, or even money for the additional troops, landslide majorities say no.

The GOP counter-punchers have seized on that one theme, and they have spooked the majority party into a retreat. The Democrats party won’t touch the Murtha plan now, or anything else (such as a nonbinding Senate resolution, pitched by the Republicans) that would force the Democrats to go on record as “for” or “against” troop money cutoffs.

Carl Levin, one of the Senate Democrats who is pushing the idea of amending the ’02 war authorization, said candidly on Meet the Press yesterday that a lot of Democrats would never vote to cut off the money- because they view it as a political loser: “The president would then use the defeat of a cut-off-the-funding resolution as a way of supporting his (war) policy. So we’d be playing right into the hands of the president and his policymakers.” (Actually, Levin got off easy, because Tim Russert never bothered to ask him what he thought about Murtha’s specific idea.)

Right now, the heart of the Democrats’ problem (besides the fact that even a weakened wartime president has a lot of political weapons, and besides the fact that the Republicans are still more effective at playing hardball) is that their diversity begets disunity.

Most of the antiwar liberals in House, the people typically pushing for money cutoffs and troop withdrawal, occupy safe seats in deeply-blue districts. But the newest House Democrats – the people typically wary of money cutoffs and troop withdrawals – are moderates who were elected last November in swing and red districts that normally favor Republicans. These lawmakers, along with longer-serving southern and western Democrats from conservative districts, clearly feel that they can’t afford to back anything perceived as undercutting the troops.

And the House Democratic strategists know this. Looking ahead to 2008, for instance, the strategists have already drawn up a list of 29 Democratic lawmakers who will need priority assistance in their re-election bids. Most are freshmen, but, more importantly, 22 of the 29 lawmakers hail from districts that supported Bush over John Kerry in the ’04 presidential race. At least two of them, for instance, have already gone public opposing any idea that would cut off the war money.

So don’t hold your breath this week that the Democrats will get their act together, not when so few routes to unity seem available. And if they can't deal with Iraq, what will they do if Bush ups the ante and opts for direct confrontation with Iran (the country that is now a greater threat, thanks to his misadventures in Iraq)?