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Cowering In The Suburbs of Berlin

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Message David Michael Green

Somebody needs to write the sequel to John Kennedy’s "Profiles In Courage". Let’s call it "Profiles In Cowardice". I know a really, really good case study for Chapter One.

Kennedy’s original book told the stories of senators who stood up to great political and social pressure, taking the courageous stands their hearts required. I always thought the point was perhaps a bit too well taken, given that we are talking here about legislators casting votes and thereby generally only risking their present careers – not soldiers at the front, or Gentiles hiding Jews from the Nazis. But it does take some real fortitude sometimes to be the lonely voice of sanity when everyone around you has completely flipped. Perhaps that is why we hardly see it happen anymore, ever since the sad day Paul Wellstone’s plane went down (high marks to Russ Feingold and Robert Byrd, though.)

It’s one thing not to be terribly courageous, and quite another to indulge in the worst imaginable cowardice, with the worst possible repercussions for other people’s lives. There’s a lot of room in between for your garden-variety member of Congress to attend fund-raisers, provide "access" to corporate lobbyists, and march in hometown Fourth of July parades, all without doing too horribly much damage to the country they’re meant to be serving.

This week, however, the leadership of the Democratic Party wrote Chapter One of "Profiles In Cowardice". Of course, that wasn’t entirely a surprise. Most Democrats bought into this war, along with the rest of Bushism, from the very beginning. It turns out that this gang of mealy-mouthed nothing-burgers really is the party of effete Quislings that Republicans make them out to be. At a time of moral, constitutional, international, governmental, political and environmental crisis, the Democrats have taken a firm stand on the issue of trying not to offend anybody in America. And, of course, getting themselves reelected.

At least you can’t say that they have no principles. And at least you can’t say that they’re inconsistent. They never fail to fail. And they never disappoint while disappointing.

But what marks out the most recent act of shame is the sheer egregiousness of it. In 2002, Karl Rove arranged a congressional vote on the Iraq war resolution right before midterm elections. That alone was the height of political cynicism on his part, showing that nothing was beyond politicizing by the Bush administration. It was only one year after 9/11 (which history may yet show to itself have been the greatest act of political cynicism ever, or ever imaginable), Bush was riding high, people were scared, war seemed to many like an appropriate policy, and an Iraq marketing campaign of which Madison Avenue must have been in awe was in full swing. There was no excuse, even under such circumstances, for Democrats like Clinton, Edwards and the rest to vote for the war. Yet, you could at least understand why they did. You could partially excuse them if you were so inclined (I wasn’t), precisely because of the outrageousness of the situation they were placed in by regressive forces inside and out of the White House. Heck, you could even argue that they were fulfilling their role as faithful representatives of their constituents’ will, even as they were abdicating their responsibilities as leaders of those same citizens.

But this... This there is no excuse for. Not now, not ever. This is precisely the inverse of the situation in 2002, which makes it mind-boggling to contemplate just what would be required for Harry Reid to close the sale here. Just what is necessary for the Democratic leadership to acquire the political courage for doing what was the morally correct thing from the very beginning?

Do they need to wait until opposing the continuation of the war represents a popular opinion in America? Evidently not, since whopping majorities now believe that the war was based on lies, that it is making America less secure – not more – and that it is time to end it.

Do they need a mandate from the public? If the election of 2006 wasn’t that, then what was it? If the public didn’t send Democrats to Congress to supervise and clean-up after the GOP, then why did they? It certainly wasn’t because of the great mass appeal of the Democratic legislative agenda, assuming anyone could have figured out what it was.

Do they need a majority in Congress? You’d never know from watching them in action that they actually had one! Could you imagine New Gingrich or Tom DeLay laying down like this?

