The Morning After


The fates have handed me the somewhat unfortunate task of writing a column scheduled to appear on election day. The only thing that really matters at the moment is tonight's results, and I don't know what they're going to be. Everyone's best guess, however, is that the GOP is going to lose ground in the Senate and lose control of the House of Representatives. Many factors, including local issues and national scandals, will be in play, but clearly the main issue setting the backdrop for these losses will be Iraq and the completely warranted public anger concerning the fiasco of American policy there.

So if, as expected, Democrats wake up tomorrow faced with practical political power for the first time in years, the question will naturally present itself: what should they do with it?

It's by no means a complete mystery. The party has (as parties tend to do) released a public agenda of legislative priorities -- stem cell research, a higher minimum wage, changes to college loan financing rules, alterations to the Medicare prescription drug benefit, etc. Everything on the list is overwhelmingly popular. That means there's at least some chance a cowed White House and Republican-controlled Senate will give ground on at least some of these issues. And insofar as they don't give ground, Democrats will have good issues to campaign on in 2008.

But along with popularity, these issues all have something else in common: they're all domestic. There's nothing wrong with domestic issues. Indeed, domestic policy has traditionally been the main focus of the Congress, so it's appropriate for it to be the main focus of any new Democratic majority that may emerge.

The fact remains, however, that as much as the public may support a higher minimum wage, it won't be Democratic promises to increase it that put Nancy Pelosi in the Speaker's chair. Rather, it's the ongoing disaster in Iraq that's put the wind in her sails, or at least removed it from Dennis Hastert's. And if today's election is primarily about Iraq, the political question facing the new congress is what will -- what can -- Democrats do about that?

An obvious answer presents itself. Congress controls the purse strings. The war is financed through a series of supplemental budget requests. Faced with such a request in early 2007, House Democrats could say "this year -- but no more." If they committed themselves to refusing future appropriations, they could force a phased redeployment on the administration. In the manner of the war, gridlock defaults in favor of the doves. That is to say, there's no need to actually pass a bill requiring withdrawal. All that it would take would be a refusal to pass bills continuing to finance the war.

The overwhelming consensus -- not one I'm prepared to contradict -- is that following such a path would be political disaster. Failure to appropriate monies for troops in the field would play as abandonment of the military and a betrayal of America's volunteers. By all accounts, then, this tactic will be off the table.

But without it, what's left? Congressional Democrats will be very poorly equipped to actually nudge policy in a constructive direction. Virtually all proposals for trying to extricate ourselves from Iraq in a reasonable manner involve aggressive regional diplomacy aimed at containing the chaos. But the House of Representatives simply can't force the president of the United States to negotiate in good faith with Syria and Iran. Nor can the Speaker of the House conduct such negotiations herself. Good-faith negotiation requires the president and, most of all, requires good faith, which can't be obtained through coercion.

The rabbit Democrats are hoping to pull out of their hat is oversight. Hearings, subpoenas, investigations. Let light in on the Bush administration misdeeds that the GOP majority has labored mightily to keep in the shadows. Once illuminated, so the hope goes, public opinion will turn even more decisively against the war. By undermining domestic political support for its continuation, perhaps the administration can be forced to change its attitude.

Perhaps -- but I'm not optimistic. The administration's Iraq policy "may not be popular with the public," Dick Cheney told ABC News over the weekend, but "it doesn't matter in the sense that we have to continue the mission and do what we think is right. And that's exactly what we're doing. We're not running for office. We're doing what we think is right." Similarly, according to Bob Woodward, George W. Bush has made it clear that he'll stay the course in Iraq even if Laura Bush and their dog Barney are the only ones supporting him. "The only defeat" in Iraq, Bush told conservative columnists earlier this month, "is leaving."

Bush can stay the course right up through January 2009. He won't be on the ballot again, and unlike most recent presidents he's not angling to put his vice president into the White House. To be sure, if Bush persists no matter how unpopular his policies become, this will set Democrats up nicely for 2008. Republican presidential contenders will find themselves mired in infighting as many abandon the president in order to stay viable for the general election. Others will attempt to inspire the base by sticking with Bush, only to tar themselves in the eyes of moderates and independents. If I were Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or whomever else, I'd look at it as a very promising situation.

What this won't do, however, is improve the situation in Iraq. We seem doomed, one way or another, to at least two more years of futile fighting there. Two more years of wasted money, wasted lives, and perhaps most of all wasted time -- time that could have been used to start the hard work of putting America's foreign policy back together again. Time we can't really afford to spare. It's a horrible scenario. Indeed, it's a scenario that is poised to inspire Americans to vote in drove for the Democrats today. What it isn't is a scenario a Democratic win will help us avoid.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

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