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Memo to Democrats On Iraq: The Post-Veto Strategy

03/28/2007 04:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Bush today reiterated his insistence that he will veto the current Iraq supplemental spending bill. There is a decent chance this is a poker-style bluff - an attempt to stop the House and Senate's success so far in moving through a bill that ends the war. I float this "bluff" idea not because I am plagued by wishful thinking, but because Karl Rove understands that the veto will make Bush the one "cutting off funds to the troops" - the attack the White House and the Republican machine have used to berate Democrats. This was, after all, one of the big reasons Democrats attached binding legislation to end the war to a supplemental spending bill in the first place: Because it will be very difficult for Bush to walk into his own right-wing attack line about "cutting off funds to the troops."

But let's assume for the moment that the president will follow through on vetoing the supplemental bill because it includes binding language to end the war. What is the post-veto strategy? Similar to analyzing last week's "yes" or "no" vote on the supplemental in the House, we can only answer this question by gaming out the possible outcomes. This is perhaps more difficult than gaming out the House supplemental vote because in that instance, the answer about what Democratic leaders would do in the event that the bill was voted down was obvious (a decade's worth of spinelessness and an outspoken faction of pro-war Blue Dogs makes clear they would come back with a "clean" supplemental that continues the war indefinitely). However, on the question about what to do in the event of a veto, we do have a bit of history to draw on.

THE OPPOSITE OF THE GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN OF 1995-1996

In the 1995 and early 1996, the federal government shut down after congressional Republicans and President Clinton could not come to a budget agreement. Politically, polls show Clinton came out way ahead, masterfully using his bully pulpit to beat the GOP into submission. At first glance, this seems to suggest any similar legislative-executive branch confrontation will be won by the president, merely because of the bully pulpit. But that is a specious conclusion when considering all the facts and applying them to the potential confrontation over Iraq.

First and foremost, Clinton was digging in on an issue - public spending on social programs - that Democrats have long held a wide advantage on in the public's mind. Balancing the budget was also an issue at the time - and Democrats' credibility on that subject was on the uptick, considering the success of Clinton's high-profile, deficit-cutting inaugural budget.

Clinton himself knew all of this, and used the situation to his advantage. "Since I took office, we have cut the federal deficit nearly in half [and] it is important that the people of the United States know that the United States now has proportionately the lowest government budget deficit of any large industrial nation," he said in his speech announcing the shutdown. "Republicans are following a very explicit strategy announced last April by Speaker Gingrich, to use the threat of a government shutdown to force America to accept their cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, to accept their cuts in education and technology and the environment."

This is exactly the opposite of where Bush will be when he vetoes the supplemental. Polls consistently show the public opposes the war, is against Bush's surge, and has lost almost all faith in Bush's handling of the situation. Democrats consistently get higher marks from the public on Iraq than Bush or Republicans, with the most recent PIPA poll showing 70 percent of the public believes Democrats' proposals in Congress to end the war are either "about right" or "not going far enough" (in fact, "not far enough" gets the highest marks overall, meaning there's a lot of running room for Democrats). Even on the issue of "terrorism", Democrats are even with Bush and, in some polls, ahead, meaning Bush's absurd efforts to conflate 9/11 and Iraq will fall flat. In sum, Bush, unlike Clinton, will be digging in AGAINST public opposition to his policies, and in confrontation with opponents who the public trusts more on the issue at hand.

STANDING GROUND WITHOUT APPEARING INTRANSIGENT

Bush will, undoubtedly, try to turn the situation around, most likely by touring the country and appearing in districts of Blue Dog Democrats to invoke the names of national Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi and criticize them for supposedly "cutting off funding for the troops." This is the simplistic, post-9/11 strategy from his homeland security campaign in the lead-up to the 2002 mid-term elections: Attack Democrats who are perceived to be politically vulnerable in 2008, in the hopes that they will submit to voting for a "clean" supplemental bill - one that funds the war indefinitely while eliminating any binding provisions to end the war (As an aside: Blue Dog Democrats love to tell everyone how "strategic" and "smart" they are, but the ones who have publicly equivocated or worse, made statements supporting the "clean" supplemental option, are actually the stupidest politicians I've seen in a long time because their actions have made themselves into bigger targets than they need to be; Had they simply fallen in line earlier, the White House would be less likely to try to peel them off with hardball tactics).

The beauty of the situation, however, is that a majority of Congress will now on record supporting the current supplemental with its binding antiwar provisions, meaning a majority of Congress has already taken whatever political "hit" they will take, and there's no real political incentive to back off. If you've already voted for something you think you are going to get attacked on, even if you turn around and vote for something far weaker, you are still going to get attacked for your original vote. That's Politics 101, and every politician in Congress who's ever run a television ad knows that. Democrats standing their ground and demanding an end to the war is no longer risky, both because of public opinion, and because they are already on record making such demands.

