The Brilliant Democratic Pre-emptive Strike On Bush's Iraq Speech

[ Posted Wednesday, January 10th, 2007 – 15:03 UTC ]

Much to everyone's surprise, congressional Democrats are actually stealing President Bush's thunder before he gives his speech tonight. In the last 48 hours or so, the Democrats (led by Senator Kennedy) have launched a brilliant pre-emptive strike on the news media in preparation for President Bush's speech tonight on Iraq. And it's working wonders.

Although this Democratic activity is somewhat unfocused (these are still Democrats, after all), with competing ideas vying for attention, the miracle is how fast it all happened. Washington is not a town known for such blinding speed. Quite the opposite, in fact (no matter which party is in control). So it truly is amazing how fast and hard the Democrats are hitting back. Whether these efforts will bear fruit or not remains to be seen, but it's a good omen for the future of the 110th Congress. And it will be interesting to see Bush give his speech tonight, since he has been forced into a defensive position before he even begins speaking.

Democrats may actually succeed in stopping Bush's much-anticipated call for an escalation of the Iraq war. Then again, they may not. But they should use the fact that the public is actually paying attention to start the broader debate on an Iraq exit strategy. We need a plan not just to stop the so-called "surge," but also one to bring the troops home for good. And that's going to be a harder goal to achieve than shooting down Bush's escalation idea. If handled correctly, however, it could be an excellent strategy for the American public to rally around, and it would go a long way towards improving the way Americans view Democrats (and Congress, for that matter).

Public opinion right now (from a recent Gallup poll) is decidedly leaning towards the Democrats, and away from Bush. 61% of Americans oppose escalation, while only 31% favor it. When asked to choose between four plans, 15% said to withdraw all troops now, 39% said withdraw within one year, 31% wanted to withdraw with no timetable, and only 12% favor increasing troops (2% had no opinion).

This shows that currently, Bush has a huge hill to climb to convince people that adding troops is a good idea. Conversely, it also shows that "get every soldier out tomorrow" (as some on the left are demanding) is also not a very popular position. Both sides need to convince the 72% in the middle.

The Democrats will have an easier job of this, as the wind is at their back. One way to read the numbers is an 85% approval for the concept of "withdraw," and only 12% for backing Bush's escalation.

Short-term options

Democrats have already begun the effort to convince the squishy middle, before Bush has even had a chance to give his speech. The likeliest proposal so far is for a concurrent resolution condemning Bush's anticipated announcement of escalating the troops. A concurrent resolution would not be subject to presidential veto... but it would also be legally meaningless. It would, however, put all of Congress on the record -- either opposing the escalation or supporting it.

A more concrete idea is Senator Kennedy's proposal to pass a law specifically banning Bush from putting more soldiers into Iraq. It's an exciting idea, but the prospect of it actually becoming law is slim, because (as with any bill) Bush can veto it. Overturning Bush's inevitable veto would require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. Although ten Republican Senators are reportedly considering voting for the concurrent resolution, even if those ten also voted for Kennedy's bill (which is not guaranteed) it would still be short of the 67 votes needed to overturn a veto. And that's not counting Democratic defectors who would vote against such measures (see: Joe Lieberman).

Even if Kennedy's idea (or any other anti-surge plan currently being floated around Capitol Hill) doesn't ultimately become law, it will indeed serve a useful purpose: everyone in Congress will have to vote on it. This prospect terrifies Republicans -- in the same way that politically-motivated votes on hot-button issues used to terrify Democrats -- because such votes can come back to haunt you in your next campaign. Many Republicans are already not very happy with Bush's "surge" proposal, and this would force them to take a very public position on the issue.

Democrats need to keep their eye on the big picture though, no matter how the legislative battle over Bush's escalation turns out. They need to start shifting the debate to the longer-term withdrawal strategy. Democrats need to convince the American public that withdrawing sooner is better than later. This shouldn't be that hard to do, as the public is close to this position already, and the media is beginning to see the light.

Winning (for once) the spin battle

The biggest battle the Democrats have won so far may seem like a minor or subtle point, but it's (hopefully) an important turnaround: almost nobody in the mainstream media (outside of Fox News, of course) is using the term "surge" anymore, or (at the very least) is using it surrounded by quotation marks, to show that it's a misleading term. This is a stunning victory for those of us who maintain that framing the debate is crucial to winning the argument.

