...but first... the Bush Scandal-fest news...
I have to preface today's column with a rundown of all the scandals recently besieging (or about to besiege) the White House. Admittedly, there are so many of them, it's getting hard to keep track.
For those of you keeping score at home, the AP recently ran an excellent list of Bush appointees who have left under a dark cloud... or are about to.
Henry Waxman's House Oversight Committee has been busy. Yesterday, they were blowing holes in the Pentagon for using soldiers such as Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch to propagandize the war. Today, they may be issuing subpoenas left and right concerning a handful of various Bush scandals.
The chief of the General Services Administration may soon step down amid charges that she abused her position by violating the Hatch Act. Twenty-five senators recently wrote the White House with a list of pointed questions about her activities, which concludes with the line: "The Executive Branch is not an extension of the Republican National Committee, nor of any political party. Those who treat it as such must be held accountable."
But the most shocking news comes from within the administration itself. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Office of Special Counsel is opening an unprecedented and wide-ranging investigation centered on Karl Rove, which may tie together several aspects of many of these scandals -- most notably, the inability of the Bush Administration to ever separate politics from anything it does.
Mind you -- this is just one week's worth of scandals from the Bush White House. And still, all of them put together don't even touch the biggest scandal of the week; truly the center ring in this circus of sleaze: the fact that last week Attorney General Alberto Gonzales proved to everyone (except the president) -- without a shadow of a doubt -- that either; (1) Gonzales is a complete moron who can't remember last week or, for that matter, what he had for breakfast; or (2) Gonzales is lying his face off to Congress and the public. Either one would seem to disqualify him for high office. In a reality-based administration, that is.
Bush's "Scandal-palooza" just keeps growing larger and larger, with no end in sight. Isn't it refreshing to have real congressional oversight for a change?
The War of Words
But that's not what I wanted to talk about this week. I just had to mention all the scandals as a public service, for those of you who have been too busy to keep up. Ahem. I apologize for lengthening an already long article. What I do want to talk about is the standoff on Iraq between the Democrats and President Bush. Because it's about to heat up.
Not that it isn't already plenty hot. There's currently a "war of words" going on in Washington over the real war in Iraq. Surprising many, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has become one of the strongest voices from the Democrats -- which has also earned him the expected blasts of overheated hyperbole issuing from the White House.
Reid was raked over the coals late last week for committing a "Washington faux pas" (defined as: accidentally speaking the truth in Washington). He actually had the nerve to point out -- in public! -- what a majority of Americans already believe: that we've lost in Iraq. Predictably, the right wing ranted and raved, but Reid emerged largely unscathed and continues to ratchet up the rhetoric (Bob Geiger has a great article defending Reid, here at Huffington Post).
But that was a sideshow. The real reason they were attacking Reid was for a speech he recently gave. If you haven't read his speech, you really should take the time to check it out. It's a rip roarin' barnstormer. The most memorable line:
[Bush] said that while there were still horrific attacks in Baghdad -- and I quote -- "The direction of the fight is beginning to shift." In describing his escalation of American troops -- what he calls a surge -- he said, "so far the operation is meeting expectations."
The White House transcript says the president made those remarks in the State of Michigan. I believe he made them in the state of denial.
The White House reaction was swift and pointed. The Washington Post has a good roundup of the sharp statements from both sides. Vice President Cheney even jumped into the fray. Reid admirably and adroitly brushed off Cheney's comments by saying: "I'm not going to get into a name calling match with the administration's chief attack dog." He went on to point out that it wasn't worth it to argue with a man who is polling at "9 percent approval."
This is where it begins to resemble a free-for-all. Bush got some comments of his own in, and other congressional Democrats quickly shot back. Retired generals began speaking out against Bush and the surge. Tom Delay thinks Democrats may be committing treason by even discussing the issue. Dennis Kucinich introduced articles of impeachment for Vice President Cheney. George McGovern even got in on the act, strongly pointing out that he got a Distinguished Flying Cross by flying 35 combat missions in World War II, while Cheney and Bush avoided Vietnam. McGovern also predicted (a bit optimistically, in my opinion), that:
It is my firm belief that the Cheney-Bush team has committed offenses that are worse than those that drove Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew and Atty. Gen. John Mitchell from office after 1972. Indeed, as their repeated violations of the Constitution and federal statutes, as well as their repudiation of international law, come under increased consideration, I expect to see Cheney and Bush forced to resign their offices before 2008 is over.
Perhaps. Tom Hayden (another voice from the past) is also predicting that the heavy weight of the combined Bush White House scandals will so weaken the administration that it will hasten the end of the war. One can only hope.
The Iraq War Appropriations Bill
But while watching duelling soundbites is fun and interesting, it's a diversion from the political realities of funding the Iraq war, and the battle for the emergency appropriations bill currently being waged by Congressional Democrats and President Bush.
My previous article on the situation ("After Bush Vetoes The Iraq Bill... What?") has so far been pretty accurate. A month ago, I wrote:
Get as strongly-worded an anti-war bill out of committee as possible
Since Bush is going to veto it anyway, resist changing the bill drastically in committee. The pork can get cut if it doesn't lose Democratic votes in the House; and the timeline will probably turn into a "goal" rather than a hard and fast date, in order to get it through the Senate. The timeline for withdrawal may be set at one year (the Senate version) or 18 months (the House version). Murtha's "troop readiness" section should stay in, though. Whatever the final language, it has to pass both houses, so it can't be tinkered with too much without raising the danger of losing crucial votes. The House only passed their bill by a 218-212 margin, remember, and the Senate will also have a thin majority when they vote.
