By Harold Meyerson
No one has ever described David Obey as phlegmatic. The Wisconsin Democrat, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, combines long-standing liberal passions with a keen sense for the deals that must be cut to turn those passions into law. And on occasion, people who don't share Obey's assessment of where, and whether, the deal should be cut have been subjected to an Obey outburst.
Last week, as he was working to build support for amendments that would impose a 2008 deadline on U.S. combat activities in Iraq, Obey was accosted by Tina Richards, an antiwar activist and mother of a Marine. With YouTube immortalizing the encounter, Richards asked Obey why he was supporting the supplemental war appropriations bill to which the amendments would be attached and why Congress couldn't just defund the war and bring the troops home now.
Obey erupted. 'We can't get the votes,' he shouted. 'Do you see a magic wand in my pocket? We don't have the votes for it.'
'We're trying to use the supplemental,' he explained, 'to end the war.' Obey has since apologized for blowing up, but that hasn't deterred some antiwar bloggers from condemning him as some loony warmonger. In a similar vein, other antiwar protesters now ring Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco home, calling on her to bring the troops home now.
In effect, what the protesters are doing is making the unattainable perfect the enemy of the barely-attainable good.
Because Obey is quite right: The votes aren't there to shut down funding for the war. What he and Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership in both houses are about is finding some way to curtail the president's determination to pass the war on to his successor regardless of the continuing cost to U.S. interests and lives. Attaching conditions to the appropriations bill is not a foolproof way to accomplish that, as Pelosi and Obey would readily admit. It is merely the best of the imperfect options to wind down U.S. involvement in Iraq, given the narrowness of their congressional majorities and the presence of George W. Bush in the White House.
The antiwar bona fides of Obey and Pelosi are not only in good order, they're a lot more impressive than those of just about any Democrat running for president. In October 2002, breaking with then-House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, Pelosi led the opposition to the bill authorizing the president to go to war in Iraq. Obey voted with Pelosi and spoke forcefully against U.S. involvement.
What Pelosi and Obey understand that their critics on the left seem to ignore is that it will take numerous congressional votes and multiple confrontations with Bush to build the support required to end U.S. involvement. Thanks to the Constitution's division of powers, Congress and the White House seem bound for months of fighting over the conditions attached to any approval of funds for continuing our operations in Iraq. Over time, as the war drags on, either enough Republicans will join their Democratic colleagues to put an end to U.S. intervention, or they will stick with Bush, thereby ensuring there will be a sufficient number of Democrats in the next Congress to end the war.
As a strategy for ending the war, that may not be a thing of beauty. It is, however, the best that our political and constitutional realities allow.
There are those, of course, who object to Pelosi's even having a strategy to end the war. The lead editorial in yesterday's Post, for example, took Pelosi to task as playing politics with the war by attempting to craft legislation that could actually win votes from all wings of her party. 'The only constituency' that 'Pelosi ignored in her plan,' The Post complained, 'are the people of the country that U.S. troops are fighting to stabilize.' Rather than heeding the needs of Iraqis, Pelosi is concentrating on the 2008 elections, The Post concluded.
My paper, I fear, is off by two years. If the United States is still in Iraq come November 2008, the Democrats will sweep to power. It's the 2006 elections that are to blame for this nefarious Democratic plan to wind down the war, for the Democrats ran on precisely that platform, and, more to the point, they won on it. The only constituency that The Post ignored in its assessment of Pelosi's plan, and the chief constituency she is trying to heed, is the American people. They have charged the Pelosis and Obeys with the messy task of ending this fiasco, which, to their credit, is exactly what Pelosi and Obey are trying to do.
By Harold Meyerson