Do they need a position that is reasonable and patriotic? Only because of the complete and utter incompetence of the Democrats at articulating their policies (assuming they have any) and a sheer lack of moral courage has it come to pass in contemporary American discourse that voting more funds for Iraq is somehow equated with ‘supporting the troops’. If someone bought a first-class bus ticket to ship their child off in style for a visit with a pedophile, would we call that responsible parenting? Why can’t Democrats simply say, over and over again, that they are supporting our troops by removing them from the disastrous abattoir to which this heartless president consigned them for purposes of satisfying his own psychological inadequacies and his own pursuit of power? How is it that voting appropriations for the sole purpose of withdrawing the troops could be portrayed as not supporting them?

Do Democrats need to be in the driver’s seat in a legislative standoff? They were never more so. Imagine a game of chicken where one driver who doesn’t care whether he wins or loses, whether he wins or dies. Who do you think is going to bail out first? In situations like we saw last week, there is a huge disadvantage accruing to anyone going into the contest needing something more than his adversary. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer remarked that "Neither side can do something without the other. Democrats cannot adopt a policy without the president vetoing it … and the president cannot ignore the Congress as he did in the first six years" of his presidency. Hoyer (or is it Whoyer?) is right about that, but he has forgotten the more important part of the political calculus, the part concerning the stakes involved. It’s as though he were analyzing a poker game without considering the pot, and whose money was in it.

Bush desperately needed this bill. No more money, no more war. Congress did not. That means that the Democrats should have simply kept sending him the money, with their conditions attached, and let him continue to veto it. It was a perfectly viable strategy, and for once the conditions were all in their favor. Bush could not have kept vetoing war funding legislation with a popular provision attached to end the deployment while plausibly arguing that Democrats were not supporting the troops. This would have been particularly true if the Democrats had stood up every once in a while and explained themselves to an American public already sympathetic to their position. They could have turned the White House public relations strategy right on its head, and they even had the help of reality to assist them in doing so. All they had to do was say "We keep sending him the money, and he keeps rejecting it. We call on him now to sign this crucial legislation necessary to fund our troops in the field". They could also have further painted him as petulant, arrogant, intransigent and childish (who, George W. Bush? – imagine that!) for being willing to sign only his particular version of the funding bill. How hard a sell would that be?

But maybe what the Democrats needed, finally, was an adversary who folds when pressed. Was that the problem? The truth is that is exactly what Bush is, as the Wolfowitz affair demonstrated again, and as has been shown often enough before, perhaps most notably in the UN Security Council when he yanked his DOA Iraq invasion resolution just days after the bluff in which he promised there would be a vote no matter what. This guy is the ultimate coward acting the part of the playground bully. Stand up to him and he collapses. How many of Bush’s eight years have to go by before Democrats learn to stop flinching? Granted, Iraq is different, and at first appearances would seem to be the one thing the Bush camp would never negotiate. But, let’s face it, the truth is that Bush is just waiting for another president to hand the war off to so that he can delude himself into believing that he didn’t lose it. If that’s the mentality, he might even secretly welcome a congressional funding cut-off to get it over with earlier rather than later, and still have someone else to blame.

So it’s beyond astonishing, really, if you think about it. Democrats had a morally correct and absolutely defensible position, even in terms of the whole supporting-the-troops mantra. They had popular support and a public mandate to act. They had majorities given to them for that precise purpose. And they had an adversary who needed the legislation far more than they did, and who has a history of bullying when allowed, but folding when pressed.

I’m wondering if I could have written a better prescription for success, given a blank piece of paper. Does Nancy Pelosi have to become president following a double impeachment for Democrats to end this war? And is there any reason to believe that a President Pelosi would actually do that? In one of the most amazing acts of political duplicity this side of Karl Rove, Pelosi claimed "I'm not likely to vote for something that doesn't have a timetable or a goal", which, of course this bill did not. I hate to be the skunk at the garden party, but Hey Nancy, aren’t you the Speaker of the House? Do you really expect us to believe that you didn’t actually engineer this bill wearing your Speaker hat, just because you later cast a single vote against it wearing your just-one-of-435-members-of-the-House hat?

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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 (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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