09/12/2014 07:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Friday Talking Points -- Slouching Off to War

This is a special edition of this column, for a number of reasons. The first is that we're back after a one-week vacation hiatus, but the most special reason (to us, at least) is that this is the seventh anniversary of the launching of the "Friday Talking Points" column, which first appeared both on my site and the The Huffington Post on September 14, 2007. The more mathematically-astute among you may notice that 52 times 7 equals a lot more columns than 319. This is true. Twice a year we are pre-empted by our year-end awards columns, and then the rest of the time we were just on vacation or otherwise doing something else. Like last week, for instance. This has led us to count the column's birthdays using the calendar, rather than the metric of "every 52 columns."

Back in 2007, I thought it would be a good idea to write congressional Democrats a memo, in the hopes they could begin to learn a skill Republicans seem to be born with: the ability to stay on-topic and present your political ideas and agenda items succinctly and memorably to the public. I had grown tired of watching the Sunday political shows where Republicans all sang off the same songsheet while Democrats were easily led into the weeds with long rambling tangents to what they should have been saying that particular week. This early effort grew, in the following weeks and months, into the format we now use weekly: a quick rundown of amusing items in the political news of the week, the awarding of the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week and the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week, and then seven numerated talking points suggested for all Democrats to use to explain the Democratic position to all and sundry (especially on Sundry morning talk shows... so to speak...).

Since that time, I cannot with any hard data prove that Democrats have gotten better at this skill, but on a purely subjective level, it seems they have made at least some steps in the right direction. Being in the minority in the House once again seems to have sharpened the Democratic edge a bit. But the column keeps going because there are still improvements to be made, and so it's my humble duty to try to help in the only way I can, every Friday.

In any case, join us in some virtual birthday cake as we celebrate our seventh anniversary!

This column is also going to be an unusual one because we're not handing out awards this week, nor are we providing our usual talking points. Instead, as we are sometimes wont to do, we are going off on a rant.

This is not a week for politics. This is a week to discuss America at war. That is about as serious as it gets, and because of this we're not going to give a rundown of all the other events from the past two weeks, and we feel our normal Democratic-slanted awards and talking points are not germane to the discussion this week. So, just to warn everyone up front, this is going to be a very different column. We will return to our usual format next week, have no fear.


Volume 319 (9/12/14)

America is slouching off to war, again.

We have already been dropping bombs for a month, but President Obama appeared on primetime television this week to announce to the American people that we're about to be dropping a whole lot more bombs in the coming weeks. This is serious stuff.

However, you wouldn't know it from within the halls of Congress. Which is beyond pathetic -- it is downright unpatriotic. Congress is shirking its clear duty, and putting their own jobs and political rear ends before the country's needs. If that isn't unpatriotic, I don't know what is.

Don't get me wrong -- I am not here to either advocate for or speak out against this war (at least, not today). And I am certainly not saying every member of Congress should immediately vote for full-on war or be labeled a traitor. Far from it. What I am saying instead is that every member of Congress should stand up and be counted no matter what their position is. Pro-war? Fine. Anti-war? No problem. But "we don't want to hold a contentious vote right before an election" is nothing short of political cowardice. And unpatriotic, to boot.

A true patriot would right now be forcefully advocating for whatever position they held -- either pro or con. A politician who loved his or her country and was doing the duty voters had elected him or her to perform would either be debating how this war is necessary and just or why it is a gigantic mistake. Either way, we should be having floor debates on the subject in both the House and Senate. Right now.

But we aren't. Not really. Congress is attempting to pass some sort of mealy-mouthed "we're kinda behind the president" bill, but they are not debating a new "Authorization for Use of Military Force" (A.U.M.F.). Even an A.U.M.F. is only a halfway measure, looked at constitutionally, and Congress can't even be bothered with that, it seems.

If you think I'm being a bit too harsh on Congress, I would direct you to a rare moment of candor from a House Republican, Jack Kingston of Georgia. He was quoted, in response to the president's speech, talking about the political realities both for his own Republican Party and for Democrats:

A lot of people would like to stay on the sideline and say, "Just bomb the place and tell us about it later." It's an election year. A lot of Democrats don't know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don't want to change anything. We like the path we're on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him [President Obama] so long.

