Tuesday, March 27, 2007

On not making the other side's argument for them

Can the antiwar movement please stop making the other side's argument for them?

The idea that "defunding the war" is somehow inappropriate is a notion that Democratic officials and war critics need to stop legitimizing - and I think the House vote last week went a long way in that direction. Because now it puts the Republicans in the position of "voting against funding for the troops" and Bush in the position of having to threaten to veto the funding. So I hope they build on this and stop repeating the Republican talking points that frame any Congressional limits on military action into a funding bill as "cutting off funding for the troops".

Congress is responsible under the Constitution for declaring war and for regulating and funding the armed forces. It's perfectly legitimate for Congress to use those powers to place limits on Presidential war-making.

As a practical matter, the most likely way Congress could get any restrictions on the administration's ability to conduct the Iraq War is through the appropriations process, which is the approach the Democrats have taken with the Pelosi amendment. Because to get the President to sign any such restriction into law, like the Boland Amendment in the 1980s limiting support to the Nicaraguan contra guerrillas/terrorists, they would have to attach it to a bill that Bush basically couldn't veto. And that means a more general budget appropriation.

So the Dems need to stop validating the Republican talking points that make restrictions on appropriations sound like suddenly leaving American soldiers there in Iraq to fend for themselves with no ammunition and make their own way home.

(Using appropriations is not the only option; rescinding the 2002 Iraq War resolution would be another approach. I won't go into the complications of that in this post.)

Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, appeared on Meet the Press of
02/25/07 along with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. Host Tim Russert played a statement by the Senate Republican leader:

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: What seems to be coming next is the second step of their slow-bleed strategy, which I gather could best be described as trying to unring a bell. Now, that’s what the Democrats would be attempting to do in altering the original use of force authorization that, of course, a great many of them voted for. ... The truth of the matter is there’s really only, you know, one way to end the war, if that’s what our Democratic friends want to do. That is to cut off the funding for the war.
Looking at the Republican argument, it's hard not to notice the element of desperation in it. As a rhetorical device, it's pretty transparent: I don't want to debate the proposal you've made, so I'll debate about a proposal you haven't made. Mark Shields did an acceptable job of shooting down that aspect of it when the increasingly pitiful David Brooks made it once last month (Analysts Weigh War Resolutions, Presidential Race PBS Newshour 02/16/07)

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would say, first of all, [to Democratic war critics:] show some directness. If you want to get the troops out, call for a resolution that calls for getting the troops out. Don't monkey with the rotation schedules and the conditions. I just think it's indirect. It's not honorable. Do it straightforwardly.

The second thing I'd say, the surge is under way. We're going to have some troops already going there over the next several months. Are we going to leave them hanging out there without the full body, which the president and Petraeus thinks they need? I think that's a perfectly legitimate argument.

The Republicans would say, "You're leaving these guys just hanging out there, and the people they need to complete the mission aren't going to be coming."

And the third and the most powerful argument I think the Republicans are going to use is that, "You're sitting there in Congress. You don't manage wars and how many troops should be in a city, or what neighborhood they should be in. That's the president's job. That's in the Constitution. And there's plenty of backup for that. And we should not have 435 members of Congress micromanaging that."

RAY SUAREZ: Quick response.

MARK SHIELDS: You have a responsibility as a member of Congress. You voted to go to war. You have a responsibility to oversee that war.

This war has gone unsupervised. There's been no accountability for the past four years. The idea that you would not frame your position - and Murtha has been very candid about where his position is. He wants this war over. But you want to frame it in a way that is politically defensible, because you know what the other side is going to do.

It's already said it. "You're selling out. You're cutting and running." They're going to use every scare tactic in the world. The idea that you go in and unilaterally disarm politically in presenting your position I think doesn't make any sense. "This war has gone unsupervised" by Congress, Shields said. That's a decent response.
Shields got to the immediate rhetorical point of that argument. The Republicans are demanding that the Democrats "unilaterally disarm politically" by presenting a proposal the Reps would rather debate about at a particular moment rather than the proposals the Democrats decide to present. And he also said straightforwardly, this is the responsibility of Congress under the Constitution.

