Quietly, while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been inspiring Democrats everywhere with their rolling bitchfest, congressional superduo Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have completed one of the most awesome political collapses since Neville Chamberlain. At long last, the Democratic leaders of Congress have publicly surrendered on the Iraq War, just one year after being swept into power with a firm mandate to end it.Solidifying his reputation as one of the biggest pussies in U.S. political history, Reid explained his decision to refocus his party's energies on topics other than ending the war by saying he just couldn't fit Iraq into his busy schedule. "We have the presidential election," Reid said recently. "Our time is really squeezed."
There was much public shedding of tears among the Democratic leadership, as Reid, Pelosi and other congressional heavyweights expressed deep sadness that their valiant charge up the hill of change had been thwarted by circumstances beyond their control - that, as much as they would love to continue trying to end the catastrophic Iraq deal, they would now have to wait until, oh, 2009 to try again. "We'll have a new president," said Pelosi. "And I do think at that time we'll take a fresh look at it."
Pelosi seemed especially broken up about having to surrender on Iraq, sounding like an NFL coach in a postgame presser, trying with a straight face to explain why he punted on first-and-goal. "We just didn't have any plays we liked down there," said the coach of the 0-15 Dems. "Sometimes you just have to play the field-position game...."
In reality, though, Pelosi and the Democrats were actually engaged in some serious point-shaving. Working behind the scenes, the Democrats have systematically taken over the anti-war movement, packing the nation's leading group with party consultants more interested in attacking the GOP than ending the war. "Our focus is on the Republicans," one Democratic apparatchik in charge of the anti-war coalition declared. "How can we juice up attacks on them?"
The story of how the Democrats finally betrayed the voters who handed them both houses of Congress a year ago is a depressing preview of what's to come if they win the White House. And if we don't pay attention to this sorry tale now, while there's still time to change our minds about whom to nominate, we might be stuck with this same bunch of spineless creeps for four more years. With no one but ourselves to blame.
The controversy over the Democratic "strategy" to end the war basically comes down to whom you believe. According to the Reid-Pelosi version of history, the Democrats tried hard to force President Bush's hand by repeatedly attempting to tie funding for the war to a scheduled withdrawal. Last spring they tried to get him to eat a timeline and failed to get the votes to override a presidential veto. Then they retreated and gave Bush his money, with the aim of trying again after the summer to convince a sufficient number of Republicans to cross the aisle in support of a timeline.
But in September, Gen. David Petraeus reported that Bush's "surge" in Iraq was working, giving Republicans who might otherwise have flipped sufficient cover to continue supporting the war. The Democrats had no choice, the legend goes, but to wait until 2009, in the hopes that things would be different under a Democratic president.
Democrats insist that the reason they can't cut off the money for the war, despite their majority in both houses, is purely political. "George Bush would be on TV every five minutes saying that the Democrats betrayed the troops," says Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Then he glumly adds another reason. "Also, it just wasn't going to happen."
Why it "just wasn't going to happen" is the controversy. In and around the halls of Congress, the notion that the Democrats made a sincere effort to end the war meets with, at best, derisive laughter. Though few congressional aides would think of saying so on the record, in private many dismiss their party's lame anti-war effort as an absurd dog-and-pony show, a calculated attempt to score political points without ever being serious about bringing the troops home.
"Yeah, the amount of expletives that flew in our office alone was unbelievable," says an aide to one staunchly anti-war House member. "It was all about the public show. Reid and Pelosi would say they were taking this tough stand against Bush, but if you actually looked at what they were sending to a vote, it was like Swiss cheese. Full of holes."
In the House, some seventy Democrats joined the Out of Iraq caucus and repeatedly butted heads with Reid and Pelosi, arguing passionately for tougher measures to end the war. The fight left some caucus members bitter about the party's failure. Rep. Barbara Lee of California was one of the first to submit an amendment to cut off funding unless it was tied to an immediate withdrawal. "I couldn't even get it through the Rules Committee in the spring," Lee says.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a fellow caucus member, says Democrats should have refused from the beginning to approve any funding that wasn't tied to a withdrawal. "If we'd been bold the minute we got control of the House - and that's why we got the majority, because the people of this country wanted us out of Iraq - if we'd been bold, even if we lost the votes, we would have gained our voice."
An honest attempt to end the war, say Democrats like Woolsey and Lee, would have involved forcing Bush to execute his veto and allowing the Republicans to filibuster all they wanted. Force a showdown, in other words, and use any means necessary to get the bloodshed ended.
"Can you imagine Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert taking no for an answer the way Reid and Pelosi did on Iraq?" asks the House aide in the expletive-filled office. "They'd find a way to get the votes. They'd get it done somehow."
But any suggestion that the Democrats had an obligation to fight this good fight infuriates the bund of hedging careerists in charge of the party. In fact, nothing sums up the current Democratic leadership better than its vitriolic criticisms of those recalcitrant party members who insist on interpreting their 2006 mandate as a command to actually end the war. Rep. David Obey, chair of the House Appropriations Committee and a key Pelosi-Reid ally, lambasted anti-war Democrats who "didn't want to get specks on those white robes of theirs." Obey even berated a soldier's mother who begged him to cut off funds for the war, accusing her and her friends of "smoking something illegal."