This bill is currently in the process of emerging from the conference committee. The committee actually kept the hard timeline for withdrawal, which was a surprise to me. The Senate initially rejected such a concrete deadline, so it's encouraging that Democrats now think they can get this through the Senate. This shows a stiffening of the anti-war backbone among Senate Democrats.
Murtha's "troop readiness" section survived the conference committee. Some of the more embarrassing pork was stripped out -- but not all of it. The real head-scratcher is the addition of the minimum wage hike. This is completely unrelated to Iraq, so it must have been added for a political purpose. The two houses have been struggling to accept language for the minimum wage bill for months now, and I see only two reasons to add it to the Iraq appropriations bill: to gain Democratic votes, or to try and shame some Republicans into voting for it. It remains to be seen whether this tactic will bear any fruit or not.
In any case, it won't ultimately matter, as this bill is going to be vetoed anyway, and the Democrats just don't have the votes to override it. Which brings us to Round 2.
This is where it gets tricky for Democrats, because they are going to have to do something they don't want to: compromise with President Bush. Bush (it should be noted) is not thrilled about this prospect either. But by very carefully listening to the language the White House has been using to attack Democrats, you can see the outline of the compromise that will take place. Here is Bush on the bill:
Yesterday, Democratic leaders announced that they plan to send me a bill that will fund our troops only if we agree to handcuff our generals, add billions of dollars in unrelated spending and begin to pull out of Iraq by an arbitrary date.
So he's laid his markers down on the table. Reading these tea leaves, here is what I predict the bill will eventually look like:
(*) No timetable for troop withdrawal. Bush just isn't going to back down on this, no matter how hard Democrats push.
(*) Milestones for Iraqi government will stay in -- but will probably be watered down, maybe even with vague language instead of dates and deadlines.
(*) Murtha's language about only sending troops that are fully trained, fully equipped and fully rested (with a big loophole, so Bush can waive these requirements), stays in.
(*) All the pork will go.
(*) The minimum wage hike will go.
(*) Extra money for VA and military health care will stay in.
(*) Unfortunately, Bush will get the money to fund the war (and his "surge") until October.
This may look like the Democrats have caved in completely. With all the fiery things they're saying right now, it may be spun as a setback for the Democratic Congress. Don't buy into such analyses, though, because they're ultimately going to be proven wrong.
Bush is going to get his "surge." Democrats need to respond to this by telling the public in no uncertain terms that this war is Bush's war -- and then hammer congressional Republicans with the issue mercilessly, all summer long. As Reid said in his speech:
In the supplemental spending bill, we are sending the Administration a strong message that the American people want a new direction. Nonetheless, I understand the restlessness that some feel. Many who voted for change in November anticipated dramatic and immediate results in January.
But like it or not, George W. Bush is still the commander in chief -- and this is his war.
We have made tremendous progress this year, but it has come with a slim majority of 51 in a body that requires 60 to do business.
That means every step forward has required the cooperation of Republicans who are willing to put partisanship aside.
Because that is indeed how the war is going to end. Republicans (especially House members) are currently looking at the election calendar with fear and trepidation. They're sticking with Bush in this round, but the next round is going to be drastically different. At summer's end, when it comes time to debate the Iraq funding bill for the entire next fiscal year (i.e., the whole 2008 election season), Republicans will have the political cover they need to vote against the war. And that's when Democrats may finally be able to convince enough Republicans to jump ship to override a presidential veto.
Here is how the Republicans are going to spin it to their constituents on the campaign trail: "President Bush and the military leaders told us in January that the surge was the best option and that we would see whether it was working or not by the end of the summer. I am sorry to say that the surge did not work. The best way to solve the problem of Iraq is to convince the Iraqi government we are leaving, which will force them to address their own problems."
My prediction is that some version of this will be on many Republican candidates' lips this fall. The only question is whether it will be enough to force Bush to face reality, and to finally begin to end the war in Iraq. Democrats need 17 or 18 Republicans in the Senate, and around 60 or so in the House, in order to put together a veto-proof majority. These are the numbers to watch, as only they will end the war in Iraq.
In the forefront of this group is Chuck Hagel, Republican Senator from Nebraska. He wrote an astonishing commentary on Iraq (which is definitely worth a read) for the Washington Post after his fifth trip to Iraq. I leave you with his words (mind you, this is a Republican writing this):
...closer to home, the administration and Congress must untangle themselves from the debate over funding our continued involvement in Iraq. The Iraqis must be jolted into understanding that America's continued commitment of troops and money is not open-ended. Significantly, American leaders in Iraq told me that they believed the debate on this issue in Congress had actually helped them get Iraqi leaders to grasp this point.
I do not like restricting our war policy with conditions or timelines. They are blunt instruments in an area of policy that requires flexibility. But they are some of the few levers Congress has when the majority of Congress and the American people have lost confidence in the president's policy.
We are at a crossroads at home. One option is that Congress can pass and the president can sign a war-funding bill that gives our troops the resources they need and places responsible conditions on that funding that will press the Iraqi government to perform and make the tough choices. President Bush should not see this as a threat from Congress but as a reasonable progression of events after four bloody and costly years.
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