02/03/2007 03:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Progressive Senators Learn How to Use Ben Nelson-ism For Themselves

I spent my week on Capitol Hill, and specifically in the Senate, and I came away realizing the big problem Democrats face: Their caucus is held hostage by a small faction of people like Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) - conservative, Republican-appeasing senators who play hardball by always threatening to vote with Republicans to stop or water down mainstream Democratic legislation. For the Ben Nelsons, their behavior is very smart: in a narrowly divided Senate, threatening to undermine the Democratic Party pulls the Democratic Party towards their positions. This week provided a great example: with almost the entire Democratic caucus likely ready to support a resolution demanding the redeployment of American troops, the Nelsons - by letting Harry Reid know they will vote against even non-binding legislation to stop an escalation - have turned the debate into one about whether to support legislation by Republican Sen. John Warner, which avoids really using Congress's power to stop President Bush's surge. That's a huge shift and it displays real power.

The problem with the Ben Nelsons pulling the caucus toward a Republican-appeasing position like the Warner bill and then passing that bill is that a slew of pro-war Republicans running for re-election (Smith, Sununu, Collins, etc.) will now have a legislative vehicle to claim they are supposedly "against the war," even though the Warner bill doesn't actually do anything to end the war or even the escalation. You could have made the argument that on war and peace, the substance should be more important than the politics of squeezing GOP senators. Except, that argument collapses like a house of cards when you realize that the Senate is debating non-binding resolutions that have no force of law and don't actually end the war.

If you are going to be doing nothing real anyway, it seem particularly ridiculous to not at least use what you are doing to draw a sharp contrast between you and your partisan opponents (this also raises another side issue: if Democrats were going to do nothing real anyway, it seems silly not to have first rammed something very strong through the House, where majority power is much stronger, and then force Senate Republicans to either take it, or embarrass themselves by voting against it - and really, who cares if it gets voted down under those circumstances because again, the bill is non-binding anyway).

While on the Hill, I heard a number of Democratic staffers voicing anger at people like Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Chris Dodd (D-CT) for coming out and saying they will defy the Democratic leadership and vote against Warner's bill. Such complaints were also echoed to me by some of the outside anti-war groups. Their basic point was that those who vote against Warner are siding with the Republican leadership, who want to escalate the war. They, of course, have no similar criticism for the Ben Nelsons, who originally threatened to side with the Republican leadership had the Iraq resolution actually been strong (aka. not non-binding, or at least strongly worded), and whose pressure likely engineered Democratic efforts to defeat such strong legislation last week. It is this double standard that tells the real story of a critical imbalance.

Because the Ben Nelsons have been playing footsie with conservatives for so long on every issue, it is now considered non-controversial and accepted practice that the Ben Nelsons will always play footsie with conservatives and that they must always be appeased. This is particularly true since the progressive wing of the party has not been willing to play a similar game of hardball. Put in conventional left-right terms, the Democratic leadership has only had to worry about its right flank and not its left.

Progressives, of course, should cheer Feingold and Dodd for playing hardball, and not fall into the trap of trying to blame them for the potential failure of the Warner bill (which again, both does nothing because it is non-binding, and actually is a major legislative retreat from where the majority of senators already are). These two senators are forcing the Democratic leadership to think not only about the Ben Nelsons, but about progressives as well. They are making clear to everyone that the Ben Nelsons don't have some exclusive right to manipulate the Senate's narrow margins for conservative ends - and that this narrow margin, in fact, can be used for progressive goals. Suddenly, Harry Reid has to think about how he can keep Feingold, Dodd and other progressive senators from staying on board - and that means he might have to make concessions.

Some might downplay Feingold and Dodd's actions by saying presidential politics is at work (people are whispering that Feingold might get back into the race, and Dodd is a declared candidate). But that just makes it all the better because this is ultimately what it is all about, right? Aren't we trying to build a movement where leaders see political opportunity in taking progressive positions? And don't we need leaders willing to play a similar game of brinksmanship that the Ben Nelsons play in order to get the party to stop bending over backwards to appease Republicans and sell us out?

Now, I know - this is not the kind of movement thinking many in Washington's Democratic circles are used to. They are used to taking progressives for granted, whether on Iraq or other issues. Inside the Beltway, the faux "centrists" are bowed down to, not just because of ideological favoritism by the Establishment, but also because these frauds are the ones who are willing to back up their rhetoric with actions, party be damned. That progressives are finally getting some of our own leaders who are willing to employ similar tactics is not a cause for outrage - but for celebration.

UPDATE: I want to be very clear, this post is not about electoral politics and whether Ben Nelson "has" to be for the Iraq War. That's not the point. Frankly, I don't care whether Ben Nelson has to do anything, or even that he IS doing what he is doing on Iraq. What I care about is progressives realizing that the Ben Nelsons of the world - that is, conservative Democrats, whether they be Ben Nelson himself or other Ben Nelson-esque senators - do not have the monopoly on brinksmanship, that we can use brinksmanship for ourselves a la Feingold and Dodd, and that such brinksmanship in pursuit of progressive ends (whether on Iraq or other issues) is not something to frown on, but something to support.