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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

Can The Perfect And The Good Play Nice?

Ever since Bush vetoed the Iraq spending bill with timetables in May and Congress was forced to temporarily scale back its demands for firm dates, many progressives have been insisting that congressional Democrats take a hard-line position requiring an exit plan from Iraq.

At the all-night Senate debate two weeks ago, the Democratic leadership showed that they were listening to their constituents: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to consider several weaker proposals limiting American involvement in Iraq, insisting on "more aggressive Democratic measures to begin withdrawing troops" instead. This has been followed by a renewed push to require a concrete plan for withdrawal from President Bush, as well as a proposed plan to actually begin withdrawal in two months.

It seems that the hard-liners are finally getting what they want — aren't they?

From the Washington Post article:

Reid's move was hailed by antiwar groups, which have urged Democrats not to compromise. But his decision may also have the effect of providing Bush with an opportunity that he has wanted: 60 more days to make his case that the war is making progress.

Back when I lived in Houston around 15 years ago or so, I read an op-ed on government policy and the role of the electorate that stuck with me. The thrust of the article was one of my first introductions into "real" politics, the "sausage-making" process that falls outside of the idealizations that we sometimes like to make about how the game is really played.

The piece looked at a local push to build more jails in the area. Crime rates were the big topic of conversation at the time. There was substantial public support for the idea of more jails, and a ballot proposition came out overwhelmingly for it. So, inevitably, lawmakers and city officials built more jails. It was later obvious that the effort had done little to drop crime rates in the area. I suppose whether that is a surprise or not depends on your point of view. The article I read pointed out the obvious-in-hindsight root cause: People didn't really want more jails. They were just convinced of the "common sense" idea that more jails meant less crime. The popular "common sense" push only served to prove that good sense isn't always common, nor common sense always good.

Hardly a day goes by in American politics without some group of voters criticizing some group of legislators because they didn't listen to experts — they tend to decide that their judgment is somehow superior to that of the country's best minds that are at their disposal, and so they do things differently to the experts' suggestions. They deserve the criticism they get; it's obviously foolhardy to assume intellectual superiority to those with proven expertise without some stronger justification than one's "common sense" or a "gut feeling."

In the same way, it's important to remember that we, the electorate, are not immune to that sort of hubris. No, we don't need experts to tell us that we want less crime, or decent wages, or better schools for our children. But we often could use some expertise in navigating political waters so that we can most effectively meet our goals, no matter what those goals may be. Those with experience in the theory and practice of politics can help us do that. Ironically, this usually means that the experts we should be looking to for guidance in political matters are our elected officials themselves.

In the first six months of congressional control, Democrats charted out and worked on a slow and steady course to withdrawal in Iraq, patiently recruiting Republicans who were expressing doubts about the war to build a coalition that would stand against Bush's guaranteed veto. Now, it seems that the calls for a hard-line stance and an immediate addressing of the situation have gotten loud enough to make the elected Democrats who make up the party's political "experts" by merit of experience reconsider their more gradual approach. But with this development, I can't help but wonder: are we building jails instead of solving the crime problem? Any immediate action comes into direct conflict with the will of the congressional hawks who want to remain in Iraq. And like it or not, the votes simply aren't there for a solution to be pushed through the Senate, as the 52-47 vote in favor two weeks ago showed — far short of the 60 votes required to bring a bill to final vote in the Senate, let alone the 67 required to override a presidential veto. As the Washington Post notes, the time spent trying to push through a more stringent bill instead of passing more gradual, progressively stricter limitations on the war effort is time that the Bush administration gets to try and shore up support and formulate a defense for continued involvement in Iraq.

Could it be that anti-war progressives simply want too much, too fast? History would certainly seem to indicate that. Even with an incumbent Democratic Congress and popular opinion strongly against the Vietnam War, it took three years and the War Powers Act to get from when Congress first blocked Nixon's attempt to expand the war into Cambodia in 1970 until troops were finally withdrawn in 1973. The current Congress has had a bit over half a year to work on this. And in that time, their plans had met with some success. Increasing numbers of Republicans were coming out and speaking against the endless situation Iraq. Congressional opinion of the problem was starting to match public opinion. Democratic efforts to increase the size of the bipartisan coalition against this war were working. So is the recent line in the sand that party progressives insisted their elected officials draw really a superior solution to the problem? A 52-47 vote for a set withdrawal date sure does seem like a step back from the levels of support Democrats were getting from Republicans in the Senate.

Perhaps the new political hard-line strategy will be successful in the long run. Experts are not always right, nor can they be expected to be, and at times popular opinion can present better alternatives. But it would seem to me that with the criticism we give our elected officials for ignoring "experts" in particular topics, it is hypocritical to assume that our ideas on how to most effectively end the war are superior to those of the professional political "experts" that serve us based solely on our "common sense." I hope the stance we've asked our lawmakers to take is a wildly successful one. But perhaps, instead of Congress needing to present an uncompromising message to the President and congressional war hawks that the war ends immediately, as popular punditry would have it, they should have instead directed a message towards their constituency: The process of overturning the will of a president is difficult, it is made intentionally difficult by the Constitution, and it will take some time — but we will get our troops out of Iraq. Just give us time, and trust us.

And perhaps, as the electorate, we should have trusted them.

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