Obey the Warning

With his hallway rant about "idiot liberals" demanding an immediate end to the war in Iraq, Dave Obey has become a quick and easy target for an increasingly frustrated anti-war movement. (For those who haven't seen the clip, the House Appropriations Committee chairman was approached by two anti-war activists on the Hill last week, and excoriated them for failing to recognize that the Democratic leadership's approach to ending the war through the spending supplemental was the best they could do.)

But before his outburst lands him a spot alongside George Allen in the YouTube hall of shame, let's slow down to consider Obey and the warning he is trying to sound. For all the hoopla about House Democrats' new powers in the majority, the party leadership stands a real risk of disappointing anti-war activists -- and should probably start thinking now about how to prevent a repeat of the kind of scene that played out in the halls of Rayburn.

The risks are serious. John Gibson of Fox News sketched out an all too plausible narrative when he discussed the episode with Adam Putnam, the fast-rising Florida Republican. "So, if they're fighting with each other about this, are you and fellow Republicans kind of off the hook for now?" Gibson said. "Now it's Dem versus Dem. Is this the right way to run a war?"

Liberals should pay Obey heed. Sure, he's not the most gentle guy in the world. "He has a prickly personality and a vigorous temper and does not suffer gladly those he considers fools or knaves," is how the ever politic Almanac of American Politics puts it.

But Obey, who promptly apologized for the ugly outburst, is a passionate and hard-charging champion of old-fashioned liberalism, and he's been steady in his positions. Elected to the House in 1969 amidst growing opposition to the Vietnam War among members of his party, Obey voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution. The next year, long before Jack Murtha was a household name, he sent a strongly worded letter to President Bush complaining about the conduct of the war and urging that Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz be allowed "to return to the private sector."

Obey is also an appropriator, well practiced in using spending power to affect policy. The Marine mom who met Obey in the hall wanted Congress to cut off war funding immediately, and called on him to reject the Iraq war supplemental. Arguing with the chief sponsor of the supplemental bill -- which sets a September 8, 2008, deadline for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops -- didn't get her too far. Obey tried hard to convince her that the measure would in fact bring U.S. troops home from Iraq and make it illegal to proceed with the war beyond the 2008 deadline. The $120 billion in war funding bill also sets clear benchmarks for the Iraqi government and increases spending on troop readiness and military and veterans' health.

Pushed for faster action on a quicker pull-out, Obey sounded a warning that everyone in his party should hear. "We couldn't even get the votes to pass a non-binding resolution one week ago. How the hell do you think we're going to get the votes to cut off the war?"

Obey sounded a similar alarm back in January, when the new Congress faced great expectations from anti-war forces that had spoken clearly on Election Day. "There are certain realities we have to face," he said, explaining that any measure to end the war would face a tougher time in the Senate, and that Bush would surely veto any legislation that cuts off funds for the troops. "I don't believe in futile efforts. I believe in doing things that will have results." When pushed about why the new Democratic majority wasn't doing more to assert its will, he shot back, "Do you see a magic wand in this pocket?" (He repeated the magic wand line to the Marine mom on Monday.)

The difficulties in grappling with both the imperative to take action and the desire to avoid futile gestures have clearly taken a toll. In an interview last week with The Hill, Obey complained that "liberal groups" had failed to explain the supplemental to their members and reported that anti-war protesters had been "sitting in" at his district office. (Some were arrested after they refused to leave at the end of the work day.) Long negotiations within the Democratic caucus were surely another factor in his short fuse.

Those negotiations continue. For while House Democrats mustered the strength to unveil the supplemental, and won national headlines for the effort, it is far from clear that they have the votes to pass it. In the Senate, the prospects of passing any measure that contains a fixed date for withdrawal are even dimmer. Harry Reid has moved cautiously, with the Senate version of the supplemental setting a goal of the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces by the end of March 2008, but permitting some U.S. troops to remain in Iraq for force protection and the training of Iraqi forces.

In the House, there is plenty of time before the matter comes to a vote, expected next week. But the divisions are real, and 16 defections would be enough to defeat the bill. Some liberal members of the caucus, such as Sheila Jackson Lee and Lynn Woolsey -- closer to the Marine mom and the Occupation Project, which captured the encounter on tape -- want war funds to be spent only on withdrawing troops and training Iraqis. Some moderate and conservative Democrats, including Jim Cooper and Allen Boyd, dislike the fixed deadline, and worry about constraining the power of the commander-in-chief with language prohibiting an attack on Iran.

It all adds up to a close vote, even if a handful of Republicans like Walter Jones and Chris Shays support the supplemental. Which is why Obey's plea that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good needs to be heard. No, the message shouldn't be shouted in a hallway with a camera running. But if the Democratic leadership fails to win support for its latest plan, it will have some explaining to do. The alternative -- with sit-ins and shouts, all narrated by Fox -- is not a pleasant option.

A good place to look for suggestions on how Democrats should proceed may, in fact, be in language that Obey included in the letter he sent to Bush in 2003: "If we are going to bring the country, and perhaps the world, back together, we should begin with a fair assessment of our successes and failures and move forward with a common vision."

Holly Yeager is the former U.S. politics correspondent for the Financial Times.

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