DEMS AND THE WAR….Like a lot of people, I’ve been mulling over the Iraq showdown between Congress and the president and wondering why Democrats backed down so quickly. The simple answer, of course, is that they didn’t have enough votes to pass the bill they wanted. As excuses go, however, that’s pretty unconvincing: veto-proof majorities are extremely rare, after all. Rather, the real reason is that Dems were convinced that if things came to an impasse and war funding was cut off, they’re the ones who would get the blame.

And maybe that’s right. One interpretation of the great budget showdown of 1995 is that the president has an inherent advantage in this kind of fight since he can speak with one voice and make his bottom line clear. Congress, by contrast, will always seem fractious and will never be able to communicate to the public as clearly as the president. If they refuse to send him a workable bill, they’re the ones who will seem stubborn and petty, not the president.

But there’s also a different interpretation: that the public will side with whoever they agree with on the merits. Maybe that seems naive in our spin-ridden, media saturated age. But you never know. People might actually support the side they agree with. Stranger things have happened.

If that’s the case, it means that Bill Clinton won his showdown with Newt Gingrich not because of his bully pulpit, but because Gingrich wanted to make cuts in social programs that the public didn’t support. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened. Clinton’s position was the popular one in that battle, so Gingrich ended up getting the blame for shutting down the government.

This time around, though, the public is pretty clearly on the side of congressional Democrats: they think the war is going badly and they want to see us withdraw from Iraq within the next year. So what would have happened if Dems had held their ground, made a public case for why it would actively benefit the country to get out of Iraq, and simply sent a lightly modified version of the original bill back to Bush? If he’d vetoed it again, isn’t it likely that Bush would get the blame for being stubborn and petty, not Congress?

This strikes me as at least plausible. However, I suspect it depends on Democrats making a positive case for withdrawal. Not just that the war is unwinnable, or that it’s costing too many lives — both of which seem merely defeatist to a lot of people — but that America will be actively better off by getting out of Iraq. I admit that’s a tough case to make, since we liberals have been less than totally candid about acknowledging the almost certain chaos and bloodshed that will follow an American departure. With that in mind, Democrats likely fear that if we forced a withdrawal we’d spend all of 2008 on the defensive as Republicans insisted that Dems were to blame for the ongoing civil war in Iraq. The public, not having been prepared for this, might agree.

But I doubt it. The public wants out, and the death toll is so high now that they’d likely accept that further bloodshed was bound to occur whether we had stayed or not. Unfortunately, Dems don’t have the courage to take that chance. Apparently they’d rather fight next year’s election with an unpopular Republican war in the background rather than take the chance of fighting it with an unpopular Democratic withdrawal in the background. As a result, we’ve missed yet another chance to look decisive on foreign policy, do the right thing in Iraq, and start the process of pulling ourselves out of the hole Bush has dug us into and giving the next president a clean slate to start building a non-insane national security policy on.

If you display conviction, the public will follow. Maybe next time around Dems will finally figure this out.

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