Think about it -- this is only the second time Democrats have won this framing debate, and the previous example (the media's belated decision to label the Iraq conflagration as a "civil war" late last year) still isn't being universally used. This time, the mainstream media has rejected the White House's (i.e. Karl Rove's) terminology, and dared to call it as they see it. And it happened blindingly fast. As late as last Friday, media stories were still using the term surge, while occasionally throwing in something like: "Democrats have called this an 'escalation' in apparent reference to Vietnam." This week, almost everyone is now defining Bush's expected new policy as a buildup or an escalation -- without quote marks -- and saying things like "Bush's so-called 'surge' idea."

Democrats shouldn't ignore this advantage, but rather take the ball and run with it. Every single Democrat interviewed on television in the next week should -- without exception -- begin repeating the phrases: "Bush's war in Iraq," or "Bush's war." Never use the term "Iraq war" without solidly cementing Bush's name to it.

Secondly, when talking about the escalation, always refer to it as the "McCain option." After all, he deserves this moniker, and using it over and over and over again will absolutely guarantee he will not get the Republican presidential nomination next year. Any Democrat worried about McCain as a candidate should remember to call the escalation what it is: the "McCain option." Make this escalation McCain's ball and chain. "The McCain option just won't work." "Bush was obviously influenced by the McCain option." "We fully reject the McCain option of a huge escalation of troops." Use it often. It will kill McCain's chances of ever becoming president.

The other media-savvy thing for Democrats to do is to point out every single chance they get that George Bush is "flip-flopping" on Iraq. Use the following Bush quote, from June of 2005:

"Some Americans ask me, if completing the mission is so important, why don't you send more troops? If our commanders on the ground say we need more troops, I will send them. But our commanders tell me they have the number of troops they need to do their job. Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight. And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever, when we are, in fact, working for the day when Iraq can defend itself and we can leave. As we determine the right force level, our troops can know that I will continue to be guided by the advice that matters: the sober judgment of our military leaders."

Point out that Bush is now firing those military leaders when their sober judgment isn't what he wants to hear. Flip! Flop! Flip... flop! Flip-flop! FlipFlop! FlipFlopFlipFlop!! The only thing Bush still has going for him with the American public is that people see him as "resolute." Attack that perception with his new image of Flip-Flopper-in-Chief. Don't be subtle here. Drive it home with a sledgehammer.

The long term

Spin-doctoring aside, though, Democrats shouldn't get too focused on just stopping the escalation. Bush may win this skirmish with Congress, so don't bet the farm on the outcome. Democrats should concentrate more on the larger issue -- how to end the war altogether. The key to doing this is to win overwhelming public support for a well-thought out and detailed exit strategy. The best way to begin this would be to announce to the American people that Bush has had his chance to change his policy in Iraq, he has failed to do so, and now it is Congress' turn. Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid should jointly announce that Democrats are going to take a few months to study the issue, and then they are going to announce their own plan for Iraq.

To begin this process, Pelosi and Reid are already lining up a steady, daily drumbeat of Iraq war-related hearings in various congressional committees. Major administration officials will be questioned -- all of them under oath -- to find out where we are, how we got here, and how we get out of it. Incidentally, these will begin tomorrow, with Condoleezza Rice and the new Secretary of Defense testifying on the Hill. Hearings will need to continue until all questions have been answered, using subpoenas (where necessary) to compel testimony from any and all concerned. Americans will see on their television news -- night after night after night -- the unvarnished truth about Bush's ineptitude in the handling of this war. This will build public support for withdrawal, even among the conservatives who value competence over ideology.

Some will undoubtedly deride this plan as "stalling." This is not true, and should be refuted by the fact that Bush took three months to "consult" before coming up with a plan which he had already decided upon last October. Tony Snow and others have even asked everyone to think about things for a while after Bush's speech, so doing so should be seen as only taking the administration at their word.

More importantly, even if everyone in the entire country, including Bush was in complete agreement that we should get every US troop out tomorrow, it is just not militarily possible to do so that quickly. You can't just wave a magic wand and transport every American soldier back home in one day. Withdrawal is going to take serious planning, and even after the withdrawal begins, it will take months to complete safely. Ask anyone with military experience, and they'll tell you that a full withdrawal may take as long as six months to successfully execute. Coming up with such a detailed and workable withdrawal plan is going to take some time, and there needs to be a broad consensus around it. Crucially, at the end of the process, Democrats need to focus like a laser beam on one single plan for withdrawal, and not multiple competing plans. Show some discipline, in other words.

