Many Congressional Democrats, and some Republicans, are tying themselves in unseemly and cowardly knots because they unreflectively believe an old political truism that just happens to be false. Call it the "Support the Troops" axiom: Voters always punish legislators who cast votes that can be portrayed as undermining American soldiers in combat.
This is enduring conventional wisdom, like, "All politics are local." Well, all politics aren't local. That was proved beyond all reasonable doubt by the midterm elections of 2006, which were more about street crime in Mosul than Milwaukee.
Because politicians and pundits blindly accept the "Support the Troops" axiom, many legislators who clearly and openly oppose escalation/surge are still in a tizzy about what to do.
Chuck Hagel, a Republican, has a simple, honest approach: "I will do everything I can to stop the president's policy." Old bull Teddy Kennedy wants to go for the jugular and try cut off military funding in a way that could squash the surge. On the other hand, Barack Obama, the young bull seen as the Democratic Party's most courageous and promising comer, wouldn't even tell Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" if he thought cutting off funding was a good or a bad idea.
Disobeying the "Support the Troops" axiom is like the third rail of foreign policy politics: touch it and you die. What if a Congressman voted to cut funding and later a soldier was killed and an enemy candidate made a negative ad!? The horror, the horror.
Similarly, legislators are now trying to see how many benchmarks can dance on the head of a non-binding resolution. Members of the Congressional Cake-And-Eat-It Too Caucus want to craft something to vote on that will express their stout disapproval of the president's plan without being mean to the troops and without giving ammo to future ad makers. Courage.
As for an attempt to use the War Powers Act to wage full frontal attack Operation Escalation -- wouldn't be prudent.
So despite the ample evidence from public opinion research that this war is unpopular and many voters are open to various exit strategies, most legislators are trying to "finesse it." Some are honestly unsure of what the right thing to do is: to surge or not to surge? But most have clear positions but muddled thinking.
I've asked a batch a group of scholars, operatives and journalists if they could remember an election where incumbents were voted out because of votes they had cast that did not show adequate "support for the troops." None could remember any such votes. I can't find any either.
For one example, John Edwards opposed the $87 billion supplemental budget for the war in 2003 and he was accused of putting our soldiers in harm's way. But the vote helped in both the general and the primaries in 2006.
Opponents of the Vietnam War certainly weren't punished after they passed the mother of all anti-war votes, the War Powers Resolution in 1973. Indeed, Democrats did rather well in 1974.
During World War II, an obscure Midwestern senator took serious heat for investigating waste and fraud by the military. But Harry Truman still managed to cobble together a decent career.
There's just no evidence that members of Congress are going to be punished at the polls for fighting Operation Escalation with legislation of any sort. There is, however, a boatload of evidence that voters will punish lawmakers who "finesse it." Exhibit A would be John Forbes Kerry.
On top of their blind obedience to the "Support the War" axioms, most Democrats also quiver at the prospect of being nailed as doves or wimps. But it is inane to think that can be mitigated by taking wishy-washy, painfully contorted positions on escalating an unpopular war that has been poorly executed by the president's own recent admission.
The flip side of this confusion is the sheer idiocy of the notion that votes to prevent escalation, to cut military funding or to withdraw troops from Iraq really endanger soldiers in combat.
The perpetrators of such rhetoric imply, for example, that such votes literally endanger American soldiers, which is ridiculous. A vote to cut funding doesn't mean the Army will send a soldier on patrol without a gun. This silliness rises to absurdity when you consider that the president himself acknowledged that he had made a serious mistake by not sending enough force into Iraq in the first place; that endangered American troops -- big time.
"Support the Troops"-mongers also say that opposing escalation sends the wrong message to evildoers and demoralizes our troops. Do these people really believe that it is a great secret that there is opposition to the war in Congress and in America? America is not North Korea, mysterious to the rest of the world. We're an open book. And that's supposed to be a good thing.
Opponents of escalating the war in Iraq should remember what their parents surely told them: stand up to bullies.
Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer