Open Letter To Speaker Pelosi And Majority Leader Reid

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi,

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid;

This upcoming week is going to be perhaps the most important week of the 110th Congress. General Petraeus will give his report, Ambassador Crocker will likewise report; and the debate on what to do next in Iraq will begin in earnest.

So why are Democrats seemingly admitting defeat -- before the argument has even begun? Why are you essentially taking what should be a position of strength, and (by buying into the White House's spin) turning it into a position of weakness? Do you really think this is the best way to end the Iraq war, or (for that matter) the best way to convince voters to vote for Democrats in 2008?

To put it bluntly -- why are you speaking as if you are still the minority party? In all the years wandering in the minority wilderness since Newt Gingrich's dismal reign, have you truly forgotten how the majority party in Congress is supposed to act?

To say you are disappointing your base by doing so is, indeed, an understatement. You came into possession of both houses of Congress with fairly decent approval ratings at the beginning of this year. When you failed to force President Bush to end the war in Iraq in the spring, your approval ratings plummeted to below Bush's dismal ratings. Did this not worry you? Did you not poll the public to see why they had turned on you? Have you not figured out that your base deserted you because of one single issue -- Iraq?

You may think I am being hard on you. To the contrary, I have been defending your position all year long (much to the disgust of some of my readers, I might add). I predicted in January that it would take until now to effectively force Bush to end the Iraq war. Since then, time and time again I have patiently explained the vagaries of getting anything meaningful through Congress -- in the face of raging online opinion that the war should end NOW! I have been in your corner, in other words, and have gone into great detail about supermajorities and veto-proof votes and budgetary rules and political considerations. But I must admit that several things are beginning to worry me, before this week's debate has even begun.

The first is your absolute capitulation on the idea that "the 'surge' is working." I, personally, have lost count of how many Democrats have bought into this Pentagon/White House spin. As the comedian Bill Maher put it: "The phrase 'the surge is working' is working." The Pentagon arbitrarily decides what is and what is not "sectarian violence" (i.e., whether a dead Iraqi civilian found in the streets is a victim of "sectarian violence" or not, depending apparently on whether he was shot through the head from the front, or from the back), and Democrats don't even question the statistics. As Mark Twain (or maybe it was Disraeli) famously said: "There are three types of lies: a lie, a damned lie, and statistics." While it is ironic that the Pentagon is now minimizing body counts (instead of maximizing them, as they did throughout the Vietnam war), Democrats are strangely silent on the issue.

The second thing which worries me is your disgusting desperation to give in on the warrantless wiretapping issue, seemingly so you could take your month-long August vacation without delay. You threw the Fourth Amendment under a bus, and you seem to expect the public to be glad that you "only" did it for the next six months. This is pathetic. Please remember your oath to uphold and protect the Constitution the next time Republicans blindside you with such legislation. Even if it does mean your vacation may be a few days shorter. It's hard to listen to Washington politicians get adamant about condemning the Iraqi Parliament for taking August off, when you are demonstrably willing to toss out whole sections of the Bill of Rights to guarantee your own month-long respite.

On a related subject: during this extended vacation in your home districts, did you not hear the concerns of your constituents? Did they really tell you: "The best way to end the Iraq war would be to compromise with Republicans right off the bat, and water down whatever bill you pass, so that President Bush can safely ignore it and do what he wants?" Did the voters really say to you: "We mainly elect Democrats not to fight for our core values, but to compromise and be reasonable with the Republicans so that we can all just get along?" Did they honestly tell you: "The best strategy in September would be to publicly back down and admit that the other side is right -- before the fight even begins -- by throwing away your best bargaining points and all your leverage, and then just accepting whatever the congressional Republicans deign to agree to, in a "bipartisan" fashion?"

I find this hard to believe. Either the polls are lying to me, or you guys are just ignoring the public and conspiring to prove that Democrats have no backbone whatsoever. If the latter is true, this is going to have dire repercussions for you next November. You conspire at your own peril to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory... once again.

In the past month, the Bush administration has won the "framing" contest with "the 'surge' is working." You've got a lot of lost ground to make up, in other words. This doesn't mean it is impossible, but it's going to be tough. Even without Karl Rove, the White House spin machine is still obviously formidable.

Senator Ted Kennedy on CBS' Face The Nation did a great job of introducing a strong Democratic talking point -- that the American military is "being held hostage by Iraqi politicians." That's a great image, and needs repeating by many Democrats in the coming week. If, of course, and only if Democrats have learned the importance of "talking points" and "staying on message" and "framing the debate." The jury's still out on that, I have to admit.

Unfortunately, the other Sunday morning talk show Democratic guests were, shall we charitably say, less than stellar. Joe Biden did a great job outlining the GOP's position for why Congress should vote for every dollar Bush requests for Iraq, without any conditions. Senator Dianne Feinstein seemed like she needed another cup of coffee in her interview. I mean, seriously, these were the best spokespersons you could come up with, the week before the debate on Iraq begins? I would have much preferred seeing Russ Feingold or Carl Levin or Barack Obama or even Dennis Kucinich this Sunday morning... and I would be willing to bet I wasn't the only Democrat who felt this way. If you're going to lead the debate, you've got to lead with your strongest messengers, not your most ineffectual debaters.

