Blind Rage At Bush On The Hill

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This commentary from The New Republic was written by Michael Crowley..

When Nancy Pelosi was chosen as House Democratic leader nearly a year ago, she vowed to sharpen her party's butter-knife message into a gleaming, lethal stiletto. "I am prepared to lead with the clarity and firmness that the task requires," Pelosi declared last November. But, in the struggle over President Bush's $87 billion budget request for Iraq, she hasn't shown much of either quality.

Take the press conference Pelosi held with Capitol Hill reporters last week. The power-suited San Franciscan began by noting the White House's latest P.R. offensive to shore up public opinion on the war's aftermath. "I think offensive is probably a pretty good word for it," she said through clenched teeth. The administration's efforts to favorably spin the Kay report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), she huffed, were "lame." Overall, she said, Bush's actions in Iraq amounted to a "failed policy." What Pelosi thought the Democrats should do about this, however, was impossible to deduce. At one point, she seemed to argue for thoroughly rebuilding Iraq: "[W]e need to energize the country, turn on the lights, the water, ... so Iraq can get moving again." But, moments later, she made an apparent about-face. After noting with disdain an administration boast that electricity in Iraq has been restored to prewar levels, she continued, "Well, what else are we supposed to do? ... Wasn't that our responsibility? Now are we supposed to take them to another place, in terms of their power and all the rest, power generation in Iraq? Aren't we just supposed to honor our responsibilities there, not make a gold-plated country by giving no-bid contracts to their friends in the United States?"

Leaving aside its grammatical anarchy, this argument was something you might expect to hear from Dennis Kucinich: that America's only obligation is to fix the things we broke and then be on our merry way. Ultimately, Pelosi's vision for how the Democrats should deal with Iraq -- and with the White House's $87 billion request -- remained a mystery. (Hours before a scheduled House vote, Pelosi finally announced her opposition to the White House bill.)

That confusion is all too typical among Democrats. Fearful of being labeled anti-military, dozens of House and Senate Democrats who have spent the past few weeks trashing the $87 billion request will nonetheless vote for it this week -- and then go right back to pounding the president for his Iraq policy. Amid their fulminating, however, Democrats offer few realistic alternatives. There are several reasons for this -- disagreements over the war's morality, for instance, and over whether a successful reconstruction is really possible. But, more than any specific argument about the national interest, the biggest factor clouding the Democrats' thinking appears to be the rage they feel toward President Bush. Democrats believe the administration has continually abused and lied to them, particularly on national security issues in the wake of September 11, 2001. Now that Bush is again asking for their support, their primary message is: Screw you, Mr. President. That may make them feel better. But it isn't much of a foreign policy vision.

It's hard to underestimate how furious congressional Democrats are at the Bush administration. Their rhetoric boils with ad hominem vitriol toward the president and his team. And, because their anger is so personalized, so is their view of Bush's Iraq policy: It's not the national interest on the line; it's Bush's rear end. The problem is his, and Democrats aren't interested in helping him solve it. "I, for one, will not be an enabler to an administration that clearly cannot be trusted with our treasury, our lives, and those of the Iraqi people," Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Chicago-area representative, declared to "The Hill" newspaper this week. Democratic aides say this is a typical sentiment. "People feel the need to take a stand," says one. "Some call this the Bail-Out-Bush Fund. They think he got into this mess and wants us to bail him out." While not the official party line, this attitude sometimes slips into the Democrats' public rhetoric: At her press conference last week, Pelosi spoke of a "bail-out [for the Bush team's] failed policy in Iraq." "It is time for the Bush administration to be held accountable," she added in a statement this week. Adam Smith, a centrist Democrat from Tacoma, Washington, says he sometimes finds it hard to reason with his colleagues. "In trying to pin them down, I say, 'At the end the day, we have to have a policy to cope with what to do now,'" he explains. "And they say, 'Well, we're just pissed off.' They don't really even attempt to argue the policy of it."

