03/21/2007 05:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Memo to the Progressive Caucus On the Eve of the Iraq Vote

With the Iraq War vote coming in the next day or two, this is a strategy memo that I sent to the Congressional Progressive Caucus. I apologize for it not being hyperlinked and for it running long, but I am on the road and the vote is imminent.

"As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be," wrote Saul Alinsky, one of the 20th Century's most successful progressive leaders. "That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be - it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system."

These words are as important this week as they were 35 years ago when they were first published in the book Rules for Radicals. With the House expected to vote this week on binding legislation to end the war in 2008, a group of Congress's most distinguished progressive heroes is undecided about whether to vote yes or no. The indecision is entirely understandable. Democratic leaders have attached their binding legislation to a bill providing ongoing military funding, and many progressives understandably do not want to vote for a single dollar more for anything that could be construed as fueling the war.

The question, then, is simple: Should these progressives vote yes and accept the congressional world as it is right now - a world filled with a unified Republican caucus that will do anything to continue the war indefinitely and a group of egotistical, pro-war Blue Dog Democrats who will do anything to lavish attention on themselves as supposedly "tough"? Or, should they view the congressional world as they wish it would be and vote no, sending the bill down to defeat?

The answer to this question is not an easy one - it lies in a thorough analysis of the motivations, the tactics, the alternatives and the game plan. I present them here, drawing on my experience as an operative on Capitol Hill for a progressive caucus member, as a strategist on the campaign trail, and as a committed member of the progressive movement who has been using all of my resources to end the war as precipitously as possible.


The first key question is why would Democrats attach strongly progressive, binding antiwar legislation to a seemingly anti-progressive war funding bill? I am usually the first one to suggest the deceptive intent of nefarious anti-progressive actors. But before doing so, I consider who is pushing what. In this case, the chief tactician is Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. David Obey, who I got to know well working for him for two years on the Hill. This is the same David Obey who railed against the Vietnam War as a young congressman, the same David Obey who has tried to force Congress to limit American military involvement in Colombia, the same David Obey who voted against the Iraq War, the same David Obey who has since used his position on the Appropriations Committee to try to limit the current war.

You can say a lot about Obey, but you cannot say he is a man with pro-war intentions. He is, however, a man who accepts the congressional world as it is - a prerequisite for running a committee where no matter how noble your intentions, you can't just "take stands" but really MUST "get things done" or the government shuts down.

His calculation, though laid out inartfully in his now-famous "idiot liberals" tirade, is sound: He doesn't have the votes to pass what congressional progressives say they want, which is a "fully funded withdrawal." Every vote that he may attract from a progressive Democrat for a bill cutting off funding for the war gets him double the "no" votes among both pro-war Blue Dogs and typical rank-and-file invertebrates who want to avoid the issue altogether (Note: The outside progressive movement should have been far more quick to use paid media to whip such Democrats into line preemptively - but that didn't happen. We learned our lesson for the next time).


Immediately after the 2006 election, pro-war Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) told the New York Times that she hoped Democrats played a "kabuki dance" with progressives - pretending to be one thing, then doing another. It was an insulting comment - but the shrewd use of a "kabuki dance" should not be discounted as a critical political tool. And that's exactly what's going on with the supplemental on behalf of progressives.

Right now, Obey's Iraq bill is being painted in the media as something of a moderate compromise. That has led some organizations on the left to label the bill as a full-on sellout. But as progressives, we must ask ourselves: Would we rather own the public debate, or wield real power?

Here are the facts: The Iraq supplemental bill begins redeploying troops by March 2008, and completes a full withdrawal by September 2008. You can label the bill anything you like. For all I care, you can label it the Iraq War Indefinite Continuation Act and Fox News can run slick graphics cheering on the legislation as the greatest escalation of militarism since Genghis Khan. But as long as that language is in there and the bill passes, then at the end of the day, real, binding power has been wielded to end the war.

It's clear that publicly packaging the bill as a moderate compromise is a tactic designed to either coerce or give cover to Blue Dog Democrats to vote for the bill. It is a tactic gleaned from smart political campaigns - a tactic I've seen work in all sorts of arenas.

As just one example, in Montana in 2004, a strongly progressive populist gubernatorial candidate named Brian Schweitzer used his love of hunting to publicly package himself as a supposed "conservative Democrat." This helped him win over the independent voters he needed to carry the deeply red state of Montana. It also made some Montana progressive understandably suspicious of him at the start of his term, just as some congressional progressives are genuinely suspicious of the conservatively packaged Iraq bill. But to be a mature political movement in a majority position, progressives in Montana learned to understand the difference between political rhetoric and packaging, and the wielding of political power. And they've seen a supposedly "conservative governor" champion the most progressive agenda the state has seen in a generation.

