Back to Politics
Part 3: Iraq and Investigation
In the last two installments of this essay, we discussed the overwhelmingly popular Democratic Six for '06 policies and the Republican efforts to convince the American people that they don't exist. We also talked about the legislative strategy the Democrats need to pursue in order to politically capitalize on the Six for '06 and some of the ways in which the Republicans can actively oppose that strategy.
This installment turns its attention to two potential stumbling blocks for the Democrats: Iraq and investigating corruption.
Changing Course in Iraq
Everyone knows the situation in Iraq, although the details of the rhetoric change a little depending on who your talk to: President Bush took us to war in March 2003 on pretenses which were either deliberate lies or the result of questionable intelligence. He ignored the advice of his experienced military generals and advisors, instead pursuing an incompetent invasion plan which directly undermined the stated goals of the mission. Despite these failures, the President declared a false victory in a gaudy propaganda event on the deck of an aircraft carrier on May 1st, 2003. Three and a half years later, the Iraq War is still far from over. The country is on the verge of, or is already consumed, by a civil war.
The reality is that there is no clear solution to the Iraq war. Bush's incompetent handling and failed strategy during the initial invasion has created a host of ever-multiplying problems which have only been worsened through subsequent disasters such as the Abu Ghraib POW torture scandals. If the war had been handled competently from its beginning, it would probably have as much political significance today as Bosnia or Kosovo. But because Bush ignored the advice of those who actually knew what they were doing, its possible that Iraq has become a completely intractable situation. An unwinnable war.
Unsurprisingly, in the absence of a clear-cut solution, the Democratic caucus -- like America itself -- is fractured on the issue: There are some who feel we have done all we can, and that it's time to leave the country as soon as possible. There are others who want a clear set of landmarks set, with troop withdrawals based on their successful completion. There are others who, like the President, want to stay the course... although they'd prefer to do it under more competent leadership from the Commander-in-Chief.
Because the Democrats are fractured on this issue, there are some who conclude it's a vulnerability for them: They were elected to Congress to fix Iraq, the argument goes, and when they haven't done that in two years, they'll take the blame for it.
I disagree. While there's no easy solution to the Iraq War itself, the Democrats shouldn't have any problems handling it politically as long as they can maintain their focus: After all, Bush is still the Commander in Chief.
First off, if the Democrats are smart they'll stop talking about "landmarks", "timetables", and "deadlines" for Iraq. It's political rhetoric which the Republicans have repeatedly characterized as "cut-and-run". Instead, Democrats need to start talking about a "definition of victory". And they need to publicly and frequently demand that Bush provide that definition: What, exactly, are you trying to accomplish, Mr. President? How are you planning to accomplish it, Mr. President? And how will we know whether you're succeeding or failing?
Think about it: What does it mean to win the war in Iraq? I don't know. Beyond vague rhetoric, we've never been told. If our goal was to eliminate the threat of WMDs, hasn't that been achieved? If our goal was to establish a democracy in Iraq, hasn't that been achieved? If our goal is to make sure that democracy is stable enough to survive our absence, what needs to be accomplished for us to consider it stable and secure?
This is just basic common sense: You can't try to solve a problem until you know what the problem is.
But the President and his administration have shown not only a remarkable inability to choose a specific set of goals for Iraq, they have systematically failed to define what succeeding at many of those goals would actually look like. This fundamental inability is amply demonstrated by Devon M. Largio, who revealed that the Bush Administration proffered 23 different reasons for invading Iraq between September 12th, 2001 and October 11th, 2002. Nor did they stop there. For example, in August 2005, Jennifer Loven of the Associated press reported that the Administration had come up with yet another rationale.
Now whether this inability is the result of raw, naked political expediency or complete incompetence on the part of the President is open to debate, but what isn't open to debate is that no solution can be found to the Iraq "problem" until we actually know what the problem is.
To put it simply: What are we trying to do in Iraq?
If we can get a meaningful and detailed answer to that question, then we'll have defined a concrete goal. And once we've done that, we can start talking about what we can do to actually accomplish that goal.
That means that the Democrats need to demand specific answers. The type of answers that you can use to measure the President's success or failure. That's what it means to have a definition of success.
In the battle of perception, meanwhile, the term "definition of success" serves two purposes: First, its far more difficult for the Republicans to twist and distort. (If you're trying to achieve victory in Iraq, you clearly can't be "cut-and-run".) Second, it reminds people that Bush has changed his reasons for this war a dozen times; that he falsely declared victory in 2003; and that he still hasn't told us what needs to be achieved before our brave men and women can come home.
At the same time that they're publicly demanding that Bush tell us what victory means, the Democrats can take pragmatic political action by dramatically increasing Congressional oversight on the war (including reinstating those oversight positions in Iraq cut by corrupt Republicans).
The result is the creation of an open public debate with the goal of changing course in Iraq and finding a path to victory. By insisting that Bush provide answers on the one hand and guaranteeing that the war is fought in an ethical and efficient manner on the other hand, the Democrats will create a political environment in which their own internal debate over the right course of action in Iraq will not prove a liability.
At the end of the day, from a political standpoint, the Democrats can't lose: If things get better in Iraq, it's because the Democratic Congress forced the President to define a course for victory. If things don't get better in Iraq, it's because Bush is still an incompetent Commander-in-Chief.
