Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Democrats Pull All-Nighter to Make a Stand

I bet I can stay up longer than they can.
- Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-Okla.) on the Democrats' all-night Senate session to highlight the Republicans' failure to allow a vote on a bill calling for removal of troops from Iraq

It's perfect, if you think about it. The Democrats in Congress, who have shown no stomach for hanging in the fight with President Bush over pulling troops out of Iraq, found a way to be strong that suited the party's nature. Was it a tough challenge to Bush accompanied by threats of impeachment? Hardly. No, the Democrats decided to throw a slumber party. Now here's the funny part: It's a great idea.

There is no doubt that a majority of Americans agree with the Democrats' position on the war. The country is tired of more than four years of mismanagement, bad planning and bad predictions by the Bush war team, and they want a change. The electorate said so, loud and clear, when they voted both houses of Congress into the Democrats' control last November, and every poll says the voters feel the same way now.

Republicans up for re-election in 2007 and 2008 are in full panic mode. A handful have jumped ship from the Bush bandwagon and joined the Democrats' position on the war, namely Olympia Snowe of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon, two moderate senators representing blue states. But most GOP senators are walking a fine line, advocating a change in policy without actually agreeing to vote for any legislation that challenges Bush's position.

That's really the crux of why the Democrats' let's-order-a-pizza-and-pull-an-all-nighter-like-we're-back-in-college-studying-for-a-political-science-final strategy is such a great idea. While the Democrats have the votes to pass anti-war legislation, they don't have the votes to override a Bush veto. And, in the Senate, they don't have the 60 votes needed to close debate and move to a vote.

So, until there is a full-scale revolt in the GOP, the Democrats alone cannot enact legislation that will end the war.

However, the U.S., despite the best efforts of the Bush administration, is still a democracy, and in light of the November 2006 elections, it seems clear that there is a price to be paid for siding with Bush on Iraq. Since the Democrats cannot end the war on their own, their next order of business should be (and seems to be) forcing Republican lawmakers to be accountable for their actions and go on the record with their votes. This way, when their elections roll around, Democratic challengers can say to the voters, "Your senator voted with Bush to continue the war, while I oppose continuing the war, so who do you want to send to Washington?"

It is for this reason that Republicans don't want votes to occur on Iraq. The issue is treacherous for GOP incumbents standing for re-election soon, especially in traditional battleground states like Maine, Minnesota, and Oregon, but also, if polls are to be believed, in normally safe states like Kentucky. The longer they can avoid putting their vote supporting Bush on the record, they can talk of concerns and needs to assess the situation without actually breaking from the White House. (Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota is playing that game now, and it would seem that getting a vote from him on the record is a goal of the Democrats.)

The Republicans are crying foul, calling what the Democrats are doing political gamesmanship. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said about the all-nighter, "This is nonsense," according to a Yahoo!/AP article. The same article contains the Sen. Tom Coburn quote that appears at the top of this piece. On the surface, of course, they're right. The Democrats are following a strategy to curry favor with voters. But, what makes me angry is that it's not like the Democrats are building a strategy around true nonsense, like, say, if a president received oral sex from an intern or did something wrong in an ancient land deal, which is what the Republicans wasted time on when they opposed a Democratic president.

Instead, what the Democrats are doing strikes to the heart of democracy and involves the single most important issue the country is facing, namely whether or not to continue to surrender the lives of American soldiers and half-a-trillion dollars a year on a war that was started on lies and remains unwise, poorly planned, and has descended into a sectarian civil conflict. As Sen. Snow says in the Yahoo!/AP article, "We are at the crossroads of hope and reality, and the time has come to address reality."

This is not gimmickry. It's forcing elected officials to go on the record on how they want to handle this pressing issue. That is what democracy is all about, isn't it? Holding elected legislators accountable for the votes they cast? The true gimmickry is the Republican strategy of avoiding a vote on the substance of war strategy.

There was an article on the front page of yesterday's New York Times Metro section that, while obviously tangential to the issue of the current activity in the Senate, made me think about the larger point of the cost of the war. The feature describes the work of the federal Fraud Detection and National Security unit that investigates false statements in immigration applications. The department is meagerly staffed with six investigators, even though 150,000 applications are filed in New York each year. Despite the lack of resources, the unit has 500 open cases and has referred 187 matters for criminal investigation. Even though few are eventually prosecuted, the unit's work can lead to the denial of suspect applications.

Few if any of the files worked on directly relate to terrorism. Nevertheless, it occurred to me that these investigators are essentially border agents, standing guard to prevent criminals and other people who shouldn't be granted visas from gaining legal status. Clearly, in light of the 9/11 attacks, scrutinizing who comes into the country and why they are coming is an important thing. And yet, all that is budgeted for this on-the-ground, in-the-trenches, front-line operation is six people.

Contrast this to the $500,000,000,000 being spent in 2007 in Iraq. And for what? For a war making us less safe. Al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq before Bush's foolhardy invasion. Now, Bush's latest push defending the war is that we have to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Why are they there? Because of the war Bush started. It's like a classic Abbott and Costello routine, only it's not even a little bit funny. I can't help thinking how much more useful in making us safe that half-a-trillion dollars would be spent on security programs in the U.S. like the one in the Times article rather than on Bush's folly in Iraq.

All week we've heard in the news about this renewed threat from Al-Qaeda (this Yahoo!/Reuters article was one of many). The Bush administration has a small but successful playbook, and scaring the bejesus out of Americans when things are going badly for the administration is for the White House what the Student Body Left was for USC in the 1970s: a simple but devastatingly effective play.

So, forgive me for cheering on the Democrats in the Senate while they stage the theater of the political slumber party, because as silly as it may seem, there is nothing silly about forcing elected senators to put their policy votes on the record. It won't happen, though, so long as the Republicans continue to stage political theater of their own. I would give the GOP play no stars, finding it false, contrary to democracy and dangerous to our country. I'll bet that's something Ben Brantely doesn't get to write very often in his Times theater reviews. He's lucky.