Monday, January 08, 2007

How will the Democrats define their spine?

Even though my latest print column focuses on the Republicans who fear that their leader’s impending troop escalation plan might be a political loser, the news this morning is really about the Democrats.

Because there are indications that they might be growing a spine. Depending on how you define it.

The Democrats are still sending mixed messages about the extent to which they are prepared to contest President Bush’s “New Way Forward,” as evidenced by their myriad comments on the Sunday talk shows, but there was no mistaking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s declaration of defiance. On CBS, she said that, while the Democrats will continue to finance the troops already on the ground in Iraq, they will not be so quick to finance the additional troops that Bush seeks to dispatch:

“If the president chooses to escalate the war, in his budget request, we want to see a distinction between what is there to support the troops who are there now….The American people and the Congress support those troops. We will not abandon them. But if the president wants to add to this mission, he is going to have to justify it, and this is new for him because up until now the Republican Congress has given him a blank check with no oversight, no standards, no conditions.”

Pelosi’s comments echo those made last week by her close ally, John Murtha, the new House defense appropriations chairman, when he said that he intends to “fence the funding.” There is also talk in Democratic circles of holding up the troop escalation money (in the form of an amendment) unless or until Bush proves that it would be well spent.

My translation: The Democrats are not willing to de-fund the war itself (a move demanded by many on the antiwar left), because they do not want to risk being tagged down the road as the party that “lost” Iraq. Fairly or not, this is what happened to the party in the wake of Vietnam. The congressional Democrats in the mid-‘70s cut funding during the last years of that conflict, as a U.S. pullout became imminent, thereby allowing conservatives to claim that the liberal wimps had “lost” Vietnam. Nor does the new gang want to open themselves to the old Karl Rove charge that Democrats don’t back our fighting men and women in the aggregate.

The new Democratic leaders don’t want to take that bait on Iraq. But Pelosi apparently is willing to carve out Bush’s troop escalation plan as a separate and distinct issue – and to subject it to protracted scrutiny, by using the prime weapon that Democrats now have at their disposal: oversight. A slew of House and Senate committees seem primed to examine the Bush plan in detail, and to assess whether more troops can actually make a positive difference – or whether Bush would be merely putting more young lives at peril, in another desperate bid to salvage the signature initiative of his presidency.

It’s clear that Bush, notwithstanding the “thumpin’” that he says he took in the ’06 elections, is daring the newly empowered Democrats to defy him, perhaps in the hopes that they will overreach and play heavily to their liberal antiwar base. Pelosi’s comments yesterday indicate, however, that the Democrats feel more comfortable focusing on the broadly unpopular troop escalation option (which is supported by only 12 percent of Americans nationally, according to the latest Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll; and which is now supported by only 44 percent of the citizens of Utah, the reddest state in the land.)

In other words, by opposing the troop escalation plan, Democrats are practicing safe centrist politics.

Stopping that plan, however, may be another matter entirely. And here we come to the Democrats’ mixed message. While Pelosi was promising serious scrutiny on CBS, Senate Foreign Committee chairman Joe Biden was suggesting on NBC’s Meet the Press that the Democrats really don’t have the clout to block Bush at the end of the day:

“We have a standing army with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. You can’t go in and, like a tinker toy, and play around and say, ‘You can’t spend the money on this piece and this piece’…he’ll be able to keep those troops there forever constitutionally if he wants to.”

Tim Russert then asked whether the Democrats could legislatively cap the number of troops in Iraq. Biden replied: “Because it’s very difficult to—it’s constitutionally questionable whether or not you can do that. I think it is unconstitutional to say, ‘We’re going to tell you can go, but we’re going to micromanage the war.’ When we wrote the Constitution, the intention was to give the commander in chief the authority how to use the forces, when you authorize them, to be able to use the forces.”

Translation: Top Democrats differ on how they would define “spine.”

Biden – a newly-declared ’08 presidential candidate - essentially thinks there is no single definition (“no party out of power ever has a congressional voice that is a unified voice on a particular party”). He basically undercut Pelosi’s declaration that Democrats would substantively fight Bush over the troop escalation issue. Biden clearly has no desire to draw that line in the sand (“there’s not much I can do about it”). Even though he is planning a month of hearings on the Senate side, he sees his role as a public educator (he says he plans to “speak out as loudly as I can”), and maybe a moral persuader (he says he has drafted “a resolution of disapproval”).

One can detect the evolving Democratic balancing act. They will combine tough talk (Pelosi) with caveats about the public expecting too much (Biden). They will stage a slew of committee hearings and submit Bush to the oversight that his Republican allies failed to provide, but, at the same time, the Democrats really don’t want to get into the weeds and grapple with Bush about solutions. They don’t want to share the ownership of this war. They want Iraq to remain Bush’s war, and if somebody on Capitol Hill is really going to pull the plug on Bush, they want Bush’s GOP allies to do it.

Biden even said it: “The only way this is going to change…is when a majority of (GOP) colleagues, Republicans, say to the president, ‘Mr. President, enough. We are not going to support you anymore,’ that when the president will begin to change his policy.”

As I indicated in my Sunday print column, a small number of Republicans (mostly those who are nervously eyeing 2008) have already begun to dissent or waver. But Democrats would be wrong to assume that a critical mass of Republicans will bail them out. In all probability, Democrats will still need to define their own spine.


Speaking of the Republicans, I wrote again yesterday about how alleged centrist John McCain is risking his standing among independent voters by pushing for the Bush troop escalation plan. Here is another fresh take on that topic.