Rather than use the vast power they had to end the war, Democrats devoted their energy to making sure that "anti-war activism" became synonymous with "electing Democrats." Capitalizing on America's desire to end the war, they hijacked the anti-war movement itself, filling the ranks of peace groups with loyal party hacks. Anti-war organizations essentially became a political tool for the Democrats - one operated from inside the Beltway and devoted primarily to targeting Republicans.
This supposedly grass-roots "anti-war coalition" met regularly on K Street, the very capital of top-down Beltway politics. At the forefront of the groups are Thomas Matzzie and Brad Woodhouse of Americans Against the Escalation in Iraq, the leader of the anti-war lobby. Along with other K Street crusaders, the two have received iconic treatment from The Washington Post and The New York Times, both of which depicted the anti-war warriors as young idealist-progressives in shirtsleeves, riding a mirthful spirit into political combat - changing the world is fun!
But what exactly are these young idealists campaigning for? At its most recent meeting, the group eerily echoed the Reid-Pelosi "squeezed for time" mantra: Retreat from any attempt to end the war and focus on electing Democrats. "There was a lot of agreement that we can draw distinctions between anti-war Democrats and pro-war Republicans," a spokeswoman for Americans Against the Escalation in Iraq announced.
What the Post and the Times failed to note is that much of the anti-war group's leadership hails from a consulting firm called Hildebrand Tewes - whose partners, Steve Hildebrand and Paul Tewes, served as staffers for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). In addition, these anti-war leaders continue to consult for many of the same U.S. senators whom they need to pressure in order to end the war. This is the kind of conflict of interest that would normally be an embarrassment in the activist community.
Worst of all is the case of Woodhouse, who came to Hildebrand Tewes after years of working as the chief mouthpiece for the DSCC, where he campaigned actively to re-elect Democratic senators who supported the Iraq War in the first place. Anyone bothering to look - and clearly the Post and the Times did not before penning their ardent bios of Woodhouse - would have found the youthful idealist bragging to newspapers before the Iraq invasion about the pro-war credentials of North Carolina candidate Erskine Bowles. "No one has been stronger in this race in supporting President Bush in the War on Terror and his efforts to effect a regime change in Iraq," boasted the future "anti-war" activist Woodhouse.
With guys like this in charge of the anti-war movement, much of what has passed for peace activism in the past year was little more than a thinly veiled scheme to use popular discontent over the war to unseat vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in 2008. David Sirota, a former congressional staffer whose new book, The Uprising, excoriates the Democrats for their failure to end the war, expresses disgust at the strategy of targeting only Republicans. "The whole idea is based on this insane fiction that there is no such thing as a pro-war Democrat," he says. "Their strategy allows Democrats to take credit for being against the war without doing anything to stop it. It's crazy."
Justin Raimondo, the uncompromising editorial director of Antiwar.com, regrets contributing twenty dollars to Americans Against the Escalation in Iraq. "Not only did they use it to target Republicans," he says, "they went after the ones who were on the fence about Iraq." The most notorious case involved Lincoln Chafee, a moderate from Rhode Island who lost his Senate seat in 2006. Since then, Chafee has taken shots at Democrats like Reid, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, all of whom campaigned against him despite having voted for the war themselves.
"Look, I understand partisan politics," says Chafee, who now concedes that voters were correct to punish him for his war vote. "I just find it amusing that those who helped get us into this mess now say we need to change the Senate - because we're in a mess."
The really tragic thing about the Democratic surrender on Iraq is that it's now all but guaranteed that the war will be off the table during the presidential campaign. Once again - it happened in 2002, 2004 and 2006 - the Democrats have essentially decided to rely on the voters to give them credit for being anti-war, despite the fact that, for all the noise they've made to the contrary, in the end they've done nothing but vote for war and cough up every dime they've been asked to give, every step of the way.
Even beyond the war, the Democrats have repeatedly gone limp-dick every time the Bush administration so much as raises its voice. Most recently, twelve Democrats crossed the aisle to grant immunity to phone companies who participated in Bush's notorious wiretapping program. Before that, Democrats caved in and confirmed Mike Mukasey as attorney general after he kept his middle finger extended and refused to condemn waterboarding as torture. Democrats fattened by Wall Street also got cold feet about upsetting the country's gazillionaires, refusing to close a tax loophole that rewarded hedge-fund managers with a tax rate less than half that paid by ordinary citizens.
But the war is where they showed their real mettle. Before the 2006 elections, Democrats told us we could expect more specifics on their war plans after Election Day. Nearly two years have passed since then, and now they are once again telling us to wait until after an election to see real action to stop the war. In the meantime, of course, we're to remember that they're the good guys, the Republicans are the real enemy, and, well, go Hillary! Semper fi! Yay, team!
How much of this bullshit are we going to take? How long are we supposed to give the Reids and Pelosis and Hillarys of the world credit for wanting, deep down in their moldy hearts, to do the right thing?
Look, fuck your hearts, OK? Just get it done. Because if you don't, sooner or later this con is going to run dry. It may not be in '08, but it'll be soon. Even Americans can't be fooled forever.
© 2008 Rollingstone.com