How Democrats Need to Talk about Iraq

With the curtains finally closing on the limited engagement of Waiting for Petraeus, and Republicans feeling emboldened by the diversion his testimony created (and the cover it gave them for continuing to "stay the course"), Democrats in Congress are searching once again for a strategy on Iraq. Ever since their fateful decision in May not to call the President's bluff when he upped the ante by 30,000 troops, they have left themselves with two choices. One is to vote their conscience, which happens to coincide with what the American people asked them to do in 2006. The other is to take incremental steps, such as the proposal by Virginia Senator Jim Webb that would have required that our men and women in uniform be allowed to spend as much time in the arms of their families in between revolving tours of duty as they do in the crosshairs of warring Iraqi militants. Yesterday, however, the Republicans made clear that, with the President at 29 percent in the latest polls but the Congress at 11 percent, they'd take their chances and filibuster any attempt by the Democrats to make Congress relevant to questions of war and peace--and in the process to continue branding the Democrats as impotent and ineffectual.

Of course, the Democrats have not threatened to take many incremental steps that would pose any real political risks to themselves. One, for example, would be to hold real hearings on whether there is any way to avoid reinstatement of the draft and maintain our national security if we continue an indefinite presence in Iraq, so that the American people begin to connect voting Republican with realistic anxiety about the lives and well-being of their teenage children. (The question Democrats have never asked Republicans since the war began is the only one that really matters: Would you send your own child to die in Iraq? And if so, have you done everything you can to convince your children that, if this is truly the war you say it is--for our freedom, for our very way of life, to keep the terrorists "over there" so that we don't fight them "over here"--they should drop their lucrative investment banking careers and be all they can be in Baghdad? Surely, with American freedom at stake, Jenna Bush could wait a few months to don her wedding gown and spend some time in army fatigues.) And while we're on our children, as Congress considers yet another supplemental appropriations bill for the war, the least Democrats can do this time around for our children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn is to stop taxing them for this war (which is what deficit-spending for a war is), and to require that Bush and the Republicans put their money where their mouth is: Tell us whose taxes they're going to raise to pay not only for the next hundred billion dollars but for the half a trillion they have already spent from the piggy-banks of the innocent.

Word in Washington last week, sent out in trial balloons in the press, was that Democrats were trying to find a "middle ground" that members of both parties could sign onto. The reasons offered for compromise with a minority party holding a decidedly minority position on an unpopular war were various: heading off a potential Republican filibuster (which, it turned out, didn't work on the Webb amendment, although at least Republicans are on record now as anti-military in a way that should be the centerpiece of ads in every race in every state and district in 2008); not wanting to play a game of chicken with a president who feels confident, based on past experience, that he can veto with impunity any bill with realistic strings attached (e.g., accountability) that prevents him from going on any more surges or splurges without adult supervision; worrying not only about the real likelihood but about being blamed for it if and when things turn even uglier in Iraq once we leave; worrying about being branded as weak on national security by "losing the war" or "failing to support our troops" (which Republicans will do no matter when and how Democrats get around to ending the war); and fearing what will happen if we "back down" in Iraq and then a terrorist strike hits the U.S. (which at some point it surely will, and Republicans will blame the Democrats for being "weak on terror").

The common denominator to all of these scenarios, however, is fear, primarily of how Republicans will brand Democrats if they take one course of action or another. Since the lead-up to the Iraq war, Democrats have repeatedly concluded--from their support of the war resolution in October 2002 (when Republicans made clear that anyone who opposed the president would become the target of a "soft-on-terror" attack in the upcoming election), to their refusal to make an issue of Iraq or even of Abu Ghraib in the presidential campaign of 2004, to their confusing mix of responses last week to the predictable testimony of a general who had already declared his partisanship in a 2004 op-ed piece published just before the election and had shown repeatedly that he looks at Iraq through rose-colored glasses, not through infrared night goggles--that the best response is caution.

But Democrats have everything to fear from fear itself. "Compromise" legislation on Iraq that draws down four or five thousand of the additional troops Congress gave the president the authority to add six months ago may feel like compromise to Democratic congressional leaders. Unfortunately, it feels like cowardice and betrayal to their constituents. In May of this year, armed with a mandate to end the war, and heralded with a flourish of tough rhetoric, Democrats sent the president a bill that would have given him the money to conduct his war but imposed some real conditions on it. When he vetoed it, Democrats backed down, and the American people meted out swift and immediate justice. Whereas at the beginning of May a majority of Americans held favorable attitudes toward the Democratic Congress, within days of the Iraq War vote the percentage of Americans who still felt that way dropped to 44. It wasn't just partisan Democrats who were dismayed with their leaders, expressed in an 18 percent plunge in approval ratings. Whereas Independents were equally split at the beginning of May in their approval or disapproval of the Democrats in Congress (49 to 48 percent), by the end of May the percent with favorable attitudes had dropped to 37 percent, and the majority (54 percent) now disapproved of Democratic stewardship. Democrats were stung as the polls continued to plummet, with a substantial majority of Americans seeing the Congress as doing "business as usual," despite achievements like the minimum wage increase. Unfortunately, they hid that legislation in the fine print of the Iraq war appropriation, and hence failed to capitalize on either public support for it or the political benefits of putting Republican incumbents on the record opposing it). Americans were focused on bringing our troops home, and they didn't notice much that Democrats had succeeded in bringing home a little more bacon for the working poor.

