Thursday, March 22, 2007

Can the Democrats get their House in order?

The current House Democratic angst over Iraq seems to have been scripted by Aaron Sorkin. One can almost hear his zippy dialogue, straight out of West Wing, transported this time to Capitol Hill, where the Democratic lawmakers no doubt would be speed-walking down the cavernous corridors, all the while debating in Tracy-Hepburn fashion the tradeoffs of purity versus pragmatism, ends versus means, ideals versus compromise.

But it would appear that the House Democrats are not in the mood for cheeky wit, given the fact that they have already spent most of this week acting the way Democrats tend to act when forced to make a national security decision. They have been speaking with a multiplicity of voices about Iraq ever since President Bush launched his fact-challenged push for war nearly five years ago, and they’re still doing it today – even as they are preparing for their first substantive war vote since taking control of Congress.

One might argue that it’s a sign of strength that the House Democrats are such a diverse bunch, ranging from the antiwar purists who occupy safe seats in deep-blue districts to the “blue dog” conservatives whose jobs hang by a thread in red districts. But in the end, only results matter. Voters essentially decreed last November that the Democrats should be given a chance to clean up Bush’s disaster and chart a rational course correction, yet here we are, on the eve of the first big House vote, and it’s not even clear that Nancy Pelosi and her deputies can pass their own bill.

This is where those aforementioned tradeoffs - purity versus pragmatism - come into play.

The Democratic leaders’ compromise would sustain funding for the war, but with a crucial caveat. If the Iraqi government doesn’t shape up by October (by meeting some mandatory benchmarks), then U.S. troops would begin to ship out next April; and even if the Iraqis do shape up, then U.S. troops will stick around only until the autumn of ’08. The problem, however, is that many lawmakers in the antiwar camp view this compromise as a copout, since it gives Bush the war funding that he wants. So they’re not going to vote for it, on the grounds that Pelosi’s plan doesn’t go far enough. (True to their ideals, they want to totally cut off the war money - somehow overlooking the fact such a measure has no change of passage.)

And this is critical, because the Democrats only control the House by 15 votes. Pelosi can ill afford many defections, especially since virtually all Republicans – supine to the bitter end - are still maintaining their lockstep discipline in support of their commander-in-chief. And further complicating the Democratic scenario is the fact that many newly-elected Democrats hail from traditionally red districts (for instance: three in Indiana, one in Texas, one in North Carolina), and they are reportedly tempted to vote No – because their constituents might see the Pelosi measure as going too far. As political analyst Michael Tomasky has noted, 62 House Democrats currently represent districts that Bush carried in 2004. And even though Bush’s popularity has since waned in many of those locales, there are probably lingering concerns about Congress “micro-managing” the war in ways that might encumber commanders in the field.

I suspect there is one other factor that might be prompting Democratic skittishness, and this can arguably apply to party lawmakers at all points on the ideological spectrum: The notion that if Democrats pass something substantive, they will for the first time be claiming partial ownership of this war – thereby providing GOP apparatchiks with the opportunity to hyperbolically blame “General Pelosi” and her “micro-managers” for any eventual defeat.

Thus, given all these rank and file Democratic grievances, we have the current spectacle of Pelosi working overtime to round up 218 votes (the bare minimum for victory), by applying both carrot and stick. She has shaken the stick at fence-straddling colleagues, implying that if they don’t vote for her compromise, she will yank their coveted committee assignments; and she has been dangling the carrot, offering all kinds of pork-laden goodies, essentially trying to buy off some of the fence-straddlers by promising to pump money into their districts. (This is where Sorkin would write some of the best dialogue.)

But clearly she’s having a tough time. The big House vote was supposed to happen today; now it’s going to be tonight at the earliest – an obvious indication that the leaders have yet to nail down a majority. And the antiwar liberal lawmakers are really the key factor; they’re a bigger swing group than the red-state conservatives, roughly twice as big, by some reliable estimates. Their choice is to either accept half a loaf (the traditional political calculation), or to hold out for the whole loaf and get nothing.

It’s noteworthy that a number of liberal bloggers are urging the “out now” faction to park their ideals and get real. Chris Bowers, one of the key players at, wrote this the other day: “If, in the House, this bill goes down to defeat because Democrats are divided, not only will we get an even worse bill, but we will also get a national (media) narrative on how we don’t have our own House in order on Iraq.” Referring to the liberals who are refusing to compromise, he added: “I can’t help but think at this point that continued progressive opposition, while principled, has become politically blind belligerence.”

Bowers and others are arguing that at least Pelosi’s strategy would move the ball forward, and signal to Bush (and to Democratic voters) that Congress is prepared to keep pushing for a new direction in Iraq, albeit incrementally. And while it’s true that Democrats are traditionally nervous about asserting themselves on national security issues, fearing that they will be tagged anew as wimps, the truth is that, in the current debate over the war’s future, there are few viable options. And the blame for that rests with Bush.

Consider this new assessment: “On Iraq, Bush seemed to be practically the last man in America to realize his military strategy was failing…Iraq is in a category of its own. More than anything else, it colors the Bush presidency, giving every charge of incompetency extra resonance. A successful chief executive sets achievable goals, puts in place the right people to achieve them, and establishes a decision-making process that makes their job easier. Bush arguably did none of these in Iraq…the administration (could) be run perfectly until January 2009, and the charge of incompetence will still bite.”

That must be Paul Krugman, right? Frank Rich? No, that’s conservative commentator Rich Lowry, writing in the new issue of National Review.

So thanks to a record of ineptitude that is likely to stain his legacy for generations, Bush has driven the family car to the edge of a slippery cliff, with two wheels dangling over the precipice. Extrication will be an exceedingly complex and delicate process. Is it any wonder that Democrats are fighting over how to best salvage what he has wrought?


Speaking of Democrats...Those pining for an Al Gore '08 candidacy would be well advised to stand down.

In Gore's congressional testimony yesterday, he called for an immediate national freeze on new carbon dioxide emissions, a move that, if ever implemented, would affect every American who drives a car or pushed a lawn mower. He also called for a tax on polluters.

Translation: there isn't the remotest chance that this guy is going back into politician mode. Nobody planning to run for office would ever propose anything that messes with the divine right of Americans to drive cars or cut the grass as they see fit. What Gore loves best about his current life is that he can go for broke without worrying whether he has just kissed off the suburban vote.

In the tradeoff between ideals and compromise, Gore has already cast his own personal vote for the former.


Quote of the day, courtesy of ABC News...

Here is Bush press secretary Tony Snow, opining about our system of government (emphasis mine): "The executive branch is under no compulsion to testify to Congress, because Congress in fact doesn't have oversight ability."

Gosh, I didn't know that. This decree from the Decider will surely require the rewriting of political science textbooks nationwide, and prompt an overhaul of the exhibits at the National Constitution Center. And I guess this treatise - authored by the State Department, for our U.S. embassies abroad - will have to be purged as well.