Unfortunately, Shields was kind snoozing on the job when that argument came up the following week. For instance, at one point he said (
British Begin Troop Drawdown in Iraq; U.S. Army Mends Walter Reed PBS Newshour 02/23/07):

MARK SHIELDS: ... As far as the Democrats are concerned, I think they made a mistake. I think Jack Murtha made a mistake in revealing his plan on MoveOn.org, the activist, leftist group...

JIM LEHRER: Leftist group, yes. (my emphasis)
Well, I guess you can lead a Big Pundit to water, but you can't make him drink.

Just to be clear, there's nothing inherently wrong or right about being "left" on some issues as opposed to "liberal" or something else. Depends on the particular issue. The idea of Social Security was a "left" issue in, say, 1929. But MoveOn.org's antiwar position isn't distinctly "left" as opposed to "liberal". (American political vocabulary is actually kind of dorky on this. In most of the world, "liberal" means "free-market" opposition to regulations on business and to government-sponsored social programs.)

Brooks made this argument on the 02/23/07 program with no direct response from Shields:

DAVID BROOKS: ... The Democrats do not have a clearly understandable policy. They've got this subterfuge about changing the schedules, which as Murtha said is just an excuse to starve the surge. Then they've got this, "Go back to 2002."

If they want to get out, and if they think it's lost, do what Governor Vilsack said, "We think we should get out. Here's our timetable. We think we should get out.'

Instead, you've got Hillary Clinton at first saying, "We're going to cap," and then changing her position a week later, and saying a 90-day withdrawal. You've got slow withdrawal with Obama. You've got subterfuge. You've got nothing. You've just a series of dodges.
But this framing of Congressional war powers is also a pre-emptive strike against serious attempts to attach war retrictions to appropriations bills. And Levin on his Meet the Press appearance (linked above) walked right into the trap. Whether foolishly or willingly, I don't know:

MR. RUSSERT: Why don’t Democrats do what Senator McConnell says that they could do, cut off funding for the war?

SEN. LEVIN: There’s another way to achieve our goal. Number one, we can cap the number of troops. We can change the mission. These would both be binding resolutions without cutting funding for our troops. Most of us do not want to cut funding for our troops for two reasons. One is it’s wrong. Our troops deserve our support as long as they’re there, and we’re not going to repeat the mistake of Vietnam where we took out on the troops our differences over policies with the administration. Our differences are with the commander in chief and his policies, and we’re going to fund the troops as long as they’re there. Secondly, because that resolution would lose, the president would then use the defeat of a cut-the-funding resolution as a way of supporting his policy. So we would be playing right into the hands of the president and his policy makers by having a losing vote on funding. So it’s the wrong thing to do, and it also would strengthen the president’s hand when we don’t want to do that. We want to change the president’s course. He is on a course that is leading to defeat. The president’s course is getting us in deeper and deeper militarily. It is not working. We want to change that course. We don’t, don’t want to do anything which would strengthen that course.

MR. RUSSERT: What about the notion that Democrats are afraid politically to cut off funding?

SEN. LEVIN: Well, that’s not where I’m coming from, because I - my concerns are exactly the two that I mentioned. It’s not a fear of—politically of doing it. It’s the wrong thing to do morally in terms of the message it sends to the troop - troops, but it also would strengthen the president because he would use the defeat of that resolution as proof that the Senate or the Congress supports his policies, and the majority do not. And we ought to be allowed to vote by majority vote on this question: Do we favor a surge? Do we favor changing the mission? That’s what the Republicans will not let us vote on. They’re afraid of having the majority of the Senate vote as the majority of the House did in opposition to the surge of the president. (my emphasis)
Well, to use my favorite Rummy paraphrase, you fight for the Constitution with the Democratic Party you have, not with the Democratic Party you want, or might like to have. And that means we need to point out when our Big Dems like Levin make such flimsy responses. I don't much care whether Levin is "sincere" or not in his opposition to the war. For politicians, sincerity is a greatly over-rated virtue. I mainly care about whether he's effective in limiting the damage Cheney and Bush are doing to the United States and the world with their war policies. And this kind of unilateral political disarmament - by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee - won't get us there.

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