Congressional progressives now face the same pangs that come with evolving into a movement with majority power, rather than serving merely as contrairian voices in the minority. They are undoubtedly being pressured by a small but very vocal group of organizations that make up what's known as the Professional Protest Industry - organizations that exist solely to see the world as they want it, not as it is (a note: not everyone working to kill the supplemental is part of the Professional Protest Industry - many folks just legitimately believe stopping the supplemental is the best way to go, and I absolutely respect that even though I think it is the wrong strategy - however, there is no denying that there is a loud, vocal Professional Protest Industry - check out International ANSWER or the LaRouchies for a few examples). As a matter of existence, this industry wants - no, needs - to prioritize the public debate over wielding real legislative power, because that is the niche that makes them relevant. That these organizations have attacked some of the most steadfastly progressive groups for not being antiwar "enough" shows exactly where their priorities are.

But lawmakers are not professional protest organizations. They are elected to wield power - that is their job. To be sure, noise and protest and press conferences can play a key constructive role in shaping legislation. But when legislation in question ultimately comes to a vote, power is wielded with the quiet force of the law, which is why the binding redeployment language must remain, by far, the most important element of this bill to anyone who is interested in ending the war.

Finally, if one can appreciate the difference between packaging and power, consider that it is not a reach nor spin to consider the current supplemental a version of a "fully funded withdrawal." Though it does not include language saying that the money appropriated to the Pentagon can only go to fund withdrawal activities, it is a bill that is funding for the military with the explicit, binding order that the war end by a date certain. In accepting the orders of the bill, the military knows it is being ordered to spend the money consistent with the language that says the war ends by September 2008 at the latest.


When employing brinksmanship as remaining undecided on such a close vote does, any lawmaker should game out what they legitimately think will happen. So let's objectively walk through the two scenarios.

Consider progressives voting yes, and the bill passing. It will be conferenced with the Senate's bill, that may end up having even stronger deadline language in it already. That suggests the conference report will include at least as strongly anti-war binding language as was originally voted on in the House, and that such binding language will be forwarded on to the White House. President Bush will be forced to sign a bill ending the war, or veto a bill and be blamed for refusing to fund the troops. The former is a positive legislative scenario for antiwar progressives, because it cements legally binding legislation to end the war. The latter is a positive political scenario for Democrats, because it further weakens the president for later action.

Consider progressives voting no, and the bill failing. At that point, President Bush would use the bully pulpit to echo the Fox News talking point that Democrats' incompetence and division is supposedly leaving troops in the field without the resources they need. The ascension of the Spineless Caucus would likely commence, with people like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) demanding Democrats move a "clean" supplemental bill - one that is stripped of the binding antiwar language. This move will be made because a panicked Pelosi, under pressure for supposedly "leaving troops in the lurch," will invariably calculate that there is a much bigger pool of pro-war Republican "yes" votes to attract to a pro-war bill than new antiwar progressive "yes" votes to attract to an even stronger antiwar bill.

To sum up, the first scenario leaves progressives at best with a conclusion of the war cemented in law, and at worst with the president further politically weakened. Meanwhile, the second scenario leaves the overwhelming likelihood that progressives will be left with a supplemental bill that does nothing to stop the war and passes the House with 350 votes. Admittedly, this is not a terrific situation - but it is undoubtedly the "world as it is, not as I would like it to be."


So what should wavering progressive lawmakers do? Play hardball, then proudly hold your head up and vote "yes."

To date, progressives in Congress have done an outstanding job. Their holding out has forced the Democratic leadership to resist Blue Dog pressure to eliminate language from the supplemental that ends the war by September 2008. That is a major victory.

Now, in the final hours before the vote (set tentatively for this week), they must aim for a concession that the leadership can grant but that does not endanger the binding language that is the prize within reach (a bird in hand...). And there is plenty that can be demanded. How about a letter from Speaker Pelosi committing the House to a separate vote on a specific date on a bill cutting off funding entirely? Or, what about a commitment from Jack Murtha that the regular Defense Appropriations Bill, which comes up soon, includes language mandating an end to the war? The options are limitless.

But when the supplemental bill comes up, the progressive vote must be a "yes" one.

Remember, I say this as a committed antiwar progressive, as someone who agrees that this is not the ideal situation, and as a person who has been slandered with "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" straw men. But this is no straw man. No war in American history has ever ended with just one vote. It takes multiple votes, a gamed-out legislative strategy and, perhaps most importantly, a willingness to, in the words of Saul Alinsky, "start from where the world is, as it is." Only if we do that, will we ever have that "world as we would like it to be."

UPDATE: One scenario I forgot to mention is the scenario of the current House bill being watered down in conference committee negotiations with the Senate. Say the binding anti-war language gets eliminated or weakened to allow the President to get out of it. That is a possibility. But it does not negate my position that progressives should vote "yes" because remember - if that happens, then we have a chance to stop it by voting down the conference report because the conference report (aka. the final bill) comes back for a final vote before being sent to the President's desk.