Remember the 62


I bet that when David Obey lost his temper last week, he was thinking in part of a number (politicians are always thinking of numbers) that I haven't seen at all in the press during these discussions about what the Democrats should do on Iraq.

The number is 62, and it's the number of House Democrats who represent districts that George W. Bush carried in 2004. I have a map up on my screen as I write showing the districts in question -- districts, of course, on which the Democrats' House majority depends. In Oklahoma, Kansas, Utah, and Colorado; Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, both Dakotas, and Michigan; all 11 states of the Confederacy; California, Oregon, and Washington; Ohio and Kentucky and West Virginia and Pennsylvania and even New Hampshire and New York, Democrats are sitting in red districts -- where they won, in many cases, narrow victories.

By way of contrast, how many House Republicans represent districts that John Kerry won in 2004? All of eight. You don't have to be Charlie Cook to understand the problem this presents. The Democrats hold a 29-seat majority in the House, and Republicans need to gain just 15 seats to win back the majority in 2008. You should rest assured, as I have been assured, that this fact has not escaped the attention of conservative activists. They look at, say, Nick Lampson representing the old Tom DeLay district in Texas, Nancy Boyda in Jim Ryun's old Kansas district, Tim Mahoney in the old Mark Foley district in Florida, and five or six others and see seats that they think they should and will pick off next time around.

That's half the battle for them right there. And, feeling rather glum at the current moment about their presidential options, and looking at a Senate election in which Republicans have to defend 21 of the 33 contested seats, conservatives are going to be pretty focused on their chances in the House. The Democrats, in comparison, have few opportunities to increase their majority.

Since I mentioned Lampson, let's have a look at these quotes he gave Bloomberg News' Laura Litvan on March 13. He said he couldn't support "any kind of funding cuts for our troops" and noted he was against what he called "artificial timelines" for withdrawal.

Now let's have a look at his district. Bush took 64 percent of the vote there in 2004. According to one poll of voters in the district, it stacks up 52 percent Republican, 32 percent Democratic, and 16 percent Independent. Lampson beat Republican Shelly Sekula-Gibbs in 2006 somewhat handily, 69,000 votes to 51,000 (54 to 40 percent). But remember that Sekula-Gibbs, because of the way DeLay left the ballot, got those 51,000 votes as a write-in candidate.

I'd very much prefer to see Lampson take a stronger anti-war position. But honestly: What would happen to him, and who knows how many other Democrats in red districts, if they did what anti-war activists wanted and supported Berkeley Congresswoman Barbara Lee's effort to de-fund the war almost completely?

A Bloomberg poll, described in the same article that quoted Lampson, gives us an idea. Only 52 percent of Independent voters support a timetable for withdrawal, and "more than six in 10" oppose any plan to withhold funding from the war. Even 50 percent of Democrats in the poll oppose that.

Lampson and Boyda and a lot of other red-district Democrats would open themselves up to immediate criticism at home -- they were out of touch, they were following the lead of their San Francisco liberal Speaker, and so on. I'm not saying it's right, but I'm very much saying it will happen. And once they're seen as vulnerable, conservative money will flow into those districts.

Holly Yeager did an excellent job on this site Monday of defending Obey's bona fides and explaining how Democrats could cobble together resolution language that might work to most members' satisfaction. But I also think the numerical challenges that face Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic caucus are worth our consideration.

I know that anti-war activists consider ending the war a preeminent moral issue. And maybe it is -- they should apply all the pressure they have at their disposal. But if the Democrats want to do good things for the country and the world on a wide range of fronts -- particularly, they hope, as a majority working in concert with a Democratic president come 2009 -- then I say holding on to power is a moral imperative too. Cutting off war funding in an abrupt manner would clearly place more than 15 members in an extremely difficult position.

It's a big country out there. And now, in the Iraq debate, we see a lesson of the recent election that we weren't thinking about last November: Part of winning in red districts means that you have to represent them.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.

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