Tod Lindberg

The Democrats and the war

Posted by Tod Lindberg on February 20, 2007

The Washington Times

The House vote opposing the surge in Iraq drew 17 Republicans, far fewer than Democrats hoped, so the scenario of a collapse in congressional support for the war effort forcing President Bush’s hand has been averted for now. What we have is largely a partisan divide, and while the Democratic position is the majority position, in the absence of a far more dramatic fall-off in Republican support, Mr. Bush will be able to hold on long enough to see whether Gen. David Petraeus can produce results on the ground.

Now the action shifts to Rep. John Murtha and his attempt to attach to the supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq and Afghanistan conditions that would make it more difficult for Mr. Bush to pursue his new strategy. Mr. Bush is not without options. But the speedy shift of the action over to Mr. Murtha is an indication of what lies ahead: a constantly shifting, permanent political contest over Iraq that will define the politics of the next year.

Opposition to Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy is now the organizing principle of the Democratic Party, much as a personal and visceral opposition to Bill Clinton became the organizing principle of the Republican Congress in the 1990s. In both cases, it verges on obsession. In both cases, many of those who are caught up in it know better. But they aren’t the masters of the passion emanating from the party’s grass roots; they are its servants. It will find an outlet through them.

The question will always be this: What’s next? First, a non-binding House resolution. Next, an attempt to derail the surge through conditions on funding. After that, what? I don’t know, but, and this is the point, there will be something.

Mr. Bush said at his news conference last week that it doesn’t matter so much what he or anyone else says now; it’s a question of what kind of results Gen. Petraeus can achieve on the ground. In one sense, I suppose, that’s true, in that if Gen. Petraeus is unable to make a dramatic improvement in the security situation in Baghdad, Washington rhetoric will be no substitute.

But suppose, for purpose of argument, that Gen. Petraeus does get results. Suppose the surge works and Baghdad becomes and remains fairly calm. What happens then? Do Democrats rethink their opposition to the war? Do they conclude that they were wrong to oppose the surge? Do they join with the president in a renewed effort to support the political process in Iraq and speed reconstruction efforts there? Do they turn off the grass roots sentiment that swept them back to the congressional majority, telling their most vocal supporters that they need to simmer down so that the party can play a constructive role on a serious question of national security?

In two words, no way. This opposition is fully vested in its position. If Baghdad remains insecure, it’s time to bring the troops home, and if Baghdad becomes more secure, it’s time to bring the troops home. That’s because it’s time to bring the troops home. National security policy is no longer the property of the specialists in the subject in the Democratic Party; it belongs to the grassroots. The exquisitely pained position of Hillary Clinton, who made herself into one of those national security specialists, is illustrative of the current moment.

At present, there seems little political risk in indulging the anti-war sentiment of the party and much political risk in trying to get in its way. That, too, is analogous to the anti-Clinton sentiment of Republicans in the 1990s. But there is risk. In such a climate, the runaway “anti” sentiment can become quite impervious to signals that it is going too far, overreaching the public support it currently enjoys in such a fashion as to create a backlash.

Then Republicans lost seats and Newt Gingrich lost the speakership in 1998 with Washington in a swirl over impeachment proceedings in the House, it wasn’t really possible for reasons of the internal dynamics of the party to interpret the result as a market signal. And in the event a comparable market signal comes to Democrats in the current environment, I doubt they will be able to pick it up, either.

What seems most likely is an ongoing and escalating clash between an unappeasable grassroots-driven Democratic Party and the Bush White House, culminating in a serious constitutional clash over who’s running the war. And either Mr. Bush will prevail then, or it will be impossible for Democrats to escape responsibility for the consequences.

It would be best for Democrats politically to let Mr. Bush sort out the mess in Iraq himself; if he is unable to do so, then the next administration will take over and manage the U.S. extrication. But at present, it is evidently becoming quite impossible for Democrats to do nothing. And with action comes accountability, which in politics is to say “blame.”

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