With such clear data from the polls, you might think that Democratic strategists would ask themselves whether there was a flaw in their strategic calculations. After all, Democrats pride themselves on the use of data to make decisions, and the evidence was indisputable that their capitulation to the president had backfired. But prominent Democratic strategists came to a very different conclusion. Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, both echoed and enunciated the conventional wisdom:

Now that the dust has settled on the Congressional vote on the supplemental appropriations bill and on the ruckus that anti-war opponents of the bill kicked up, it's time to assess the political implications.

First, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill played the issue like a Stradivarius. They forced a vote on a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, putting Republicans on record supporting the status quo and President Bush, but allowed a subsequent vote to "fund the troops." That gave their own Members from swing districts the opportunity to demonstrate their support for the military.

From a purely political point of view, Democrats had their cake and ate it too. Yes, the war is unpopular, and opposing it is a no-brainer. But the one thing Democrats need to avoid is looking like themselves during the 1970s and 1980s--weak and unwilling to support America's men and women in uniform...

So, in ignoring the demands of the party's left, Congressional leaders have kept their party right where they want it--against the war but also against terrorists and for the troops...

Why take a chance alienating swing voters when the party already made its point by sending the president a deadline bill that he vetoed?

If that is what a Stradivarius sounds like, I would hate to hear a broken fiddle. On several trips to Washington, including one immediately after the Iraq vote, I heard the same kinds of rationalizations for a failed political strategy, even after the poll numbers showed so clearly that the strategy did not have its desired effect: capturing the center.

So what's wrong with this kind of strategic thinking? Perhaps most importantly, it's easy to forget that these are lives we're talking about. You don't count the numbers of potential congressional seats you might win or lose when the result is that you'll be counting bodies. Democrats should pass a bill, call it what it is (the "Protection of Our Men and Women in Uniform Act"), stick with it until the president signs it into law or enough Republicans, fearing for their political lives, jump ship and vote for it, and start a running tally of the number of dead and wounded American soldiers since [fill in your Republican incumbent's name here] failed to support our troops by taking them out of the middle of someone else's civil war. If Republicans want to filibuster, let them live with the consequences as the name and photograph of every new fallen solder is tied to the person at the podium, as it should be.

But even from a strictly political standpoint, the major problem with the strategic thinking that has guided Democrats since the new millennium is that, empirically, it doesn't work. If the goal, as Rothenberg suggested (and others voiced to the press), was to avoid alienating swing voters, it was a dismal failure. As evidenced by the poll results on Independents immediately after the Iraq War vote in May, Democrats lost the center. And this kind of strategic thinking hasn't worked since 2002. The only time Democrats have won since then was in 2006, when their candidates began ignoring the advice of party strategists and pollsters who told them to "take Iraq off the table" and instead made it the centerpiece of their campaigns.

If you think in conventional political terms, you can't understand why a middle-of-the-road stand wouldn't appeal to the middle of the political road (i.e., the center). But if you start instead by asking a psychological question--what do voters infer about you from your actions, and how are they likely to feel in light of those inferences?--the results have been completely predictable. What's wrong with the conventional wisdom is that it assumes that people listen to the words of politicians rather than their deeds and demeanor. When, in May, Democrats offered rationalizations about not having the votes to override a veto, "strong words" about reservations about the Iraq appropriations bill with one hand while nevertheless voting for it with the other, comments to the media about not wanting to be accused of failing to support our troops with Memorial Day approaching, and most importantly, when they backed down after they had repeatedly stated their principled opposition to the war, they did nothing but to underscore the message Americans--appropriately--took away from the Iraq war vote in May, and will do again if Democrats continue to back down: that Democrats lack the courage of their convictions. Conventional political calculations leave out the most important messages our leaders send with their communications: meta-messages that convey what they are really doing or feeling.

The way to win the center on national security is not to try to craft centrist positions on national security. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, Americans want leaders who will decisively pull the trigger. But "pulling the trigger" today doesn't mean rattling our sabers almost as loud as the GOP, or complaining that we don't have the votes when we have the majority. Americans may not understand the subtleties of cloture, but they get the gist: that they handed the ball off to the party that's now in the majority, who they expected to run with the ball instead of consistently playing defense. The way to project strength on national security and to win back the Reagan Democrats who voted for Bill Clinton (despite his draft record) and flirted with the Democratic Party again in 2006 is to exude strength, particularly in the face of aggression, whether that aggression is from al Qaeda or from a bully in his bully pulpit.

