May 23rd, 2007

Blinking first: what did the Democrats think was going to happen?

The consensus appears to be that the Democrats in Congress have blinked on the issue of troop withdrawal (see this and this and this, for starters).

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has followed the story. From the start, it’s been clear that the Democrats spearheading the effort did not have the votes to override Bush’s certain veto of any such measure.

That’s why I’ve referred to the Democratic campaign to force withdrawal and/or fundcutting as “theater” and “games.” There never seemed a realistic chance of the measures actually becoming law; to do that would require Republican support of a magnitude that was extremely unlikely to be forthcoming.

The surprise to me is not the Democratic flinch in the face of Bush’s “stubbornness.” The surprise is that this course of events is a surprise to anyone. The MSM—and some of the Democrats—are certainly acting as though it is (although perhaps this is a bit of theater as well; sometimes it’s hard to tell the players without a program).

The Democratic base is angry. This is not surprising. After all, the base in both parties is composed of the diehards, the fanatics who don’t pay a whole lot of attention to practicality or the law of thirds, or whether something actually has a chance of being implemented or not.

But the leaders themselves should be more hardnosed, since they’re the ones who have supposedly logged years of experience in political realities of the legislative kind. Who among them could ever have truly believed that this particular portion of the battle was likely to end any other way? Posture to the antiwar base, gain support for your efforts, ignore the message it sends our enemies, then back off when you see you don’t have the override votes, and hope you get an “A” for effort.

Some Democrats seem to recognize this, such as Representative James P. Moran, Democrat of Virginia, who says, “It [the backoff] was a concession to reality.”

Others, including Presidential candidate John Edwards, seem rather out of touch with reality (or more in touch with their own continuing theatrical performance). Edwards, who has staked out the antiwar wing of the party as the bulwark of his support, is in favor of drawing the following line in the sand:

Congress should send the same bill back to [Bush] again and again until he realizes he has no choice but to start bringing our troops home.

Them’s fightin’ words, all right. But what do they actually mean?

This is a sincere question on my part, not rhetoric. Even if I were an antiwar Democrat I don’t believe I’d understand exactly what Edwards is trying to say here, and that I’d consider his statement an exercise in illogic and futility.

There’s an old adage, variously attributed to Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein, that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So I wonder why John Edwards thinks that spending Congress’s time passing versions of the same bill over and over again, and sending them to the same President, who has vowed over and over again to veto them, would somehow get different results.

Perhaps Edwards is merely indicating to his base that he resembles them in his devotion to principle, and would ignore reality with the same doggedness they do, and thus is their champion and soulmate. What does it matter to them if the whole thing is a waste of time for a Congress that really ought to be paying more attention to passing meaningful legislation that might actually be of some benefit to people?

It’s not that I’m against perseverance. I understand that some tasks take time, and that hanging in there and trying again can ultimately accomplish them, especially with a slight but sometimes significant change of strategy. After all, that’s why I think the so-called “surge” and the appointment of Petraeus have at least a fighting chance of changing some things for the better in Iraq.

But this case is different. Pushing the same bills towards the same single and immovable object (Bush) is not going to have a different result. There are few imponderables and unknowns in the equation, unlike so many other human endeavors.

What leverage did the Democrats ever have over Bush, anyway? He’s not running for re-election, nor does he appear to think the political futures of moderate Republicans such as Susan Collins or Norm Coleman or Gordon Smith are worth paying the price of retreat in Iraq.

Whether you like Bush or hate him, it’s clear that Iraq is the single most important battle of his Presidency by far. In my opinion that’s not just because he’s loathe to admit he might have been wrong, but because he thinks it’s one of the most important battles in the world today. Whether you agree or disagree about his motives, it’s difficult to think of a single thing the Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) could have done to make him back down and sign these bills. Certainly the action of repetitively passing the bills and sending them to him never had a chance of doing so.

Reading between the lines, I imagine that the Democrats really thought that the constant repetition would build a powerful groundswell of popular feeling that would put increasing pressure on the Republicans in Congress to change their vote and ultimately to override Bush’s veto. I suppose that could still happen. But my prediction is that Bush himself will never back down on this one, and that any Democrat who thinks he will is living in a dream world—or a political theater.

7 Responses to “Blinking first: what did the Democrats think was going to happen?”

  1. harry Says:

    Yeah, but you know neo, many on the left really dont get it. I mean, yes, the far left hates the idea that the surrender time-table wasnt veto proof, but the less rabid think they’ve fought the good fight. That (get this) after 6 years of Republican rule in Congress, they were finally having a debate about Iraq that the nation hadnt previously had.

  2. camojack Says:

    “By their fruits you shall know them.”

  3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Says:

    The following letter was published in today’s New York Times. The Democrats are basically spineless. (No wonder — they are just as much in the pocket of Big Business as Republicans are, too):

    To the Editor:

    The assertion that the Democrats cannot overcome a presidential veto does not excuse their failure to set withdrawal dates. All financing for the war originates in the House; if the Democrats had tied financing of the war to a withdrawal timetable, a presidential veto would mean that the president had no money to fight the war.

    The House Democrats had the power to cut off or restrict financing; they failed to exercise it. The setting of benchmarks for the Iraqi government in the proposed bill is meaningless. The determination of whether Iraq meets those benchmarks is up to the president. Does anyone doubt what his determination will be?

    I have seen this before. Year after year in the 1980s, Congress mandated that the government of El Salvador meet certain human rights requirements and left the determination to the president. Year after year, despite no real improvement in human rights, the president dutifully certified the contrary, and the aid to El Salvador continued.

    Sadly, if the Democrats continue on their current course, the war will be with us for a very long time.

    Michael Ratner
    New York, May 23, 2007

    The writer is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

  4. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Personality disordered clients often quite sincerely believe that if you are not agreeing with them, you must not have heard them. They cannot conceive of a person hearing, understanding, and not agreeing. A technique I use in talking with these clients is to ask them to articulate another’s point of view, even if they disagree with it. They are seldom able to describe anything but a caricature of another’s idea. Sometimes not even that.

    I have been using this exercise with profit in online discussions with progressives. It has been both instructive and sadly intriguing to read their attempts. Many refuse the attempt at all, wanting only to repeat themselves. But it has been shocking to me how little able people with large vocabularies and facts at their fingertips are to articulate what contrary opinions even consist of.

  5. Dean's World Says:

    Political Theater…

    Neo notes the sad reality of political theater….

  6. Manfred Says:

    AVI made an excellent point. A “true believer” will never question the axioms of his belief system. He would rather repeat himself ad nauseum, than to go on an honest hunting expedition in the netherlands of human belief structures.

    This is true of religious, political, and philosophical true believers.

    Sadly, it takes more than a well myelinated pre-frontal cortex to give a person good judgment.

  7. Vieux Charles Says:


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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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