What he is describing is nothing short of unpatriotic political cowardice, on both sides of the aisle. But Democrats aren't really much better. Here is Democratic House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, also being a bit more candid than he probably realized, talking about the difference between the timing of voting some money for some rebels versus voting on an actual A.U.M.F. (emphasis added, to note his timetable):

I think at some point in time, when we come back from the elections, I think there will be a consideration of a larger authorization for the use of force. I think you're going to see a very robust discussion of exactly that exact issue, among the American people, and that after the election, we'll come back into session better informed of the public's view and our constituents' attitude about what they think ought to be done.

In short: once we've performed our real job -- getting re-elected -- then we'll come back and maybe hold a vote on a possibly-endless war. I said it before and I'll say it again: this is unpatriotic political cowardice of the first order.

The only way to cure such craven shirking of duty is to expose it and demand better. Some in the media have taken up this banner. Hopefully more will do so, from both the left and the right. Here is my favorite (and seriously snarky) example, from Salon:

Many members of Congress don't want to vote on authorizing war powers for President Obama in Iraq and Syria before the election. The objections are twofold.

1) A vote on anything meaningful? Yikes! *Sweats, looks sideways, tugs collar*

2) A vote would entail co-ownership of the strategy, meaning that if/when things go bad, members of Congress could be held responsible. Sure, it's fun to throw around cartoonishly hawkish rhetoric about how "we're in the most dangerous position we've ever been in as a nation" or how ISIS represents "an existential threat to America," but that's just the thing: It's rhetoric! Rhetoric is cheap -- it costs nothing, in fact -- while having to back up that rhetoric with actions is like a whole other thing.

Strict constitutionalists have been demanding actual war resolutions pretty much ever since World War II ended, but no Congress since has passed one. The Constitution is pretty clear on the subject, in fact. The president, as commander-in-chief, is allowed to react swiftly to military attack and order troops into the field without Congress authorizing it beforehand. Congress, however, is supposed to hold up its end of this power-sharing, by formally declaring war for long and open-ended conflicts.

In modern times, the A.U.M.F. has stood in for a declaration of war. But an A.U.M.F. is even better than what the Constitution asks, because it can be written in all sorts of ways -- very narrowly-targeted or wide-reaching and open-ended. In other words, Congress doesn't just have to vote "yea" or "nay" on war, they can micromanage it to a certain degree. This is what they are now refusing to do -- until, perhaps, after they get re-elected... if there's time, that is.

Time is another facet to this congressional cowardice that needs closer examination. Republicans have been howling for President Obama to act against the Islamic State for months now. This howling reached a crescendo when two American journalists were beheaded. But in the midst of all the cries of how "Obama is dragging his feet" or "Obama should have acted before now," you know what didn't happen? Congress didn't return from its six-week vacation. There was absolutely nothing stopping Harry Reid and John Boehner from informing all their members: "Since Obama has not acted, we are calling a special session of Congress starting tomorrow to debate a war resolution which will force the president to act." Instead of doing this, they preferred to "stay on the sideline" and carp, for all of August. Now, some are whining that they only have so many legislative days left on the calendar, and there simply isn't time to have a full war debate in Congress.

Hogwash! Poppycock! They are returning to Washington for something like two weeks. Then they will adjourn once again to hit the campaign trail in earnest, likely for all of October. So, for the period of August, September, October, and the first week in November, Congress will work an exhausting total of two weeks. Nice work if you can get it, eh? There is plenty of time for Congress to act, there is just a serious shortage of scheduled work days, that's all. Which is a problem of political nature, really -- not temporal.

Democrats and Republicans both have what they consider valid political concerns about any sort of war vote. Democrats still remember the political toll the last A.U.M.F. vote (on Iraq) had on certain members of their party (see: Hillary Clinton, 2008). They live in fear of getting it wrong again, to put it bluntly. Republicans have a different political calculation. They definitely don't want to vote for anything which could help Obama, especially not right before an election. They have a lesser fear of being responsible for a war vote later on, if the war goes sour, because they can blame any problems on Obama's execution. They also have a significant isolationist streak within their own base (see: Paul, Ron and Rand), which they are fearful of enraging.

You know what? I don't care. Yes, it will be a hard vote. It should be -- this is war we are talking about. As for a war vote before an election, the last time Congress voted on such a motion (to invade Iraq) was in mid-October -- right before the 2002 midterms. Congress wasn't happy about voting on war right before an election, but they did so anyway because the president requested such a vote. It was their duty to respond, either affirmatively or not, and they stepped up and did so. So why can't they do so now?

