Monday, March 12, 2007

Democratic politics: sly on Iraq, silly on Fox

In the wake of all the latest Bush administration crises – the Walter Reed embarrassment, the Scooter Libby conviction, the apparent firing of eight federal prosecutors for partisan political reasons, the FBI’s confessed abuse of the Patriot Act – it’s easy to overlook the fact that, late last week, the congressional Democrats actually found their voice on Iraq.

They coalesced around a pair of plans that essentially aim to withdraw U.S. combat troops by next year, redeploy some of them to support rules, and spend extra money on fighting terrorists in Afghanistan. The Democratic ideas are similar to those offered last autumn by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, before they were deep-sixed by the Decider. And he is no more interested now than he was then.

The Democrats’ prospects for actually achieving their goals are virtually nil, because Bush has already vowed to veto any such legislation, and the Democrats lack the requisite House and Senate votes to override him.

But they already know that. They will push their legislative measures anyway, beginning this week, because they figure that no matter what happens, they will gain the political advantage:

If a sufficient number of Republicans were to break with Bush, help override his veto, and hence force a major course correction in Iraq, then the Democrats calculate that they’d be greeted as liberators by the war-weary American majority. Indeed, the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reports that 63 percent oppose Bush’s troop escalation strategy, and the latest Gallup poll reports that 60 percent would like to see a 2008 pullout deadline. But that “Democrats force Bush to change course” scenario isn’t very plausible, at least not this year.

So consider this scenario, which is far more likely: If most Republicans stick with Bush and block all opposition efforts to change course in Iraq, and then the war continues to go badly, the majority Democrats calculate that, politically speaking, they will gain the upper hand anyway – because the Republicans, having just demonstrated that once again they were impervious to change, will be forced to compete in the ’08 race with the war as their albatross. If they vote No on all Democratic efforts to try something else, then they will truly “own” this war for the second straight election cycle.

There is another scenario, of course: The so-called Surge will turn the tide, the Sunnis and Shiites will dial down the mutual destruction, and the freedom-loving Iraqi citizenry will finally start throwing those flowers we heard so much about back in 2002. Conservatives have long been preparing us for that day; I recall a 2005 cover story in The National Review which began by saying “It is time to say it unequivocally: We are winning in Iraq.” And yes, if that happens, the Republicans will have a great year in 2008.

But the Democrats, rather than “rooting for defeat,” are simply recognizing empirical reality – that the victory-in-Iraq scenario is at best a long shot, and thus they can only benefit politically if Bush and his stalwart congressional allies continue to defy the wishes of the American majority.


Speaking of Democratic decisions, however…

At the risk of riling the liberal netroots, I question the party's Friday decision to stiff Fox News by canceling its Fox-hosted presidential debate slated for August in Nevada.

The Nevada Democrats, led by home-state Senate leader Harry Reid, had originally agreed to let Fox News co-host and broadcast the event; they saw it as a way for the ’08 presidential candidates to reach out to red-state voters. Reid originally announced that he was “happy” to have Fox as a partner in the debate. But, over the past few weeks, liberal activists led by mounted a petition drive to have Fox dumped, citing the network’s well-known conservative bent.

So, three days ago, the Democrats caved. They claimed that they were dumping Fox because network chairman Roger Ailes on Thursday night had supposedly uttered a joke equating Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden. Actually, the joke was primarily aimed at Bush: “It is true that Barack Obama is on the move. I don’t know if it’s true that President Bush called (Pakistani president) Musharraf and said, ‘Why can’t we catch this guy?’” I can envision Bill Maher delivering the same joke in his HBO monologue.

Anyway, the Democrats were clearly looking for an excuse to dump Fox, because they didn’t want to admit that they were caving to left-flank pressure. And here’s what bothers me about that pressure:

Flip the situation around. Imagine if National Public Radio and PBS were slated to host an ’08 Republican presidential debate, and suddenly the party’s right-flank – in the form of religious conservatives – started pressuring the GOP to dump those sponsors, on the grounds that they were biased lefties who would never give the candidates a fair shake. If that was the current situation, some of the same people who are celebrating the Fox cancellation would be outraged.

And even if one credibly argues that Fox is more biased than NPR, my answer is: so what? I have often argued in this space that Fox sometimes acts as the Bush administration network, but again my answer is: so what? I am well aware (according to one study last week) that Fox recently devoted far more air time to Anna Nicole Smith still being dead than to the Walter Reed scandal, but to that I again say: so what?

The bottom line: everybody should always be talking to everybody. Democrats should make their best pitch on Fox - just as Republicans should do the same on all the outlets they regularly assail for “liberal bias.” Liberals certainly expect Bush to take questions from hostile reporters such as Helen Thomas (who makes no bones about her hostility), so how can they argue that their own team should get a pass?

Whoever becomes president in 2009 will spend the next four or eight years dealing out of necessity with all kinds of disagreeable characters the world over, so why should Democrats wince about taking disagreeable questions from a Fox News commentator, or having their debate remarks aired in unfiltered form by Fox News?

But if the dumping of Fox is such a principled stance, then I certainly assume that no Democrats will henceforth agree to appear on Fox ever again, given the fact that Fox (in the words of is a “right-wing misinformation network.” But wait…who was that woman who appeared just 24 hours ago on Fox News Sunday?

It was Maxine Waters, one of the most liberal House Democrats, arguing for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, talking freely with the media enemy. Last week, Senator Carl Levin did the same. Next week, undoubtedly, there will be another Democrat.

If the Iraq Study Group is right to argue that we’d be better off talking to our enemies abroad, then why shouldn’t U.S. politicians talk openly with those whom they perceive to be their enemies at home?