Let me second this post by Yglesias and urge the MyDD/Feingold wing of the coalition to take a step back and get more realistic about Congress’s Iraq options. The goal of Democrats -- and their allies -- over the next two years should not and cannot be to stop the war cold turkey. The goal should be to politicize the issue in preparation for 2008.
Before I begin, let me make clear that I share the same goal with the Feingolds and Stollers of the world –- i.e., to end the war as soon as possible (though I’d prefer a gradual withdrawal). But people need to think harder about the best means to reach this end. In my opinion, the best (and only) way to end the war is through political pressure, and not by -- to use Yglesias’s term -- “seizing control” of foreign policy.
There are several reasons why the Democrats simply can’t stop the war right now. First, and most importantly, Bush controls the White House. And he’ll continue controlling it until 2008. To end the war, you need someone in the White House who (1) is not Bush and (2) is not running on an “the-war-is-awesome” platform. Second, the Democratic majority is very narrow, particularly in the Senate given that it hangs on Lieberman. And numbers matter. Numbers are why, for instance, it was absurd to think that the Dems could stop Alito with 44 Senators. (Dems had 55 Senators when Bork got Borked).
The way around these obstacles is to gain bigger majorities. And you do that (as the 2006 election illustrated) by politicizing these issues and offering the public a clear choice about them. Dems don’t need a Pickett’s Charge, they need to position their pawns and view things from a longer-term perspective. The Democrats need to make Iraq a Republican vs. Democrat issue. They need to tie Iraq around the GOP’s neck in the court of public opinion. Make them defend Bush. Make them defend surges. Challenge them on their failures to demand accountability until it became clear in the late months of 2006 that blind support would be a political liability.
Of course, as a general matter, war should be above politics. And I’m certainly not crazy about politicizing issues where human life is at stake. But I’m not advocating politicization simply as a means to put the Dems in power. In fact, it’s exactly the reverse -- I want the Dems in power so people will stop getting killed. Political control is not an end, it’s a means to the greater end of bringing this tragedy to a close. And if the two parties disagree on the most important issue of our day, well, that’s what political fights are for. (That’s why I think this view is different from Rove’s 2002 Iraq strategy –- Iraq was a means to political power for him, not vice-versa).
The GOP as an institution has illustrated that it will never bring this war to an end on its own, regardless of what individual officials currently think about the war. Indeed, perhaps the most cynical and contemptible action of the entire war was the GOP’s initial campaign strategy (in early spring 2006) of adopting a “stay the course” slogan for purely political reasons despite their own individual misgivings. They knew the war wasn’t working, but continued cheerleading (or remained silent) until the Dems turned “stay the course” into an offensive weapon. For instance, I don’t remember Gordon Smith or Susan Collins saying a damn thing prior to the 2006 election.
And so, the only way to bring this war to an end is to make Iraq a political issue. It needs to be elevated, and it needs to be politicized. That’s why the recent votes on the non-binding resolutions were complete victories if you view them from a longer-term perspective. The GOP blocked debate in the Senate, and there were relatively few GOP defections in the House. It’s silly to say that these votes are “meaningless.” The point of these votes was to position the party for the election by clarifying the parties’ positions. The votes did that. And if I were majority leader, the first thing I would have said following the votes would have been: “Today’s vote illustrates a clear difference between the two parties. The Republicans voted for escalation and unending war, and the Democrats voted against it.” And then say it one million times on every medium available. They’re for escalation, we’re not. They’re for endless war, we’re not. We’re listening to the American people, they’re not. Again, these otherwise distasteful tactics have been made necessary by the refusal of the GOP to take steps to end this war.
The other thing to keep in mind is that Iraq, like 9/11, is a political “game-changer.” It’s one of those issues that can shake people from their emotional, gut-level party loyalties. Of all the issues out there, only Iraq can bring about a true political realignment right now. Although it’s true that there are more Republican seats up than Democratic ones, people should remember that lots of those seats are in safe states. Accordingly, the only way to get traction in those states is to make the campaign about one issue -- Iraq (see, e.g., Virginia). Iraq puts races in play that wouldn’t otherwise be in play. And even if those efforts don’t work, so long as the race becomes more competitive by focusing laser-like on Iraq, it adds political pressure to bring the war to a close. The first rule of politics is to avoid political death-- and fear of political death is the best of all motivators.
The bottom line is that we all want the same thing. The question is just how to get there. Political pressure is a much better weapon than many of the other “bridge-too-far” proposals rattling around the blogosphere.