Progressives have spent years and decades now lamenting the woeful lack of political courage on the part of the Democratic Party in Washington, the supposed 'leadership' of the supposed 'opposition' party.
They - we - have been right to do so, because the performance of this crowd has been abysmal, and the cost of their coopted indifference has been astronomical. If you need any proof of that you could ask the one million dead people of Iraq who were decimated while the Democratic Party was asleep at the switch. Except, er, for one minor problem. Did I mention that they're dead people?
That, of course, is only the most egregious example. Since Ronald Reagan rode into town a quarter-century ago on a horse which could somehow miraculously produce bovine excrement, 'dem DC Dems have mostly been cowering in the corner, making deer caught in headlights look powerfully proactive by comparison. Of course, it all got far worse when the Little Texas Terror came to Worshintuhn six years ago, dripping with entitlement and all the emotional maturity of a junior high prom spiked with vodka and Hawaiian Punch.
What always floored me - both with Reagan and especially L'Enfant Terrible - was how little it took to roll the pathetic Democrats. On almost any given issue, these bullies never had public opinion on their side. They never had truth on their side. No one ever accused either of these monsters of being smart. So what, then? Were Democrats charmed into submission? Were they wooed into dropping their drawers by a smooth-talking ... George W. Bush? (Eeeewwwww.)
No, they were mugged by straw men, all while carrying lighter fluid in one pocket and a box of matches in the other. "But I could show my prowess, Be a lion not a mowess, If I only had the nerve..."
It's been a pathetic sight to see. Leader after leader of the party has donned the seemingly requisite costume - effete manner, soft-spoken delivery, poor-posture, wire-rim glasses - and duly offered up themselves (and us) for slaughter. Who amongst us wasn't ready to go to the ramparts for cheerful Dick Gephardt? What an inspirational sight Tom Daschle made, meekly whispering his dissent, eh? What a call to arms has been Harry Reid's measured tones of disagreement with the White House, no? Who wasn't inspired by Nancy Pelosi's capitulation before she was even sworn in?
You know, there's no shame in getting beat up. The shame (in spades) is in getting beat up by a punk like George W. Bush, wielding a handbag as a weapon. Without even fighting back. With truth watching your back, and the public holding your coat. Now that is shameful.
Progressives have rightly and angrily denounced these failures of leadership in the only party they can reasonably hope could be a vehicle for a semi-sane politics in the American empire. And so it is only fair that we also recognize the Democratic leadership when they occasionally get it right. Not that fairness, mind you, has much of a role in the game of politics as played in Washington, and not that finally showing up after a million people are already dead and another four million have been turned into refugees constitutes getting it right anywhere but in Washington, of course.
But just as it's important to show encouragement to children and household pets in order to reinforce desired behavior, so we will have to potty-train our Democratic leaders until they finally get it right, mixing scolds in response to mistakes with praise and cookies when they manage to do the right thing.
In the former category is Cindy Sheehan's threat to demolish Nancy Pelosi in her own home district if the Speaker fails to impeach Bush and Cheney.
In the latter is this article, in which I am sending Harry Reid a very big cookie for finally learning to play even moderately hard ball against the viciously destructive Republican death machine.
After the harrowing and disgusting capitulation of Reid and Pelosi to Bush's incredibly weak hand in the Iraq war appropriation matter a month or so ago, I and other critics berated the Democrats for not even using the institutional powers available to them as the majority party in Congress to exact a toll from the GOP for their murderous intransigence. We lambasted the Dems for failing even to force Republicans to own the consequences of their war policies, let alone for not articulating a cogent alternative.
Well, apparently somebody was listening, because this week Senator Reid began to get it right.
I have to hand it to him. When he demanded that Republicans actually carry through on their filibuster threat this week by remaining in session through the night, he did a multitude of necessary and helpful things all at once.
First, he is making them sacrifice for their intransigence. Literally. Republicans could no longer phone it in. They had to be there, not out partying at Jack Abramoff's bar and grill or raising desperately needed funds to try preventing what already has all the makings of a landslide blow-out in 2008.
Second, by making this move, Democrats go on the offensive. They stop reacting to Rovian tactics, always getting broadsided, always looking and acting defensive, always choosing from the lousy alternatives Rove has left them. They generate a newsworthy event, and win control of the news cycle. And they do it on their terms.
Third, Reid forced them to own their policy. No longer could they take advantage of the stunning political laziness of the American public and hide behind the mantle of the hated 'Congress'. This was no longer Congress failing, but Republicans making it fail. The GOP were forced by this move to publicly defend the indefensible, before a court of hostile national opinion, and with an election looming around the corner. I'm sure they were just thrilled to be seen by their already angry constituents to be blocking discussion and a vote on a resolution attempting to end a despised war.
Fourth, as a result of this uncomfortable position, the steady trickle of Republicans defecting from the president last week is likely to turn into a raging current. Democratic cowardice in the past has allowed the GOP to largely maintain a monolithic unity on most issues, certainly including the Iraq debacle. But the assumption that they're all together in this is utterly false, and as usual, Democrats were fooled by the bully's ruse. Iraq is the ultimate wedge issue right now. The president has everything to gain and nothing to lose from American forces remaining there. Members of Congress have precisely the opposite calculus.
