It's conventional wisdom, and probably correct, that the message of the November 2006 election was that voters wanted Democrats to end the war in Iraq. Most also believe that the abysmally low approval ratings of the 110th Congress--20 percent at last report--are in large part the result of the Democrats' failure even to start winding down the war. Again and again since last winter, they've come to the brink of a showdown with the Bush administration--and, every time, they've folded and given the architects and champions of this war what they want.
In recent weeks, we've seen the first steps of the tango: the Democrats in Congress pass a military appropriations bill that includes timelines for withdrawal, and the president vetoes the bill. The next step is for another funding measure that doesn't include timelines. But this time there are indications that the Democrats might just stand their ground:
QUESTION: Mr. Obey, the rhetoric from the president is just going to get worse as the holidays approach. Are you going to continue to maintain the stance that you have of providing these conditions on war funds if he's to get the money?
OBEY: Of course.
I mean, we have provided the money. I will repeat that 50 times. We have provided the money. The money is not the issue. The issue is that the president is simply refusing to accept the conditions under which the money is provided.
This document says that that's the proper role of Congress. If you look at Article I, Section 8 and Article I, Section 9, they define the authority of the Congress to determine what policy is supposed to be financed and in foreign affairs, and we're simply -- we're simply following that document to the letter.
So much of the last decade in American politics has hinged on the Democrats' essential inability to tell even minimally complicated stories, from how and why the voting in Florida in 2000 was a sham and a disgrace, to why the war in Iraq wasn't helping in the fight against terrorist groups, to why it mattered that the administration had turned the Department of Justice in a Stalin-era claque of staunch partisan loyalists. At some point, the Democrats lost their nerve: having failed to control the public narrative (which admittedly is much harder to do without the presidency), they concluded that they would lose big fights like the one over funding the war--and backed away from them.
Obey seems to be gambling that they can control this narrative, and win the fight. As he says, Congress did provide the funding--but with conditions. It's not that they won't "support the troops"; it's that they want to make sure the commitment isn't endless.
Already the administration is ginning up its noise machine with accusations of "surrender dates" and "micromanaging the war." The second charge is pretty easy to push back against--if any group needs adult supervision, it's the Bushies--but the first might resonate, particularly given coverage like this story in today's New York Times. (Side note: I worry constantly that the Democrats are so keyed on inflicting political damage to Bush and the Republicans that they miss what is undeniably good news. Yes, the political tale has yet to be told, but if the strictly military purpose of "the Surge" was to improve security and provide a measure of stability, intellectual honesty compels us to acknowledge that.)
Of course, "surrender" is shamelessly hyperbolic; our forces haven't been defeated, and for that matter there's no one to "surrender" to. But the perception is politically dangerous, and war opponents have yet to present the truly daunting opportunity costs of this war--the unmet domestic needs, the limited capacity to exert force anywhere else in the world. the cumulative damage to the overstrained armed services--in their full dimensions.
It's honorable for the Democrats to engage in this political fight at this time. But they'd damn well better win it.