General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have now reported to Congress on the situation in Iraq. President Bush will address the nation tomorrow night on television. But we already know in advance what he's going to say -- that he is in favor of American forces in Iraq going through a gradual drawdown of the "surge," which will end in the summer of 2008. This will leave us right in front of the final stretch of the presidential election, with exactly the same number of soldiers in Iraq -- 130,000 -- as we had when the Iraq Survey Group gave its report in 2006 (just after the midterm congressional elections). This is supposed to be "progress," according to the White House.
Democrats in Congress have to quickly decide what to do about this state of affairs. Because if they do nothing, the Republicans are going to run next year on the following slogan: "Trust us to take care of national security -- we are bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq, but we're doing it in a sober, reasonable, and adult way; by listening to the counsel of generals and taking their advice seriously. Democrats have obviously proven they do not have what it takes to put America's interests before politics, and we do."
Whether this political strategy will work or not is an open question, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be the campaign spin from the Republicans. And it might prove to be more effective than it now sounds. If Democrats aren't careful, Republicans could wind up owning the "withdrawal" as a political issue.
The American public has already decided that it's time to get out of Iraq. No matter what the consequences, voters are sick of the situation and want us out. But they also want a plan to get out that both (1) protects soldiers as we leave, and (2) also seems like a reasonable and intelligent plan.
Congressional Democrats have been unable to provide this one solid plan to the public. Some might argue that they simply don't have the votes to force through whatever they want (especially over the inevitable Bush veto), but this ignores a larger political problem for the party. This problem can be accurately stated as: they don't even appear to be trying very hard. And that could reap disaster in next year's election for the party as a whole.
Political impressions are almost as important as political realities, and if Democrats seem as if they can't even stand up to congressional Republicans, then why should American voters trust them to stand up to Osama Bin Laden (for instance)?
For everyone who cheered the resignation of Karl Rove, the White House PR machine seems to be humming along very nicely without him. Congressional Democrats (while carping about the Iraqi Parliament's month-long vacation) took the entire month of August off -- as, indeed, they do every year. They were all supposed to go back to their home district and eat barbeque and corn dogs for a month, then come back to Washington for the Iraq debate.
Problem is, the White House didn't waste August in this fashion. They put on a blitzkrieg PR offensive to sell the idea that the "surge" is working -- both to the press and to the public at large. To a large degree, this has changed the debate in Washington. Not so much with the public, but when the Democrats finally put down the spareribs and potato salad and returned to Congress, they found that the entire Washington political atmosphere surrounding the Iraq debate had changed.
Now, they're struggling to coalesce around a strategy for what to do next. As always, the inherent "herding cats" nature of the Democratic Party is in the spotlight for all to see. Which is a shame. They've already lost on how to "frame" the debate in September, and they're desperately trying to figure out a cohesive response that will resonate with the American people. Unfortunately, they're coming up with some pretty weak answers.
Now, to be sure, this is happening during the presidential primary season, which means that several Democratic candidates are trying to claim the mantle of "leader of the party," so there's bound to be some jockeying for position. But (unlike Republicans), rather than trying to outdo each other, Democrats seem to be falling all over themselves to appear polite and reasonable to the other side in the debate (with the notable exceptions of Richardson, Kucinich and Gravel, who are all valiantly trying to pull Democrats towards a stronger anti-war position).
Granted, the Democrats just do not have the votes in Congress to shove something down Bush's throat, so in the end they're probably going to have to compromise a bit to gain Republican support. But the key phrase in that sentence (which the Democratic leadership seems to be ignoring) is: "in the end." Not: "at the beginning."
Some will balk at what I am about to say, and call it "playing politics" in the midst of a war debate. I disagree. Because the Democrats are on the side of protecting U.S. troops by getting them out of an impossible situation. In other words, they have the high moral road in this debate. If they were playing politics with soldiers' lives merely for political gain then I would agree that this is crass, unseemly, and borders on the criminal. Fortunately, this is Bush's position and not the Democratic position.
A basic political truth is that the majority party in Congress can't always get what it wants passed and signed into law, especially with a sitting President from the opposing party. But the way this situation is supposed to be handled is that the majority votes on the strongest possible bill first, which forces the minority to vote on record opposing such a measure. When the bill dies (through presidential veto or other means), then these votes can be quite effectively used on the campaign trail against the minority party's incumbents.
This is Politics 101. If you'd like an example of how devastating this can be on the campaign trail, please see John Kerry's quote: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
After you've forced such votes on the minority, then you can start talking about compromises. But not before. In the immortal words of drive-in movie critic (and at-large social critic, to boot) Joe Bob Briggs: "I'm surprised I have to explain this stuff."
While the American public understands that Democrats may fail in their efforts to rein Bush in (due to the congressional math of adding up veto-proof votes), they simply will not understand or forgive if Democrats don't even make the attempt. If, on the one hand, the party is seen as trying as hard as possible to get their plan passed -- but failing in the end -- then the public will still respect them for trying. But if they are seen as not even able to make that attempt in the first place -- then the public will have nothing but scorn for the party. And rightly so.
