A Timetable for Politics as Usual

In medicine they call it "drug-seeking behavior." A guy shows up at three different regional hospital emergency rooms in the space of a month, each time complaining of severe but non-specific lower back pain. Suspiciously, he is well-versed in the various milligram dosages of commercial hydrocodone. Ask him to wait an extra hour in the exam room, he starts bouncing his knees, and his forehead starts to pour sweat ...

Does this man's back really hurt? Maybe it does. You have to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least the first time. But the moment that orgasmic smile flashes across his face as soon as you hand him his Oxy scrip, you have to wonder. Just like I'm wondering right now, after watching what looked very suspiciously like a carefully-orchestrated congressional vote-seeking charade, i.e. the recent "controversial" scheduled-withdrawal/Iraq-timetable vote in the Senate.

As of this writing, it's been less than a few hours since the Chris Matthewses of the world received the "breaking news" that Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran has fallen short in his valiant attempt to block the Democrat-sponsored vote, a measure calling for a withdrawal of all troops from Iraq by next March. Cochran's gambit failed when Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel decided to publicly sell out the President, noting about four years too late that Iraq was basically "Bush's war" (of course, it was also very much the Senate's war back when the polls happened to support it) and that the president's strategy was borne of "arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam." Taking a direct swipe at Dick Cheney, who as recently as last week emerged from his haze of coronary disorders to decry war detractors as traitors and terrorist enablers, Hagel also said that "this idea that somehow you don't support the troops if you don't continue in a lemming-like way to accept whatever this administration's policy is, that's what's wrong, and that is dangerous."

Of course it would have been nice if Hagel had taken on the administration's shameless witch-hunting and red-baiting of war opponents at a time when such a stance would have required actual political courage, and not when the poll numbers on a firm Iraq withdrawal are running about 60-38 in favor. But that's where we are right now. Hell, Hagel's main ally in the House these days is none other than North Carolina Republican Walter Jones; the two men are the leading anti-war conservatives in their respective houses. Back in February, the two men spent an enormous amount of time blowing kisses at each other in the pages of papers like The Washington Post, with Jones calling Hagel "one of my heroes" and Hagel lauding Jones's brave efforts to rally conservatives to vote against the Bush "surge." But Jones, careful observers might recall, is the same spineless dingbat who came up with the "Freedom Fries" Franco-bashing campaign when the French bailed on the Iraq invasion in early 2003.

So that's where we are: the very people who were leading the Crucible-like campaign against war dissent are now chanting "Not in our name!" and refusing to be "lemmings" for Dick Cheney. We all know what's going on here. Hagel is positioning himself as the antiwar Republican in the '08 presidential race, while the conservatives from "safe" 60-40-type states, people like Cochran and male impersonator Mitch McConnell, are still beating the victory drum. John McCain gets to use the vote as a forum to bash both Democrats and Republican war traitors like Hagel ("Setting a date for withdrawal is like sending a memo to our enemies that tells them to rest, refit and re-plan until the day we leave," he said) while Democratic caucus members Joe Lieberman and Mark Pryor (who may face a serious primary challenge from Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter in '08) came out looking electably hawkish when they broke ranks with the leadership to cast nay votes.

As for everyone else -- specifically, the Democrats who sponsored and passed the timetable measure -- they benefited from the bill most directly, riding a crest of antiwar sentiment and setting the Democrats up as the party that will look the best in the eyes of frustrated, war-fatigued voters in 2008. But lost amid all of this antiwar posturing were a series of inconvenient truths. One was that the bill was always going to be meaningless because Bush was always going to veto it, there were never going to be enough votes to override the veto, and everybody knew there were never going to be enough votes to override the veto. The second is that the timetable measure was buried in an emergency spending bill to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a bill that ended up authorizing $122 billion in spending when the supposedly evil, warmongering, politically isolated Bush White House only asked for $103 billion. In other words, the outwardly combative Democratic leadership not only refused to do anything substantive to bring the troops home, it actually tossed Bush an extra $20 billion or for the war effort without prodding.

In my visits to Washington in the past few months I've heard different stories from Democratic congressional aides about what the party's intentions are. Some say they think the leadership is just going to stall and pass a bunch of non-binding, symbolic, Kumbayah horseshit to help propel whoever the Democratic candidate is into the White House two years from now. Others claim with a straight face that all of these non-binding resolutions are only a start, that the strategy is to really end the war via a death-by-a-thousand-cuts type of legislative grind, with the leadership sending to the floor bill after bill after bill designed to eat away at either war policy or war funding. They claim that all of these votes are exercises in coalition-building, necessary steps to gathering the support needed to pass real biting measures later on.

But I'll believe that when I see it. Right now, it all looks too convenient. With Bush a thrashing, drowning lame-duck whose endorsement in '08 will almost certainly be political poison to whomever has the misfortune to earn it, Republicans like Hagel and Oregon Senator Gordon Smith are conspicuously free to break ranks and save themselves. Moreover, the Democratic measure is crafted in such a way that the Hagels and Smiths and Ben Nelsons of the world can safely get on a soapbox about the war without having to face accusations of depriving the troops of equipment and "what they need" to fight, which just so happens to be the leitmotif/preoccupation of the Rush/Hannity talk shows of late. While Rush and the rest of the radio monsters blast Nancy Pelosi and Hillary for being army-haters ("These people are not just against victory. They are against the military," sez Rush), Hagel et al can say that they voted for both a scheduled withdrawal and a $20 billion increase in war funding. That is called having one's cake and eating it too, and folks on the Hill love that kind of political diet. There's a reason why there are not many skinny Senators.

You'll know that something real is going on in Washington when either a) the Democrats force the "antiwar conservatives" to actually cast a vote on whether or not to cut off spending for the war, or b) a dozen or so more Republicans cross the picket line to set up a possible override of a Bush veto. Until and unless one of those unlikely moments arrives, it sure looks like what we've got is one of those rare "good for both teams" baseball trades, an arranged standoff in which everybody gets to suck a little of that hot nourishing blood in the ballooning antiwar poll numbers.

My sense of this whole ballet from the start has been that with each passing season, as the antiwar rhetoric increases both among the public and in Washington, we'll see a corresponding increase in both financial and personnel commitment in the Iraq theater. The logic here is irresistible; Bush will not preside over what he perceives to be a surrender, and the Democrats will not cast a vote "against the troops" in an election season. So what we'll get is a lot of what we just saw -- non-binding antiwar votes hitched to troop increases and/or "short-term" funding boosts. It's worth noting that the same political logic that led the Bush White House to fund the war as an emergency long after it ceased to be an unexpected expenditure will now appeal to the Democrats, and for the same reason; so long as the money is in an "emergency" bill, they will be able to pretend, before voters, that the commitment is temporary.

What worries me about this state of affairs is that presidents don't like to see military losses land on their watch. If a Democrat wins in '08, bet on it, an excuse will be found to keep the troops there. The first day after her inauguration, when Hillary Clinton wakes up with a champagne hangover to hear Mark Daley (or whoever her chief of staff ends up being) tell her that 67 Marines have been slaughtered in a raid outside Ramadi, she is going to be powerfully tempted to prove that she has the stones to deal out the necessary payback. She'll ask for 10,000 extra troops and six months to "stabilize" the situation before initiating a withdrawal.

And once that happens, we'll be right back where we are now -- pretending we're against it, but without a way to actually make it happen while covering the requisite number of Washington asses. That's always what it comes down to, after all. And no matter how encouraged everyone seems to be by this withdrawal vote, I still haven't heard anyone tell me how the real pullout is going to work, politically that is. Because it's not enough that everyone knows it's necessary.

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