As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, January 26, 2007

You Can Do It

So today we had The Decider II: The Decidining.

President Bush, on a collision course with Congress over Iraq, said Friday "I'm the decision-maker" about sending more troops to the war. He challenged skeptical lawmakers not to prematurely condemn his buildup.

"I've picked the plan that I think is most likely to succeed," Bush said in an Oval Office meeting with senior military advisers.

The worst thing about all of this is the extent to which so many Democrats have internalized this bullying tactic. They have forgotten history, and the fact that Congress is both a co-equal branch of government and the ultimate arbiter on when and where this country goes to war.

Digby brought me to this great article by Rick Perlstein that lays out the history of what really happened regarding the de-funding of the war in Vietnam.

Let's start at the very beginning. Representatives and senators had been criticizing the creep, creep, creep of America's escalating military involvement in Indochina at least since 1963. The hammer really started coming down, though, in February 1966 -- when, a year after Lyndon Johnson began the first bombing runs over North Vietnam, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman J. William Fulbright of Arkansas called hearings questioning the entire underlying logic of the war. Americans had been doing that in the streets for some time by then. Shortly after the Senate passed the president's 1965 $700 million military appropriation for Vietnam 88 to 3, the antiwar movement staged its first big Washington demonstration -- with about 20,000 young people on the Mall. But the collective reaction of the guardians of polite opinion was a sneer. "Holiday From Exams," the New York Times headed its dispatch.

By contrast, when Sen. Fulbright began his hearings, they stood up and took notice. All three networks covered the hearings live over six days. Thus did Americans learn from hippies like World War II hero Gen. James Gavin and George Kennan, architect of the Cold War doctrine of "containment" -- who said, "If we were not already involved as we are today in Vietnam, I would know of no reason why we should wish to become so involved, and I could think of several reasons why we should wish not to," and that victory could come only "at the cost of a degree of damage to civilian life and civilian suffering ... for which I would not like to see this country responsible."

President Johnson did not sit by idly. He directed the FBI to monitor the proceedings to find where they were echoing the so-called Communist line -- and had agents study wiretaps of the Soviet Embassy for evidence of friendly congressional contact. He also may have had words with the top network brass. CBS, for one, cut away from Kennan's testimony to return to regularly scheduled programming ("I Love Lucy" and "Andy Griffith Show" reruns). The execs defended themselves, claiming the hearings served to "obfuscate" and "confuse" the issues.

First lesson: Forthright questioning of a mistaken war by prominent legislators can utterly transform the public debate, pushing it in directions no one thought it was prepared to go.

Second lesson: Congress horning in on war powers scares the bejesus out of presidents.

Nixon was even worse than Johnson. Tricky Dick spent two elections saying he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam but showed no intention of doing so, only escalation. And he clinched it with the Cambodia bombing campaign and subsequent invasion in 1970.

Another lesson: Presidents, arrogant men, lie. And yet the media, loath to undermine the authority of the commander in chief, trusts them. Today's congressional war critics have to be ready for that. They have to do what Congress immediately did next, in 1970: It grasped the nettle, at the president's moment of maximum vulnerability, and turned public opinion radically against the war, and threw the president far, far back on his heels.

Immediately after the Cambodian invasion Senate doves rolled out three coordinated bills. (Each had bipartisan sponsorship; those were different days.) John Sherman Cooper, R-Ken., and Frank Church, D-Idaho, proposed banning funds for extending the war into Cambodia and Laos. Another bipartisan coalition drafted a repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the congressional authorization for war that had passed 98 to 2 in 1964. George McGovern, D-S.D., and Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., were in charge of the granddaddy of them all: an amendment requiring the president to either go to Congress for a declaration of war or end the war, by Dec. 31, 1970. Walter Shapiro wrote that a "skittish" Congress made sure its antiwar legislation had "loopholes" to permit the president to take action to protect U.S. troops in the field" -- which means no genuine congressional exit mandate at all. But McGovern-Hatfield had no such "loopholes." (Of course, McGovern Hatfield didn't pass, and thus wasn't subject to the arduous political negotiating process that might have added them.) It was four sentences long, and said: Without a declaration of war, Congress would appropriate no money for Vietnam other than "to pay costs relating to the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, to the termination of United States military operations ... to the arrangement for exchanges of prisoners of war," and to "food and other non-military supplies and services" for the Vietnamese.