Do the Democrats want to increase their majority in the Senate? This is the way to do it. There are several Republican senators already horrified about their chances for re-election, who really need to be on the record on such votes; from such states as Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon... to name but a few. Their feet need to be held to the fire, first and foremost. After doing so, and after the strongly-worded measures go down to defeat, then start talking compromise.
Sorry, but sometimes it's depressing to root for congressional Democrats. Their love of consultants and triangulating does wear on one at times....
In any case, I wrote this article because I saw the three alternatives (read that as "compromises") floated by Democrats this week to the mainstream media. Now, I must say that in the past few days, Democrats seem to be waking up to the political reality that they're about to get steamrolled (once again) on Iraq, and they have begun stating their case a bit more forcefully... but they've still got a long way to go. And President Bush is about to use his "bully pulpit" to the nation tomorrow night, so it's not as if Democrats have a whole lot of time to turn this around.
From an AP article on the subject of what Democrats may do next:
Other Democrats and several Republicans say there is plenty of room for compromise. Congressional aides say bipartisan proposals are in the works and that [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid has reached out to several GOP senators to discuss potential common ground. However, a major hurdle remaining are politically influential organizations like MoveOn.org who say Democrats shouldn't water down the debate with more moderate legislation.
Alternative legislative proposals on Iraq include:
* Ordering troop withdrawals to begin this fall, but set the spring date of completion as a nonbinding goal.
* Limit the mission of U.S. troops to training the Iraqi security forces, fighting terrorists and protecting U.S. assets, but leave it up to military commanders to determine force levels.
* Demanding Bush submit a new war strategy to Congress by fall that would limit the mission of U.S. forces and begin drawing down force levels in coming months.
Didn't Democrats used to have some union bosses in their makeup? When did Democrats lose all sense of how to conduct negotiations? If you're in a position of strength, don't lead with a weak compromise!
Instead of capitulating before the debate even begins, how about flooding the airwaves today with the following unified Democratic message, from every Democrat who comes within range of a microphone or camera:
"We're pleased that President Bush is about to come around to the Democratic way of thinking. He will be announcing tomorrow night what the Democratic leaders in Congress have been strongly advocating for months now: that we need to start intelligently and safely withdrawing American troops from Iraq. Bush has resisted this commonsense strategic shift in our efforts in Iraq for over four years now, and he has even vetoed legislation designed to bring about this goal, but he now finds himself backed into a corner. He has the choice of either completely breaking the Army, instituting a mandatory military draft, or of pulling soldiers out... because there are no soldiers left to send into his senseless pre-emptive war.
"Democrats have been pleading with Bush to change course for years now, and he is finally admitting that the Democrats have been right all along. The only way political progress in Iraq can be achieved is by letting the Iraqis fight their own battles, and for America to cease to be seen as an occupying force in Iraq. The vast majority of American citizens came to this conclusion long ago, and it has taken the White House until now to follow the people's lead on the matter.
"While we are glad that President Bush is now seeing things in the same cold light of reality that Democrats have been attempting to shine for a long time on the situation in Iraq; we also believe he is coming very late to this conclusion, and that his withdrawal plan -- like most things the White House does -- is a problem of 'too little, too late.' We will work with the White House to insure a safe and effective withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in the coming weeks, and we are glad President Bush is finally coming around to the Democratic position -- which is also the mainstream position of two-thirds of the American public.
"We Democrats are confident we can convince congressional Republicans to get on board such a Democratic initiative to save American troops' lives, and we are also confident that the White House will also see the wisdom of the American people on this matter. We would hate for the war critics to be proved right when they assert that Bush is only interested in passing this matter off to the next administration, and that Bush's biggest goal right now is to 'kick the can down the road' for the next President to deal with.
"That is a horrifying thought to contemplate when American fighting men and women's lives are on the line, and we instead feel assured that Bush will indeed see the wisdom of our approach. Instead of sacrificing American soldiers needlessly in a shallow attempt to inject politics into what should be a rational debate about how best to protect American interests and American soldiers' lives, Bush should indeed take this chance to follow the Democrats' lead on this issue."
That is what I am waiting for the Democrats to say. But they've got to say it today, or at the latest tomorrow, in response to Bush's speech. Because if they wait past that point, they're going to lose the PR fight once again.
Democrats need to present such a narrative to the public. Because if they don't, Bush and the Republicans are going to present "getting out of Iraq" as a Republican idea. And with their echo chamber in the right-wing news media, they could actually get away with it.
What continually astonishes me is that I am one average American sitting at a keyboard, and I can come up with such "framing" for Democrats to use -- fairly easily on my part. Is it really so hard for Democratic politicians (and their advisors) to recognize what seems to be so obvious? Have these people truly been inside the Beltway so long they have lost all perspective on how the public sees these things?
I sincerely hope not, but I have to wonder. The next week or so will tell.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com