The only way the Democrats could really screw up is if they did something radically stupid, like defunding the war in an attempt to force Bush to bring the troops home. (Because this would be characterized by the Republicans, quite accurately, as hanging the troops out to dry.)
But not losing is not the same thing as winning, and winning is not going to be easy: Winning would mean finding a way to bring the troops home safely while leaving a stable Iraq in their wake. And winning politically means accomplishing that without Bush taking any credit for it. The former is difficult, but needs to be achieved. The latter would be highly desirable for the Democrats, but is probably impossible. (Bush is, after all, Commander-in-Chief.)
As public servants, the Democrats must engage on this issue. (And they will. That almost goes without saying.) But from a political standpoint, it would be foolish for the Democrats to put Iraq front-and-center: While its something that they can influence and improve from their new position of power, it's not something that they can directly control.
Everybody, including the Democrats, have been hasty to say that the absolute worst thing they could do would be to go rabidly hounding after impeachment proceedings. This is probably the most common post-election meme: If the Democrats impeach President Bush, they'll be viewed as nothing but partisan hacks.
This is true.
However, it should also be remembered that the American people want this corruption weeded out. They want their government fixed and they want justice done.
Failing to pursue the rampant corruption which has plagued our government for the past six years would not only be an abdication of constitutional duty, it would also be a betrayal of the American people. That duty cannot simply be put aside because it would be politically difficult to see justice done.
And the reality is that, despite the pundits decrying the "political folly" of "vengeful Democrats", pursuing justice is not only ethically right, it can also be politically effective.
In order to find their political leverage on this issue, the Democrats first have to understand their weakness on it: The American people desperately want to see Congress DOING ITS JOB.
Now to be clear: Part of Congress' job is to investigate corruption. But in the eyes of the American people, the top priority right now is to turn the country around and get it back on track.
So understanding the "political folly" here is simple: If Congress makes pursuing corruption more important than fixing the country, they aren't doing the job they were elected to do. So when the Democrats try to investigate corruption, the Republicans will try to paint the legitimate investigation as partisan and "just more business as usual from those liberals in Washington".
How can the Democrats overcome this weakness? By making sure that their priorities match those of the American people. They need to fix the country first and then root out the corruption second.
To put it another way: The Democrats can inoculate themselves with legislative success.
If the Democrats can either pass the immensely popular Six for '06 proposals or make it clear that the Republicans are responsible for their failure, then it becomes difficult if not impossible for the Republicans to characterize the investigations as a distraction.
The Democrats can make the Republican smoke-and-mirrors strategy even more difficult to accomplish by carefully handling the execution and presentation of the investigations: If they are handled as the rightful, perpetual duty of Congress to provide oversight and a balance of power, the Democrats will not only be responsible and effective, they will appear to be responsible and effective. If, on the other hand, the investigations are treated as if some sort of special case scenario, then they're more easily painted as a partisan distraction.
Finally, it's important that the Democrats show absolutely no tolerance for corruption in their own ranks. If it's detected, they must act decisively to condemn it and then investigate not only as thoroughly but more thoroughly than they're investigating anything else. They set an excellent precedent for this in their handling of Congressman William Jefferson when he became targeted by an FBI probe for gross corruption in May, stripping him of his seniority and his committee memberships.
To sum up:
- The Democrats need to have legislative successes before they start the investigations and they need to continue having legislative successes while the investigations continue. The investigations cannot be a distraction from the business of putting America back on track.
- The Democrats need to treat the investigations as if they were business as usual, because they ARE business as usual. Just because the Republican congresses of the past six years failed in their duties doesn't mean those duties have disappeared.
- The Democrats must root out corruption in their own party even more swiftly and ruthlessly than they root out Republican corruption.
And why should the Democrats bother to walk this political tightrope? First, because it's the right thing to do. And, secondly, because, if they can avoid having the investigations politically neutered out of the starting gate, the investigations will almost certainly begin producing truths which are politically devastating to the Republicans. If the Republicans have not, in fact, spent the last six years instituting the most corrupt government since President Harding and the Teapot Dome scandal, they have certainly gone out of their way to make it look like they have.
The smoking guns are out there. All the Democrats have to do is make sure they grab the triggers and not the barrels.
There seems to be a meaningful sentiment running through the popular media that decisively winning the 2006 elections was the worst thing that could have happened to the Democrats. Even some of the Democrats themselves seem to think that they would have been better off living in Karl Rove's dream of a permanent minority.
This, of course, is complete nonsense. But even complete nonsense will be believed if it is allowed to stand unopposed in the public discourse.
This essay was written to point out what should be obvious: The decisive victory won on November 8th gave the Democrats an immense opportunity. If they can realize the potential of that victory, the Democrats can send the Republican party back to rigging school board elections for creationists too ashamed of their ideology to stand openly behind it.
But if they fail to realize that potential, then the Democrats will have handed the Republican party political ammunition strong enough to carry them through another three election cycles.
Yes, there is danger here. But it is a danger which can be overcome only through bold, decisive action. If the Democrats can do that, then they can restore government to its true purpose: To proudly serve the common citizens of this great nation.