Build consensus

As long as Democrats can prove to the public that they are working towards withdrawal, I think public opinion will remain patient for a few months, in order to see it get it done right. Keep telling Americans that Democrats agree with the wider strategy of getting out of Iraq, and are working hard to come up with the right tactics to achieve this strategy. Slowly build a strong consensus for a Democratic plan for Iraq, both among Democratic members of Congress and among the American public.

Ignore the false dichotomy the media has built up: "since Bush is Commander-in-Chief, the only option congressional Democrats have to stop the war is to cut off all funds for Iraq." This is a continuation (and repackaging) of the media's obsession with the facile black-or-white view of things -- "cut and run" versus "stay the course" -- as if something as large and complicated as a war was a multiple-choice test with only two possible answers.

But there are more than two choices. This is largely due to the fact that the War Powers Resolution of 1973 (enacted during the Vietnam era, and sometimes incorrectly called the War Powers Act) does not foresee the exact situation we are now in. Most of the Resolution deals with what happens when the President orders troops to a foreign country, but does not have either: an obvious national emergency (like a Pearl Harbor attack), a Congressional Declaration of War, or specific statutory authorization from Congress. Herein lies the problem; since Congress granted such authorization with the blank-check Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) just before the 2002 midterm elections.

Democrats should take a few months to publicly debate the best way of moving forward by using the War Powers Resolution. These ideas are already being discussed in Washington. One option is to cancel the AUMF entirely, and force Bush to ask Congress for a new one. If he doesn't get one, all troops have to come home in something like 30-90 days (depending on how you read the Resolution). Offer up an alternative AUMF which clearly explains the military's mission in Iraq from this day forward, with regards to the current situation on the ground (instead of just hunting for WMDs, which the original AUMF was primarily concerned with). Or offer up a supplemental AUMF to cover the escalation (to force a vote on it), with the understanding that the funds will be cut off if it doesn't pass. There are many creative ways the War Powers Resolution could be used to force the issue on the White House (since it has never been challenged in court, the Resolution's language is open to interpretation).

Of course, Bush and Cheney could ignore such methods altogether. Cheney is already on the record stating he believes the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional. The issue may eventually wind up in the Supreme Court. And with today's Supreme Court, who knows how they would rule?


Whatever method Democrats ultimately come up with, forcing the issue on Bush is what the country wants. The people are behind the Democrats on Iraq policy, and they are waiting for the party to deliver.

Democrats need to work steadily towards laying out a crystal-clear case to the whole country why withdrawal is the right option. They need to make it painfully obvious how badly Bush's war is going, and detail why we have no good options left in Iraq. Within a few months, Democrats can develop a solid and detailed plan with military experts' advice (Jack Murtha could lead this effort) to safely withdraw all our forces from Iraq.

With this plan in hand, Democrats could offer America a choice on what to do in Iraq: follow Bush over a cliff, or begin to withdraw. And this will likely even convince some congressional Republicans (who are very nervous about having to run in 2008 with the millstone of Iraq still around their necks) to cross the aisle and support such a plan. Which makes it even easier to sell, since it then becomes a "bipartisan plan." Convince America that Democrats have a solid plan for getting out of Iraq, and that it's the right plan -- and the public's response will be overwhelmingly supportive.

But don't squander the opportunity. If Democrats prove they can't achieve consensus, and the whole exercise devolves into intra-party squabbles about whose plan is best, then the American people are going to (quite rightly) conclude that it was a mistake to give the Democrats control over Congress in the first place, and will vote accordingly next time around. This is a big test, and I hope the Democrats can manage to pass it with flying colors.

After all, tonight Bush is going to commit political suicide, by advocating a strategy that only 12% of the populace agrees with. He is giving Democrats a golden opportunity to offer America an intelligent alternative. Democrats need to follow up this week's impressive "shock and awe" pre-emptive rhetorical strike on the White House with a solid and unified position on how to get out of Bush's Iraq misadventure. America is waiting to hear such a plan, and will receive it with open arms. If Democrats can pull this off, election day 2008 is going to be as much fun as election day 2006 was.


[On an unrelated note, I'd like to say "Well done!" to Speaker Pelosi for having the remaining members of the Grateful Dead play at one of her inaugural parties. Especially noteworthy was their choice of "Shakedown Street" in honor of Jack Abramoff....]


[See the original Huffington Post article, complete with comments.]

No Comments yet on “The Brilliant Democratic Pre-emptive Strike On Bush's Iraq Speech”

Comments for this article are closed.