A Washington Tryst? Questions from the Iraq Vigil

The great question on the minds of the people gathered Tuesday night outside the Capitol, and, I suspect, at the more than 150 similar anti-war vigils nationwide was, "Are the Democrats for real?"

Tonight, Reid, Pelosi, and Carl Levin, for at least one glorious instant, became the "Fighting Dems."

"I want everyone here tonight -- every American from coast to coast -- to know that we won't stop fighting until we end this war," Reid said."That is what this night is all about."

Statements like that should give us reason to celebrate how far the peace movement has come. Reid, Pelosi, and others gave full throated support to the goal of ending the Iraq war and did it not to Katie Couric but to a passionate crowd of progressive activists -- and brought upwards of 40 Democrats, including most of the top leadership, with them. I will never forget the huge pack of senators and congressmen descending from their air-conditioned Capitol aerie at 9 pm in a 90 degree night to be with a crowd of progressive activists.

They are finally coming to us.

But is it for real? Is this but a sweaty, noisy, passionate tryst? Will the fight and the love last a midsummer's night or endure till the war is finally over?

"I'm hoping this won't be a one night stand," said one rally attendee, Mary Kelly of Silver Spring. "The Democrats need to do this again and again and again."

Will the Democrats slink from the arms of the movement into the arms of the capitulationists -- leaving us once more nauseous with regret and foreboding? Will some serpentine consultant slither up to his boss, congratulate him on the late-night eloquent paeans to the progressives, advise capping it off with a post on DailyKos, and then whisper behind a covered hand, "We've done what we need for the base; we'll get killed in the media if we keep up this fight too long -- it will look 'really bad' if they start saying we're cutting off funding for the troops."

The suspicion of lurking consultant lizards lent last night's sticky summer air the palpable tension that sometimes seizes the Washington night before a thunderstorm. It began calmly with just the few hecklers one would expect in a committed anti-war crowd finally face-to-face with Democratic leaders they feel have jilted them with betrayals and unfulfilled promises.

But the hecklers, though few in number, grew in size and intensity as the night went on and almost all of the 40-odd senators and representatives took their turn at the microphone (typically, Democrats seemed not to have the discipline to appoint just a few speakers to represent them).

"You do your duty -- troops home now! "It's a farce!" "It's your war too," they shouted, growing so disruptive at one point that some usually silver-tongued senators were briefly dumbstruck when confronted with the hecklers' rage.

From one perspective, the hecklers were obnoxious, out of place, and off message: the ex-lover wrecking the wedding. Everyone felt awkward and embarrassed in their presence. For all their sincere anger about the war, last night was not really the time or place. Last night was the time to rejoice in the Democrats' new combative spirit -- however fleeting. They're like hesitant virgins pawing their way through their first liaison: they need encouragement.

But though the hecklers were impolitic and in some ways deeply wrong, all the absolutist anti-war voices at that vigil, on the web and in the country are vital: as much as they make everyone stare at their shoes, things would be far worse if they didn't exist.

The worst possible thing would have been for Democrats to have left the rally without tasting a bit of the abuse in store if they again render abject surrender to the Republicans. That doesn't mean they have to adopt the absolutist positions of the hecklers or their online counterparts, but it does mean they need to continue to force Bush and the Republicans to publicly and shamefully obstruct the Democrats' reasonable attempts to bring a responsible peace to Iraq.

Because sometimes the price of love is peace.

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