When the Clintons first came to Washington, the Democratic Party’s unofficial theme song was Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).” Today the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” might be a better choice. That’s the message coming through loud and clear to millions of voters who cast Democratic ballots last November with hopes of ending the Iraq War.
Democrats now control both houses of Congress, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “100 hours” legislative marathon has come to a close. President Bush is nevertheless sending an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, and talk is turning to Tehran, almost as if the new majority did not exist. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promptly sent Bush a letter announcing their opposition to the surge and calling instead for redeployment. A non-binding resolution opposing the troop increase is wending its way through the Senate as we go to press.
Can’t the Democrats do more than send the president a message? As it happens, the Constitution not only gives Congress the authority to declare war but also the “power of the purse”—the ability to raise or deny funds for any military operation. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat and long-shot presidential candidate, has been challenging his colleagues to use this power. “It is simply not credible to maintain that one opposes the war, yet continues to fund it,” he said recently. “If you oppose the war, then don’t vote to fund it.”
But virtually nobody expects that the Democrats will actually defund the war, which is precisely why many hawks are challenging them to do so. Weekly Standard editor William Kristol described Kucinich’s statement as “logical,” listing him as an “honorable exception” to the “boneless wonders” who dominate Congress. The House Republican leadership is backing a resolution that would force Democrats to take a stand on funding for both Afghanistan and Iraq. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who backs the surge argued, “If my Democrat colleagues are truly opposed to the mission in Iraq, then as the new majority they should schedule a serious debate and a vote on cutting off funding for our troops.”
The last three words of Cornyn’s volley—“for our troops”—are exactly what gives some Democrats pause. Both Reid and Pelosi have been careful to emphasize that they won’t curtail funding to troops in the field. The more forces the Pentagon has in place, the more reluctant Congress will be to do anything that can be seen as detracting from their mission. Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress warned the liberal New Standard, “By the time you vote on the money bill, a lot of the troops will already be there.”
Korb’s prediction may already be coming to pass. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told ABC’s “This Week” that the administration believes it already had enough money for extra troops in the fiscal year 2007 budget. “I fully understand [Congress] could try to stop me from doing it,” Bush told CBS’s “60 Minutes,” “But I made my decision, and we’re going forward.”
Such bluster hasn’t kept a few powerful Democrats from introducing bills aimed at curbing the troop escalation. Sen. Ted Kennedy filed legislation prohibiting Bush from spending money for additional troops “unless and until Congress approves the president’s plan,” an approach similar to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, which essentially ended American involvement in Vietnam, and the Boland Amendment, which barred President Reagan from continuing aid to the Contras. But the Kennedy bill leaves intact funding for troops that have already been sent to Iraq.
Congressman John Murtha, chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has proposed another approach. He wants to try imposing strict military readiness standards on emergency appropriations. This is intended to have the effect of making the escalation more difficult for the Bush administration while putting the Democrats on record in support of a stronger military in general. Yet this would not necessarily pull the plug on the president’s plan.
Senate Democrats entertaining presidential ambitions have been playing a transparent game of Iraq one-upmanship reminiscent of the leap-year conservatism contest between then Sens. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm during the 1996 GOP White House sweepstakes. Sen. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has proposed capping U.S. troop levels at 130,000, along the same lines as legislation that limited U.S. involvement in Lebanon in the 1980s. Her bill would also set benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet during the next six months.
Aides to Sen. Chris Dodd quickly cried foul, telling the New York Times that Clinton copied the cap idea from their boss’s bill. Dodd is currently exploring a presidential bid. Another 2008 contender, Sen. Barack Obama, promised to introduce his own bill calling for a phased withdrawal from Iraq, taking a step Clinton opposes.
So far, Sen. Joe Biden, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is the only Democrat to sponsor an anti-escalation bill that actually has Republican backing. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican reportedly mulling his own presidential bid, helped draft it. Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, has also signed on. Unlike the bills proposed by Biden’s Democratic rivals, however, this measure is non-binding—which is why it stands the best chance of passing.
Meanwhile, bills that would defund the war entirely languish with little support. The list of co-sponsors for the more far-reaching legislation is usually limited to the most liberal Democrats in the House and an even smaller group of renegade Republicans like Texas Congressman Ron Paul. A congressional website lists no co-sponsors for Georgia Democrat Sam Farr’s House resolution repealing the 2002 authorization of force. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is reluctant even to endorse Pelosi’s call for withholding funds for the surge. And all of the bills, from the most radical to the more symbolic, face one insurmountable obstacle—a presidential veto that Democrats don’t have the votes to override.
“The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, who are now in control of Congress, have repeatedly said they are going to press Bush to devise a withdrawal plan, not force him to do so,” Nation Washington editor David Corn concluded on the website TomPaine.com. “That is, they have no intention of defunding the war.”
Extricating our troops from Iraq legislatively is no easy task. The appropriations process is a blunt instrument. Day-to-day war fighting is generally considered to be a responsibility of the president as commander in chief. This means that Congress has to carefully tailor its spending to push the executive branch toward its policy goals without depriving the troops of needed resources. That would entail cutting war spending to prompt the president to reduce troop levels accordingly, something legislators are usually reluctant to do. Even many of Bush’s harshest critics on Capitol Hill agree with Dick Cheney that “war is not run by committee.”
While the constitutional power to cut Iraq funding is clearly there, past precedents are of only limited use. The Boland Amendment applied to foreign fighters, not American soldiers. By the time Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act over President Ford’s veto in 1974, major U.S. combat operations in Vietnam had already ended.
Perhaps more importantly, the Democrats who defunded the war were blamed for the ensuing carnage in Southeast Asia. Even though they had turned against a deeply unpopular military intervention, the party later suffered at the ballot box for the dovish reputation it acquired during the later years of the Vietnam debate. The American public didn’t like the image of helicopters fleeing the embassy in Saigon any better than reports of casualties from the conflict. Democrats lost three of the next four presidential elections, a history that party members don’t want to repeat.
Indeed, the more prudent course politically would be for the Democrats to have the war to campaign against in 2008. Iraq is perhaps the biggest political liability for the two Republican frontrunners, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, who both poll well far outside the red states. A polarizing figure like Hillary Clinton can hardly afford to lose so powerful a club to wield against broadly popular opponents.
Despite Vietnam-era pushback in the form of the War Powers Act of 1973, congressional leaders have frequently been content to let the president act first and then assess the politics later. Those who have spoken out too soon have paid the price. Democrats who voted against the Persian Gulf War in 1990 saw their presidential aspirations go up in smoke, prompting John Kerry, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton to make a different choice in 2002—one they now regret, since the second war against Iraq has proved less successful and popular than the first.
Yet given the fact Bush has the votes to sustain a veto, making any Democratic action purely symbolic for now, why not make a stronger statement in support of the party’s antiwar base? The legal mechanisms exist, but the party, ostensibly divided by competing ideologies and ambitions, may lack the political will to do so. Perhaps the voters who trusted them in 2006 should have a theme song of their own: “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.