They saw what happened in the election of 2006. They saw what happened to Rummy and to Blair. They've seen what's happened to George W. Bush, who once posted job approval ratings of ninety percent. They're watching John McCain's lifetime ambitions implode before his very eyes right now, as he mimics the president's compulsive obsession over Iraq. They don't want to lose their jobs. Whatever little loyalty they still have to Bush ends precisely at that bright shining line. Reid's move massively enlarges their public profile on this unpopular issue, and further compels them to abandon this disaster before it drags them down to Davy Jones' Locker, riding directly behind Rumsfeld, McCain, Blair, Cheney and Bush.
I say all this at the risk of being perceived as speaking in crass political terms about a matter of life and mass death. It is the furthest thing from my intentions, however, to trivialize this man-made horror of epic proportions into a cheap game of partisan politics. Not that the Democratic Party has ever particularly been my cup of political tea, anyhow. But the ugly fact is that these are the cards we have been dealt by the Dark Side, and they are the only ones left to play. And in that light, it is crucial to remember three things. One is that the White House brought on this war, not us, and they did so under completely false premises precisely for purposes of their own political gain (even more than for oil). The second is that we must now use virtually any tactic available to us to bring this tragedy to as urgent an end as possible. We owe it to Iraqis and American troops alike to stop the bloodletting somehow, some way. And, finally, that the long-term health of our society and of the world is served by destroying the sociopathic movement that brought us this criminal act before it can unleash its destructive compulsions once again in Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela or Cuba.
A fifth virtue of Reid's jab to the gut is that it is likely to make the GOP fold like the schoolyard bullies they are. The greatest irony of the Democratic capitulation of the last decades is that so much of it was a reaction to pure bluster. Punks like George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich thrive on false bravado and the perception of power. They can go very far if no one calls them out, as both did. But they tend to fold instantly when their bluff is called, as both have. Even if Democrats somehow lose from this episode, though it is hard to see how, they will be invigorated. They will have tasted blood. And I get the feeling that Reid and a few others are getting a little tired now of having sand kicked in their teeth. I don't think this is the last time they'll be returning a punch anymore. I don't sense we're looking at another quarter-century of wimpy nothingburgers getting rolled at every opportunity.
Moreover, just this very act of responding will earn some badly needed respect from the American public for the Democratic Party. How did these guys manage to do nothing for the last seven months and wind up with public approval ratings worse than Dick Cheney's? Precisely because they did nothing, of course. Why is it that Americans have tended these last decades not to trust Democrats with matters of national security? Because they know that there are legitimately some bad actors out there, and I don't just mean tin-pot führers like Noriega or Gaddafi, ginned up by Republican governments every time they want to gorge themselves further at military spending trough.
Democrats will never be seen as capable of standing up to the Stalins and Hitlers of this world if they can't even respond at home to the likes of sandlot smears from a coddled legacy politician who ran away from his own generation's war. But with more roundhouses like Reid is now throwing, the party can put the Truman piss and vinegar back in its DNA, and purge all the Dukakis doo-doo-ca-ca from it, once and for all.
Finally, one of the most brilliant aspects of Reid's tactic is that it also demonstrates that Democrats are finally waking up to the importance of framing, and that they've maybe taken on some Republican-quality Madison Avenue talent to assist them in that most crucial aspect of political warfare. Whoever it was (I wish it was me!) that gave Reid the slogan outing the Republicans in Congress for "protecting the president, not our troops" should be given the Medal of Honor. And Karl Rove's office in the West Wing, starting January 20, 2009. If not sooner. (High marks also go to Senator Barbara Mikulski for this line: "Some people say Democrats are micromanaging the war. Well, hey, someone's got to manage it, and it's about time.")
But the bit about Republicans "protecting the president, not our troops" - that's a brilliant construction. First, because it is so utterly true. Second, because it so beautifully resonates with the existing public perceptions about the war. And, especially, because it removes from the bloody dripping hands of the GOP the disgustingly false notion that they speak on behalf of the welfare of the troops. For way, way too long, Democrats have lost sixty percent of any battle over national security issues before it even started because of the extremely clever and even more extremely cynical way in which Republicans have wrapped themselves inside the flag and the supposed welfare of the troops. That has to stop right now if Democrats are ever to have any hope of winning these debates, and if we are ever to have any hope of a semi-sane foreign policy in this country.
Reid's move is a hugely important first step. It is a sea change for Democrats, which also means it may be the beginning of the end for the GOP. Mark your calendars - this was the day Harry met Harry. And you could see that the regressives knew it, too, and that they were rattled by the visage of a real opposition for once. So rattled, in fact, that they released a national intelligence report concerning the threat posed by al Qaeda that actually made BushCo look insanely incompetent for ignoring that threat all these years, and, worse, for massively exacerbating it with their little adventure in Iraq. Anything to change the channel so that the American people would never wake up to read this headline across the front of their morning paper: "Democrats Seek to End War, GOP Blocks Even Discussion of the Topic".
Put these pieces together and, all in all, not a bad show for Senator Reid, a guy who sho'nuff badly needed one. Any move that can simultaneously force Republicans to sacrifice for their lunacy, make them responsible for it in the public eye, put the opposition to the war on the offensive, drain GOP support for Bush in Congress, increase the likelihood that the right will fold their bullying bluff by calling them out, give the Democrats a reputation as fighters, and properly reframe the debate - all in one easy step - any move that can do all that is quite something.
Unfortunately, of course, that possibility has existed for seven months now, and why Reid didn't avail himself of it earlier, I don't know.
Maybe because, like so many Democrats for such a long time now, he just didn't have the stones. It's good to see, though, that the load in Harry's jockey shorts just got a bit heavier this week.
There are a whole lot of people in America and abroad depending very much - indeed, depending for their very lives - on what goes on in there.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.