Many are cheering the strong language President Obama used in his speech this Wednesday. America is going to "degrade and destroy" the Islamic State. Few, however, are asking questions such as: "How long is that going to take?" or "What is this all going to cost, in the end?" This is how the war drums almost always beat in America -- act fast, consider consequences later.

Obama mentioned two countries where American air power is already bombing terrorists -- Yemen and Somalia. Can anyone predict when we will declare victory in either of these countries and stop bombing? The best example of American military power decisively winning a civil war was not mentioned, because while Libya was indeed a stunning military success (number of American soldiers killed: zero) which clearly achieved its objective of overthrowing a dictator, the aftermath was a train wreck. While it might be argued that Iraq will be different than Libya -- because Obama is already pursuing diplomatic initiatives to force the Iraqis to create a more-inclusive government -- the same simply cannot be said about Syria. We have no clue what would happen in Syria if we completely eliminated the Islamic State fighters, and we shouldn't turn away from thinking about this truth.

War is serious business, and it has serious consequences -- seen and unforeseen, intended and unintended. Even the most extreme anti-government types on the right (those who favor dismantling three-fourths of the federal government, for instance) still admit that "keeping its citizens safe and waging war" is not only a legitimate thing for the federal government to do, but in fact a bedrock responsibility. Our system of government is that we the people elect representatives to go to Washington to debate serious issues and vote on them. If the citizens of a state or district approve of such votes, the politician will be re-elected to continue representing them. If the voters disapprove of important votes, someone else is elected instead. That is the way it is supposed to work, folks.

Republicans in Congress can't have it both ways. They can't whine and moan about Obama dragging his feet when they are only going to be working for a pathetic two weeks in a three-month period of time. If war is truly that important and speed is of the essence (what Republicans have been arguing for weeks), then do your duty and vote on it. Force the president's hand! Pass an A.U.M.F. with teeth, that lays out exactly what you want done, and then hold him to it! There is nothing stopping you from doing so, and there has indeed been nothing stopping you from doing so previously. Obama asked for the half-billion dollars for the Syrian rebels months ago, and only now you're getting around to voting on it -- as a Band-Aid measure intended to cover up your boo-boo of not voting on a real A.U.M.F. So when in search of foot-dragging to denounce, please look in the mirror first.

Democrats aren't any better, mind you. Quivering in your boots over what happened to Hillary Clinton when she tried to defend her previous war vote on the campaign trail is not exactly a profile in courage. The future is unknown -- deal with it. Nobody knows, when casting a war vote, whether it'll turn out well or whether it will become a fiasco, over time. Such is the nature of life, and such is the nature of being a political leader. Not "we'll listen to our constituents only after they re-elect us." That is not leadership, that is pathetic. America is always prone to Jingoism, meaning the public gets into a war fever quickly, but can also fecklessly (and just as quickly) move against a war which is not turning out well. 'Twas always thus, though. That's the job you ran for -- interpreting both your constituents and your own conscience on votes with often-fatal consequences.

Republicans have been howling for weeks for Obama to present some sort of plan to defeat and destroy the Islamic State (while doing nothing in Congress to achieve that end themselves). Fine and good. Now Obama has done so. Which means now it is time for Congress to weigh in on the incredibly important issue of entering a war with no end in sight and no aftermath planned whatsoever. Now. Not after the election.

There are Democrats who support this war, and Democrats who do not. The same is true for Republicans -- it is a divisive issue, but not a strictly partisan one. That is excellent, because that is how it is supposed to be. War is so serious it should never really be any sort of political football to be kicked around. People are going to die -- lots of them. That is as serious as it gets.

No matter how you feel about this new war, the public should be outraged if Congress doesn't vote on it before the election. Ducking such an important vote -- for purely political reasons -- can be seen as unpatriotic political cowardice by the most "bomb them back to the Stone Age" hawk and the most "war is never the answer" dove. The outrage should cut across all ideological and partisan lines. No matter what position you take on the war, no matter what your personal politics, you should feel entitled to Congress weighing in on it before you are asked to cast your ballot to return them to office. There is simply no valid excuse for delaying such a vote, in fact.

Congress needs to vote on this war. They need to vote not just on a budget item to move some money to some rebels, they need to vote on a clear Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution. And they need to do it before the midterm election. There is no excuse for delay, other than "I'm afraid of this vote," which should be seen as nothing short of downright pathetic and completely unacceptable by the public at large.

War is serious business. Congress should treat is as such. Now.


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