The question, then, is how to stand ground without taking on the Gingrich 1995 problem of appearing intransigent, caustic and prematurely triumphalist. You may recall that in the lead up to and during the government shutdown, Republicans ran around bragging about the situation as a supposed success. "We'll let the government shut down," boasted one leading Republican lawmaker at the time. "This is not a game over whether the government is going to shut down. This is our maximum point of leverage to insist that parts of the revolution are executed."

We have to avoid that kind of thing. Rhetorically, declaring the passage of the supplemental with its binding antwar language a success is great; Declaring Bush's veto a "success" is terrible. Even if his veto is a political success in isolating Bush, it is not a success in terms of either ending the war, and more generally, gridlock is never perceived as "success" by the public.

But even more important than just the language and PR of the situation will be the legislative strategy. How do you stand legislative ground while appearing flexibly disposed to "getting something done?"

A CAREFULLY AIMED SHOTGUN APPROACH

Democrats will be forced to write another supplemental bill, and in vetoing the current supplemental, Bush will be daring Democrats to send him back the exact bill. His theory is that the only way he wins is to either peel off conservative Democrats, and failing that (as he likely will because they are already on record), getting Democrats to be perceived as stubbornly, irrationally digging in.

But here's the thing: Democrats don't have to send Bush back the exact same supplemental bill with the exact same language. The specific binding language to end the war in the current supplemental is not unique - that is, there are many ways to achieve the goals of that language in a binding way without simply copying and pasting that exact language into the new, post-veto supplemental.

Democrats could, for instance, call Bush's bluff on timetables and take out the sections about a timetables completely - all while tightening the troop training requirements and removing the waiver that lets Bush get out of such requirements. That has strong public support and would effectively end the war, because troops are simply not being trained and equipped fast enough to sustain the current rotation schedules in Iraq. Similarly, Democrats could put a provision in circumventing Bush by ordering military generals to join with a bipartisan, congressionally appointed commission to construct, within a month, a plan for withdrawal within a year that will automatically have the binding force of law. I'm just coming up with scenarios off the top of my head, but the point is that the possibilities to appear flexible while holding firm to binding antiwar goals are limitless and further, that achieving both is essential.

Such a strategy could result in repeated volleys of congressional passage and presidential veto (which, by the way, may require extremely short-term continuing resolutions from Democrats so as to not allow themselves to walk into the "cutting off funds for the troops" trap Bush will be in, and will want to ensnare Democrats with by claiming their moves are "shutting the military down"). But if Democrats employ this shotgun approach of sending up different variations of the same antiwar theme, each volley will drive Bush further into isolation and consequently bring the war closer to an end. The less power a pro-war president has, the more we will be able to end the war.

THE KEYS TO THE STRATEGY

The obvious key will be unity among Democratic lawmakers, and unity of legislative goals. As said, the fact that most Democrats already have voted for strong, binding antiwar language helps foster unity because everyone is already on the hook. But that's not going to get us all the way there.

The antiwar movement will have to expend significant resources - and perhaps in a very confrontational way - to pressure wavering Blue Dog Democrats to stay in line. Such resources were not spent against such Democrats in the lead-up to this first supplemental, and that was a big mistake. Whether that was because too many consultants working for antiwar groups are too tightly tied to their other clients/friends in Democratic Party politics or because of other reasons is important to uncover at some point - but not now, because we're still in the middle of this battle. What matters in the here and now is that going forward, concerns like D.C. cocktail party sensibilities or dual consulting roles take a backseat to movement priorities, and that the antiwar movement, through consistent pressure, makes sure that whatever comes out of the shotgun is as strong - if not stronger - than the binding language already passed by Congress. Undoubtedly, the Out of Iraq Caucus will become even more important than it already is, serving as the movement's inside legislative watchdogs, making sure that whatever variation comes out of the shotgun is as strong as possible.

Similarly, the anti-war movement will have to summon serious self-control in expending resources and pressure against the right targets. As I wrote in a new editorial for In These Times magazine, using limited resources to attack lawmakers who are already conceptually against the war but who understand existing legislative limitations will only set us back. Using those resources to go after the real obstacles will move us forward.

Finally, Bush will try to seize on any distraction he can to win this confrontation. In fact, he's already doing this in his attempt to focus on the additional non-Iraq spending as "wasteful pork." Because Iraq is such a huge issue, I doubt this will work. However, there is one way for it to work: If Democratic leaders start using major issues (rather than "pork" which is not a major issue in the public's mind) as bargaining chips in this whole thing.

We can go back to 2002 for an example of this. The only way Bush got out of his flip-flop on creating the Department of Homeland Security was by focusing it on Democrats demands for union rights for Homeland Security workers. While I strongly support those rights, that issue was portrayed as "extraneous" to the bigger issue of national security - pushing Democrats into the trap of looking like they were trying to use national security to help their political allies. We can't let this happen again. If we start bringing in other - albeit very important - non-Iraq issues, we will open the door to a Bush victory and worse, to a longer war.