Friday, May 25, 2007

War and the art of the possible

The party-base recriminations are flying. Just as Rush Limbaugh and the Republican right went ballistic last week when the Washington GOP worked with Ted Kennedy to craft a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the antiwar Democratic left is incensed at the moment because its Washington leaders have caved to President Bush on Iraq, allowing him to get his war money without the caveat of a troop withdrawal timeline.

Some of the commentary is predictably scathing. Liberal organizer/activist Robert Borosage rebukes the congressional Democratic leaders in advance for what he calls their “consistent inanity,” and contends that, by backing down, they are “voting to enable a rogue president. They are sacrificing the nation’s security and the lives of many young soldiers to stand with George Bush. Elsewhere, liberal blogger John Nichols writes at The Nation that “this failure to abide by the will of the people who elected Democrats to end the war will haunt Pelosi, Reid, and their party – not to mention the United States and the battered shell that is Iraq.” Elsewhere, is threatening to find and fund ’08 candidates who are willing to launch primary challenges against those Democrats who voted Yes on the money. Elsewhere, activist/author David Sirota accuses the Democrats of “behaving like cowards,” of cooking up a “manure sundae,” and declares that “we are watching the rise of the Dick Cheney Democrats.”

The Democratic party is at it again, employing its traditional talent for intramural invective. This old habit doesn’t necessarily serve its members well. Liberals have long complained – accurately – that Bush has been pursuing his war with scant regard for the facts on the ground, but their current anger at the Democratic Congress suggests that they, too, are prone to ignoring reality.

The facts on the ground, in Washington, are simple: The Democrats may have the gavel, but they don’t have the votes to impose their will on Bush and override his vetoes. The margins are way too thin. And a fair number of elected Democrats represent moderate swing districts, in places like Indiana and North Carolina, where constitutents have soured on the war, but nevertheless might view a war money cutoff as tantamount to abandoning the troops in harm’s way.

As Jonathan Alter points out in his latest column, “This (swing state factor) is not a figment of some spineless Democrat's imagination, but the reality of what he or she will face back in the district over Memorial Day. Democrats who vote to cut funding not only risk getting thrown in the briar patch by Republican hit men in Washington; they also might not be able to satisfy their otherwise antiwar constituents at home….Democrats who vote to cut off funding can be more easily blamed for the war's failures, especially in swing districts.” All told, “Bush and his war might be terribly unpopular, but under our system, he's still holding the high cards.”

Politics is not only about passion; it’s also about practicing the art of the possible. And I suspect that the anger in some liberal quarters will wane as long as the congressional Democrats treat this week’s action as merely a tactical retreat, as just a speed bump in the long-run campaign to ratchet up the pressure on Bush. There are funding fights slated for this summer; there will be a “progress” report on the Surge in September. Barring a miracle in Iraq, Bush’s political standing, even among Republicans, is likely to weaken further as the ’08 election season nears, thus presenting new opportunities. Even Bush seems to recognize the need to cede a little; it’s noteworthy that he is suddenly talking now about embracing some of the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group – the same body that he spurned last winter - and that the White House is now launching media trial balloons about '08 troop drawdowns.

Time is on the Democrats’ side. The party that’s saddled with an unpopular war tends to be punished at election time, as the Democrats should well remember. They lost the ’52 race in part because of Korea, and lost the ’68 race because of Vietnam. And now that the GOP has been successfully tagged as the Iraq war party, the Democrats will have the wind at their backs in 2008 – if they can manage not to slice each other up along the way.

And have a great holiday.