Friday, May 25, 2007

Tactics, not principle

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Jonathan Alter (via Maha) makes an excellent (and correct) point: "[W]hat's going on inside the Democratic Party now is a family argument about tactics, not principle."

This is important. Now is not the time for division. Now is not the time for Democrats to be attacking Democrats. Now is not the time for insinuations and allegations. Now is not the time for ideological narrowness. We all -- allow me to generalize here -- we all want this disastrous war to come to an end as soon as possible. But how to achieve that end? Some demand a timetable for withdrawal. Some have agreed to compromise. The war-funding bill that President Bush signed today threatens to tear us apart, pitting Democrat against Democrat, friend against friend. There has even been differences of opinion at this blog, where I have made the case for compromise and others -- notably Creature and Edward -- have argued, rather persuasively, that compromise amounts to capitulation. And yet the struggle goes on. And we will only win that struggle if we remain united, if we remember that we all have the same goal. We may differ with one another with respect to means, but we must remain focused on the end.

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Allow me to quote more from Alter. He has argued before that Democrats needed to "stiffen their spines," but he argues here that the tactic (compromise or capitulation, call it what you will) was driven by political reality:

[I]t's one thing to be tough; it's another altogether to criticize any member of the party who doesn't vote with MoveOn.org and others on the antiwar left as "Dick Cheney Democrats" cruising for a primary challenge, or at least a flaming from the liberal blogosphere. It's fine to urge opposition to the Iraq spending bill, but it's juvenile to toss around threats or make it seem as if voting wrong on this bill means you aren't sincerely against the war. In fact, what's going on inside the Democratic Party now is a family argument about tactics, not principle.

The first thing to understand is that Democrats may have won the midterms but they lack the votes to end the war in Iraq. Some liberals don't seem to get this elemental fact. A bill with a timetable for withdrawal was passed and sent to President Bush's desk. He vetoed it. Democrats didn't have anywhere near the votes to override the veto. Bush and his war might be terribly unpopular, but under our system, he's still holding the high cards.

Make sure to read his entire piece. You may not agree -- and I do not agree -- that Democrats "had no choice" but to agree to remove the timetable from the bill. They did have a choice, and what they chose was what they thought was the right thing to do. Not all of them, of course. Congressional Democrats, like those of us in the blogosphere, have their differences. But do not think, because I do not think it is true, that Democrats willfully capitulated, that they are secret supporters of the war, that they are afraid of Bush and the Republicans. There is good reason to worry about how Bush and the Republicans will use their spin-and-smear machine to blame Democrats for whatever happens in Iraq, but public opinion is with the Democrats, not Bush. But I do think Democrats were legitimately worried about how voters would understand (or misunderstand) the funding issue.

Here's Barbara O'Brien (or Maha, linked above): "Only 13 percent want Congress to cut off funding for the war. Dems look at those numbers and assume that cutting off funds would be political suicide. That, folks, is motivation. That's why the supplement bill passed both houses yesterday." I would also add that Democrats do not want to be held responsible for what could happen in Iraq post-withdrawal (i.e., chaos, genocide). You may disagree with their assumptions, you may find their worries overblown, but I for one find them both, assumptions and worries alike, wholly reasonable given the circumstances. This is why I simply cannot agree with Matt Stoller, who suggested that "Democratic insiders are convinced that capitulation is the right strategy. They actually believe that this will put pressure on the Republicans in the fall, and that standing up to Bush is a bad idea." Barbara again: "I don't think in their minds they thought capitulation now would put pressure on Republicans in the fall. They're hoping the war's own popularity [or unpopularity] will put pressure on Republicans in the fall. Instead, I think the Dems just want to avoid being a big, fat target for the [Vast Right Wing Conspiracy] over the summer."

Yes, this makes sense to me. The war is unpopular -- and it's also going badly and seemingly getting worse. It is Bush's war. He will be held accountable for it in the long run. Will the Democrats' refusal to demand a timetable for withdrawal now cost even more lives? No. Because the Democrats were never going to get a timetable for withdrawal. It's not as if Democrats said, "Look, we could put a stop to this war, but, well, we're not going to do that right now." Let's not overstate their power. Bush is still in charge, like it or not. (And he's still in trouble.) That's the basis of Alter's analysis. And I think it's a sound one.

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See also E.J. Dionne at WaPo:

Democrats, in short, have enough power to complicate the president's life, but not enough to impose their will. Moreover, there is genuine disagreement even among Bush's Democratic critics over what the pace of withdrawal should be and how to minimize the damage of this war to the country's long-term interests. That is neither shocking nor appalling, but, yes, it complicates things. So does the fact that the minority wields enormous power in the Senate.

What was true in January thus remains true today: The president will be forced to change his policy only when enough Republicans tell him he has to. Facing this is no fun; it's just necessary.

Political reality, in other words.

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See also Juan Cole (via Shakes):

Thursday night's vote did not put a resolution of the Iraq quagmire off for only a few months. It put it off until a new president is inaugurated in January of 2009. Bush seems unlikely to significantly withdraw while still president, and the Dems can't make him if the Republicans won't turn on their own party's leader.

Iraq will be the central issue of the 2008 presidential campaign.

An excellent analysis of why Democrats voted the way they did. Again, political reality. And Democrats, however they voted on this particular bill, can win in '08 because of Iraq. Timetable or no, they will be able to made the credible case they have been against the war, if not from the beginning at least since the gross mismanagement of the occupation began.

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And yet I have been agonizing over all this for some time now. It is difficult to find oneself in disagreement with one's friends, with those one admires and respects. Consider, for one example among many, Taylor Marsh's compelling post in opposition to the compromise. There is much there with which I agree.

Just remember: means, not ends; tactics, not principle.

Let's focus on what unites us. And let's work towards that goal.

Bush has signed the bill. Let's move on.

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