Afghanistan Escalation Will (and Should) Hurt Congressional Democrats in 2010

Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. The views expressed are his own. Sign our CREDO petition to reject escalation in Afghanistan & join Brave New Foundation's #NoWar candlelight vigil on Facebook and Twitter.

In a midterm election, you live or die by your base. The party that motivates its base to donate, volunteer and vote more effectively than the other will pick up seats in Congress. Unfortunately for Democratic incumbents, their base opposes the president's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan and wants troops brought home faster than planned. Democratic candidates for the House and Senate, then, must fight the president's escalation if they want to mitigate their losses in 2010. If they don't, the Democratic base should (and likely will) sit this one out.

Democrats emphatically oppose the war in Afghanistan and the president's latest escalation. Prior to the president's announcement at West Point, 61 percent of Democrats opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan versus 27 who supported an escalation [FOX News/Opinion Dynamics Poll. Nov. 17-18, 2009]. A USA TODAY/Gallup poll on November 20-22 found that 57 percent of Democrats wanted to start bringing troops home.

Ferreting out the implications of the post-escalation-announcement polling is slightly more complex, but shows a consistent picture of Democratic opposition to escalation in Afghanistan. When asked about the president's stated policy combining another escalation with a drawdown beginning in 2011, 58 percent of Democrats expressed their support. However, when the same poll bifurcated the two components of the policy, it became clear that Democrats supported the drawdown date, not the troop increase:

  • A plurality of Democrats (43 percent) believed President Obama was sending "too many" troops.
  • 62 percent of Democrats either agreed with the timetable or wanted the troops to begin coming home sooner.

Gallup concluded:

It may be that while Democrats disagree with the specifics of the timetable as announced, they approve of the idea of having any timetable included. And it may be that while Republicans strongly disagree with the having any timetable included, they approve of the general idea of an increase of troop levels.

Democratic support for the total policy should be heavily weighted, then, toward the drawdown aspect of the plan and not the troop increase. That's a severe problem for overly optimistic congressional Democrats who want to believe that the president's speech made political room for them to support escalation. When November 2010 arrives, the only components of the president's policy in evidence will be escalation and its costs, which the Democratic base loathe. Think about what that will mean if Democrats remain far more concerned with the costs of the Afghanistan policy than with the risk of terrorism (79 percent to 46 percent, respectively).

Pushing policies opposed by your base in a midterm election year is another way of asking to get wrapped in a burlap sack and hit with sticks. James Morone, writing about the health reform fight, explains [h/t Ezra Klein]:

Many Democrats are moving to whittle back health reform in order to win over moderate, fence-sitting, frightened independents.

Big mistake.

Go back and look at the midterm tsunami that swept the Democrats out of office the last time. The turnout for that wave was just 36 percent. Moderate, fence sitting independents don't vote in midterm elections with a 36 percent turn out.

What really happened back in 1994? The Republican base -- jubilant, mobilized and angry -- turned out. The Democratic base -- dispirited, disenchanted and demobilized -- stayed home. As Democrats ponder which way to go in this latest round, they ought to read the political lessons more carefully: Short-term electoral success rests with the base, the people who got excited about "change we can believe in." Long-term electoral success rests in designing and pushing through a program that then grows very popular.

Klein describes what happens when you jab your thumb in the eye of your base to try to scoop up independents and the spare opposition voter in a midterm cycle:

Dispirited Democrats will stay home. Energized Republicans will press their advantage. Add in that the wave of young voters who were energized by Obama's campaign probably aren't going to turn out for the midterm election anyway, and you're looking at a pretty unfriendly landscape.

Congressional Democrats should already see the warning signs of an ugly election cycle in the voter-intensity tea leaves:

Among Republican respondents, 81 percent said they were definitely or probably going to vote, versus only 14 percent who were definitely or not likely to do so...Among Democrats? A woeful 56-40: Two out of every five Democrats are currently unlikely to vote.

"There is no doubt Washington has to worry about how the base is reacting and feeling...It's incredibly important heading into next year, because the base knocks on doors, makes phone calls and gives money."

Bottom line: Congressional Democrats and their kindred spirits beyond Washington, D.C. must get over their reluctance to buck President Obama on Afghanistan if they want to get out of this election cycle with their skin on. Midterm elections are base-centered elections. Winning base-centered elections requires actions that energize the base. If the Democrats in Congress want to stanch the bleeding on this part of the electoral contest, they have to run against the president's escalation in Afghanistan and fight it every step of the way. And if "our" representatives in Congress won't fight the Afghanistan escalation, we have to be willing to walk away from them. Cenk Uygur:

If that scares you and you start to worry about damaging a Democratic president, you're never going to win at this game. You're never going to get the policies you want. They don't listen to reason, they listen to power...If you don't have the stomach for being this tough on Obama and the Democrats, well then you don't have the stomach for politics. And you will permanently be the Republican's bitches.

Pushing an Afghanistan policy opposed by the base, supported by the opposition and that will send American boys and girls home in body bags is political malpractice, especially going into an election where more than 80 percent of your opponent's base is ready to charge into the voting booth. Issues exist in this election cycle other than Afghanistan, and reasons to oppose escalation in Afghanistan exist other than the purely political, but if Democrats won't even act against escalation to save their own skins, they'll deserve every bit of the political pain they'll feel in November.

In 2010, I will not donate, block-walk, or phone bank for any incumbent who fails to take forceful action to stop this escalation and bring our troops home. Fair warning, Democrats: I'm not alone.