Friday, May 25, 2007

I've been pondering, and re-pondering, the apparent give-in by Dems to Bush's demands on the spending bill. Did the Dems cave? Yes. Does it suck and as I wrote show a lack of spine? Yes.

But perhaps beyond the black and white on this topic, some grey should be considered (after all, this blog's namesake), and Dick Polman helps to illuminate in that regard:
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.”
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.
Dick may be right. In light of the intractable veto and the known hatchet artists for the GOP, the Dems could be playing the smart poker hand by letting the tide of the war play out. A formal timeline was dropped, but a comprehensive report is slated for September, Bush must give a status report by July 15th on Iraq's progress towards meeting benchmarks, and there are indications judgments will be made well before September rolls around -- in particular by more than a few Republicans.

Assuming no miraculous turnaround in Iraq, GW's popularity will remain in the toilet and the pressure to withdraw will only increase.

Is it, dare say, immoral for the Dems to back away from digging in and demanding a timeline? On principle, yes, but practically, not really. In this case, the practical could be the wiser, and more effective, choice. (Oh, and don't think Karl Rove didn't see as a bonus outcome that the Dem supporters would be pissed and look to eat their own).

But Kevin Drum provides another perspective:
But there's also a different interpretation: that the public will side with whoever they agree with on the merits. Maybe that seems naive in our spin-ridden, media saturated age. But you never know. People might actually support the side they agree with. Stranger things have happened.

If that's the case, it means that Bill Clinton won his showdown with Newt Gingrich not because of his bully pulpit, but because Gingrich wanted to make cuts in social programs that the public didn't support. And in fact, that's exactly what happened. Clinton's position was the popular one in that battle, so Gingrich ended up getting the blame for shutting down the government.

This time around, though, the public is pretty clearly on the side of congressional Democrats: they think the war is going badly and they want to see us withdraw from Iraq within the next year. So what would have happened if Dems had held their ground, made a public case for why it would actively benefit the country to get out of Iraq, and simply sent a lightly modified version of the original bill back to Bush? If he'd vetoed it again, isn't it likely that Bush would get the blame for being stubborn and petty, not Congress?
Kevin could be right (he often is), and as I said at the start I continue to mull over this matter, but it strikes me that there are at least two key differences between now and the Newt/Bill showdown:
  • In terms of being able to communicate their side to the public in a convincing way, Bill Clinton is light years ahead of anyone in this Dem congress. This point cannot be overstated.

  • Unlike the social issues behind the 1995 confrontation, Iraq is much more emotion-filled and intense, therefore making it easier to manipulate people. This war has bred fed-up anger and feelings of betrayal pitted against fear of terrorist attacks and guilt to be patriotic, to honor the dead as well as those fighting for us.
  • Sorry, with an issue as charged as this one, odds favor Rove and his "hit men" over softies like Pelosi and Reid -- and I think those two fully understood this fact.

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