Radical stuff. Far more radical than today's timid congressional critics are interested in going. But what today's timid congressmen must understand is that the dare paid off handsomely. With McGovern-Hatfield holding down the left flank, the moderate-seeming Cooper-Church passed out of the Foreign Relations Committee almost immediately. Was the president on the defensive? And how. His people rushed out a substitute "to make clear that the Senate wants us out of Cambodia as soon as possible." Two of the most hawkish and powerful Southern Democrats, Fritz Hollings and Eugene Talmadge, announced they were sick of handing blank checks to the president. A tide had turned, decisively. By the time Cooper-Church passed the Senate overwhelmingly on June 30, the troops were gone from Cambodia -- an experiment in expanding the war that the president didn't dare repeat. Congress stopped that surge. It did it by striking fast -- and hard -- when the iron was hottest. In so doing, it moved the ball of public opinion very far down the field. By August, a strong plurality of Americans supported the McGovern-Hatfield "end the war" bill, 44 to 35 percent.

There is, here, another crucial lesson for today: Grass-roots activism works. The Democratic presidential front-runner back then, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, afraid of being branded a radical, had originally proposed instead a nonbinding sense-of-the-Senate resolution recommending "effort" toward the withdrawal of American forces within 18 months. He found himself caught up in a swarm: the greatest popular lobbying campaign ever. Haverford College, which was not atypical, saw 90 percent of its student body and 57 percent of its faculty come to Washington to demonstrate for McGovern-Hatfield. A half-hour TV special in which congressmen argued for the bill was underwritten by 60,000 separate 50-cent contributions. The proposal received the largest volume of mail in Senate history. Muskie withdrew his own bill, and became the 19th cosponsor of McGovern-Hatfield.

There's a lot of revisionist history about Vietnam. One is that the crazy McGovernite doves destroyed the Democratic Party. Not true, the Democrats picked up seats in Congress in 1972. The other is that Democrats kept the United States from victory in Vietnam. Also, absolute garbage. Republicans had a coordinated strategy to blame the loss on the Democrats, as sure as they have the same strategy to blame Iraq on them, somehow.

You know that whatever the facts, the right will blame "liberals" and "Democrats" for losing Iraq; that's as inevitable as the fact that we've already lost Iraq -- and as inevitable as an arrogant president playing into Democratic hands by expanding the engagement (he already is). What would be inexcusable is if wobbly Democrats managed to maneuver themselves timidly into a corner that made them only the right-wing's scapegoats -- and not the champions that truly made their stand to end the war.

In 2008, the Republicans are going to have to run either amidst an electorate convinced that Republicans will be staying the course or amidst an electorate they've managed to bamboozle into believing "peace is at hand." If they manage the latter, they'll have a good chance of winning the election. But the only way they can do that is if Democrats can't claim credit for ending it first. I hope to be able to watch the Democrats truly try to end the war; it will be glorious. Because even if they start losing votes in Congress, the president and the party that enables him can only become politically weaker by the day.

Russ Feingold is stepping up (again). He's essentially holding Rick Perlstein's Salon article as a Congressional hearing, called "Exercising Congress’s Constitutional Power to End a War.” That some Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, don't seem to think it's possible is an indictment of the current governmental system. Senators shouldn't need this kind of history lesson, but they do.

“Congress holds the power of the purse and if the President continues to advance his failed Iraq policy, we have the responsibility to use that power to safely redeploy our troops from Iraq,” Feingold said. “This hearing will help inform my colleagues and the public about Congress’s power to end a war and how that power has been used in the past. I will soon be introducing legislation to use the power of the purse to end what is clearly one of the greatest mistakes in the history of our nation’s foreign policy.”

I massively support Feingold's efforts as well as John Kerry's But there aren't enough Senators yet willing to take bold action to put an end to our involvement in Iraq. I fear that we're losing a moment of opportunity.

UPDATE: Steny must have been on Salon:

“Democrats may push a new bill authorizing the use of force in Iraq — replacing the 2002 bill that allowed the Bush administration to proceed with the war,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said today. The House will soon address ways to “affect the policy and strategy being pursued in Iraq,” possibly including “a revised authorization for the use of military force in Iraq that more accurately reflects the mission of our troops on the ground,” he said.

Toss this President back on his heels, boys and girls.