With the vacillators the Democratic Party presented (with the exception of Kennedy, who did a great job), the message America got was: Democrats are -- before the argument even starts -- giving up totally and utterly on either using the biggest leverage we've got (war funding), or that we're giving up almost completely on the concept of a hard deadline for Bush to withdraw troops. Democrats may half-heartedly fight for a deadline to begin withdrawal -- but Democrats are also open to a compromise on a deadline for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq, meaning we may allow Bush to decide whether an undefined amount of them stay for an undefined amount of time.

There's a wise saying that came out of Bill Clinton's political team: "'Wrong and strong' beats 'right and weak' every time." What is meant by this is that showing backbone garners respect among voters -- even if they don't agree with your stance. The simple act of fighting for what you believe in impresses even people who would never consider voting for you or your party.

If you don't grab the reins pretty soon, and start shaping the Iraq debate in language that presents your view of the situation, you are going to have pulled off a rather singular political feat: turning a wildly popular position (getting out of Iraq, which consistently polls at 60-70% approval of the American public at large) from a "right and strong" position into "right and weak." Which means you're going to lose the initiative, in a big way.

If you pass some namby-pamby: "We really think that at some point in the future, we really really should consider getting out of Iraq... when the president thinks it's a good idea" bill, with no deadlines and no threat of withholding funds for the war and no pressure on Bush whatsoever -- then the voters are going to reward you next year with defeat. Strongly anti-war Democratic primary challenges will sprout across America's Democratic safe districts like dandelions. And Ned Lamont should have already proved to you what a headache that can be.

Furthermore, the "netroots" are going to abandon you entirely -- that wellspring of campaign funds is going to run dry so fast it will shock you to your bones. Speaker Pelosi, you already face a challenger in Cindy Sheehan, and you may consider her a political gadfly at this point, but if you can't shepherd some meaningful legislation through the House in the next few weeks, you may be surprised at how popular her campaign may become. To say nothing of the rabidly anti-war sites like MoveOn.org, which may be actively supporting primary challengers across the country.

Are you really willing to throw away a Democratic majority in Congress -- and quite possibly the White House -- for the supposed benefits of appearing "bipartisan" in the next few weeks? That is the question you should be asking yourselves.

It's not that hard to get out in front of this issue. Imagine the following talking points being echoed by Democrats on every television interview in the next week:

"President Bush is putting a lot of stake in the fact that a few sheiks in al-Anbar province have temporarily decided not to kill American soldiers because we're helping arm their Sunni militias, when not a word is said by the Bush administration about the situation in Basra. Our British allies have pulled back from the city center of Basra, and the supposed 'chaos' which Republicans like to say will be the inevitable result of pulling coalition troops out has simply not happened. 90% of the violence in Basra was directed against the coalition, and once removed from the situation into a position where training of Iraqi forces can continue -- without exposing the coalition forces to sectarian attacks -- violence is down and Basra and its surrounding provinces are relatively calm. I find it hard to explain why General Petraeus is so focused on al-Anbar (which helps the Bush White House's political case), when there is a significant amount of good news from Basra. Perhaps it is because the situation in Basra does not fit into the political calculations of the White House and the Pentagon as neatly as the Sunni militia situation in al-Anbar does. The Democrats' plan for Iraq is not one of 'precipitous withdrawal' as the White House has been spinning for months, but one of reasoned redeployments of American troops so the same training mission can continue in the rest of Iraq, without exposing American troops to the brutality of the sectarian warfare happening all over Iraq. It will not result in chaos and anarchy as the Republicans have repeatedly stated, it will instead jump-start the reality of true Iraqi reconciliation and, in doing so, will pressure Maliki's government into moving towards reconciliation."

That, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid, is what the American people deserve to hear. That is what we have been waiting to hear. That is why the Democratic Congress' approval ratings are in the basement. Because we have not heard it from you yet.

I warn you, if you spend the next few weeks arguing how best to acquiesce to the Republican demands over the progress of the war in Iraq, you are going to pay a heavy price in next year's elections. If you cannot stand up to a President with approval ratings hovering around (and below) 30%, then the voters are simply going to decide that your party cannot be trusted with the nation's security.

How are American citizens supposed to believe that the Democrats would be the best party to prosecute the war on Islamic terrorism if they can't even stand up to the minority Republicans in Congress?

History is watching Congress this week. So is the public at large. If you use this scrutiny to prove the Republican hypothesis that Democrats can't be trusted with the reins of power -- then congratulations, because you have successfully sabotaged the 2008 elections.

Which is a shame, because Democratic voters deserve better than this.

Please, you've got to stand up and fight this week.

Please.

Sincerely,

-- Chris Weigant

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com