Other Democrats sound determined to punish the administration for what they see as past deceptions -- the missing WMD, for instance, or the notion that Iraqi oil revenue would finance reconstruction. "Many of us unfortunately are wondering again whether we can believe the pronouncements of our own government," David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, fumed before voting against Bush's budget request in a hearing last week. "I've been there before under Lyndon Johnson ... in Vietnam and under Richard Nixon in Watergate. I don't like being here again." Even Jane Harman, the hawkish cochairman of the House Intelligence Committee, urged colleagues to vote against Bush's budget request. After supporting the Iraq war resolution last year, largely on the basis of intelligence about Iraqi WMD, Harman "is pissed," says a Democratic aide. "She feels like she got screwed." The attitude was neatly summed up by Georgia Democrat John Lewis, who told "The Hill": "Fool me once, Mr. President, shame on you. Fool me twice, Mr. President, shame on me."

Many Democrats are also probably caught in that all-powerful tractor-beam: the advice of their pollsters. In a press briefing earlier this month, one of the party's favorite numerologists, Celinda Lake, singled out the Iraq budget request as a critical opportunity on the road to the 2004 election and urged Democrats to make the most of it. "We may look back and say this was a turning point," Lake said, encouraging Democrats to draw "clear distinctions" with the president on the bill. The latest offering from Democracy Corps, the party message factory run by James Carville, Stan Greenberg, and Bob Shrum, bore a similar message: "The $87 billion dollar [sic] request has become a powerful symbol of the president's failing policies," the trio explained in a late-September memo. "It took people by surprise, and they know that number. It represents the failed foreign policy, the open-ended war in Iraq, deficits, and a president who will not take care of America." And Democratic über-pollster Mark Mellman recently explained to "National Journal" that "[a]ll the polls agree that the public strongly opposes this request because they believe it's robbing domestic priorities to fund a non-plan." (Later the same day, Mellman briefed a Senate Democratic luncheon, presumably with the same message.) The pollsters' advice is bolstered by the hectoring of constituents. Pennsylvania Democrat Jack Murtha says he has "never gotten as much mail on any issue" as he has in opposition to the $87 billion appropriation.

Apart from sheer obstructionism, such alternatives as the Democrats offer tend to be vague or unrealistic. Most speak of increasing international military and financial support -- a direction in which the administration is already moving but that has severe limits. (It's simply not plausible to argue that Iraq can be rebuilt without tens of billions of U.S. dollars.) Many Democrats also want to deliver aid in the form of loans. But loans would only add to the crushing weight of Iraq's current $200 billion debt, much of which the administration is already lobbying creditor nations to forgive. What's more, there is no real Iraqi government that can consent to, or be bound by, a loan agreement anyway.

Senator Joe Biden, a multi-lateralist who was lukewarm on invading Iraq, has been among the most intellectually honest of the congressional Democrats, recognizing that "the bottom line is that we cannot afford to lose the peace in Iraq," as he argued last week. But, while his plan -- which would scale back the Bush tax cuts to pay for Iraq's reconstruction -- makes good moral and fiscal sense, it's a political nonstarter thanks to the GOP's nonnegotiable stance on tax cuts. An alternative idea that makes for better politics -- but dubious policy -- is the "American Parity Act" proposed by Rahm Emanuel, the Clinton White House strategist turned Chicago representative. The plan would require that every dollar spent for Iraq reconstruction be accompanied by a dollar spent on domestic infrastructure projects. Befitting Emanuel's former occupation, his proposal is designed less as a governing ideal than as the setup for attack ads against House Republicans. "The members' worst fear is that they're going to get whacked back home -- 'Why are you spending money on a hospital in Iraq and not here?'" says an administration foreign policy official. "We have to decide whether it's in America's interest to do this and what will follow if we abandon that cause. That's the question." Unfortunately, many Democrats don't seem interested in the answer.

By Michael Crowley