Owning policy

Parsing the debate over war funding is unedifying, for the question must be asked — who won? It refers not to the outcome of the war but to public perceptions and political gamesmanship.

American troops are fighting and dying in battle. (The president and all the military service chiefs paid tribute to them in this newspaper last week.) Naturally that is a huge political issue; it is appropriate to question a policy that puts servicemen and servicewomen in harm’s way.

But that questioning does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place in the wake of congressional elections in which war was probably the biggest single issue giving victory to Democrats and handing defeat to Republicans.

It takes place not very long after President Bush won reelection because he was more trusted on national security than was his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).

And it takes place with the 2008 presidential election hurtling toward us, with candidates positioning themselves vis-à-vis the war to do themselves least damage and make themselves most viable in the primary and general election seasons.

The Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill finally brought a $120 billion funding bill to the floor from which it had stripped all deadlines for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. It took this step after producing legislation that sought to tie the president’s hands and was thus promptly vetoed.

Republicans were largely united in supporting the legislation, but 10 Senate Democrats voted against it, as did 140 House Democrats including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Lawmakers of each party find themselves weighing their hopes and what they really believe, their consciences and their electoral chances.

GOP lawmakers, tied to the Republican president and also more inclined than Democrats to believe success in Iraq remains possible, hope for good news while also being acutely aware that a mounting death toll will probably further erode public support for war and undermine their chances in November 2008.

But Democrats are being excoriated in the left-wing blogosphere for having given the president most of what he wanted.
On DailyKos, for example, one comment, “the Democratic Party as a whole is blowing this big time,” spoke for many who are furious that the party did not cut off money and force the troops home. Democratic campaign officials are contacting supporters and saying the party is fighting to make the president accountable, but some on the left are likely to stop writing checks.

Democrats have forced Republicans to record votes for the war, which may prove electorally important next year. But Democrats have also spent many weeks finessing an issue that many people believe cannot be finessed with honor, and at the same time perhaps ended up alienating some of their most fervent supporters.

Being in the majority means you start owning the policies of government — and, much though they do not want it, Democrats have starting owning a piece of Iraq.