Virginia Senator Jim Webb, hardly the leading liberal in the Senate, has taken a position on the war that, in conventional terms, would be construed as a hard left-hand turn. He and Ted Kennedy both opposed the war from the beginning, for similar reasons, and continue to oppose it vehemently today. But it isn't Webb's "leftism" on the war or his centrism on other issues that have won him the center on Iraq or other national security issues. Nor is it just his authority as a former soldier and Secretary of the Navy, although that certainly helps. It's his manner, what he conveys as he's speaking about the war and those who continue to sell it, as when he took the president apart in his response to the State of the Union address, or when he ate Lindsey Graham for an early brunch on Meet the Press. You demonstrate that you can lead on national security by letting people see the veins in your neck bulge when they damned well ought to bulge, and by showing that you can and will stand up to anybody who messes with you and what matters to you--like our troops. What Democrats most need to understand as they chart a course for Iraq policy in the coming days is that it almost doesn't matter what position you take, just so long as it isn't the fetal position--or readily perceived as cowering in the corner or up against the ropes.

Rothenberg's analysis illustrates yet another way Democrats tend to think about political strategy that repeatedly leads them to find themselves outflanked, as they have just been once again on Iraq. Part of the political artistry of the move that lost them so much ground in the polls in May, he suggests, is that Democrats put Republicans on record supporting the unpopular president and his unpopular war while allowing a subsequent vote to "fund the troops." Thus, Democrats were on record as "against the war but also against terrorists and for the troops," giving Democrats from swing districts "the opportunity to demonstrate their support for the military." (Of course, this analysis ignores the fact that the Republicans were already on record supporting the war. That's why they lost the 2006 midterm election. The people who were really on record by virtue of their first war vote of 2006 were the Democrats.)

The problem with this analysis is that it accepts the "branding" of the Republican "product line" on national security (in this case, Iraq): that to support the troops is to support the war. Central to the Republican branding strategy on Iraq was to associate "support the troops" with "support the war in Iraq," much as they had led people to associate the war in Iraq with the war against Al Qaeda by linking the two via the phrase "the war on terror." It was no accident that the White House wanted General Petraeus to testify on Iraq on September 11, 2007, and it showed an extraordinary lack of psychological understanding that the Democratic leadership allowed him to do so, reinforcing associations Democrats only began to break last year around this time between 9/11 and the war in Iraq. (If you don't believe me, think of the television coverage that night, which alternated between stories on September 11 and the Iraq war hearings; or Petraeus' constant emphasis on Al Qaeda in Iraq, who weren't there until 2005, and are only a small piece of the broader problem of sectarian violence). Republicans have been so successful in establishing these associative links in the minds of voters that not only have Democrats been afraid to challenge them but they have frequently used them themselves. In linguist George Lakoff's terms, Democrats accepted the frame Republicans so cleverly crafted in the phrase, "support the troops," which implies that the only way to show support for the military is to support its deployment in Iraq--as if the alternative to funding the war were to cut off our soldiers' supply lines and let them starve. To put it slightly differently, Democrats allowed Republicans to associate two unrelated ideas (supporting our military and supporting an ill-conceived war) so that the feelings attached to the former would become associated with the latter, and anyone who opposed the latter would by definition be un-American.

It wouldn't have been difficult for Democrats to offer a counter-narrative about what it means to support our troops that would have given a very different emotional meaning to that phrase--and charted a new course for public sentiment on Iraq. Americans have been waiting for an alternative story from the Democrats since the war began to turn south by late 2003, and they would have welcomed Democrats as liberators if they had offered one by the spring of 2007:

You want to know what it means to support our troops? Don't send them to die in someone else's civil war. You want to know what it means to support our troops? Don't make their families take up a collection for their body armor. You want to know what it means to support our troops? Armor their vehicles, so that they don't come back without their lives or limbs. You want to know what it means to support our troops? Honor their service when they come home injured, and don't warehouse them with cockroaches in Walter Reed Hospital. You want to know what it means to support our troops? When they give up their lives for their country, don't whisk them in the middle of the night onto the shores they will never again see, hiding their bodies as if you're ashamed of their service, because it's bad for "public relations" for people to see the costs of war. Proudly display our heroes when they return to our soil like every American administration has done for over 200 years. You want to know what it means to support our troops? Attend their funerals, and put your arms around their grieving parents, spouses, and children, and shed a tear with them. And you really want to know what it means to support our troops? Bring them home.

If Democrats want to win back the center, they will need to stop thinking in terms of right and left and start thinking in terms of right and wrong. You don't vote for a bill you believe is fundamentally wrong. You don't vote for an appropriations bill that kills our soldiers in the name of supporting them. You don't vote repeatedly for bills that deface the Constitution.

The Democratic leadership needs to ask themselves only two questions in deciding what to do next on Iraq. The first is whether they would send their own child to die in this war. If the answer is no, they need to vote as if every soldier were their child. That's what it means to support our troops. And that's all they need to tell the American people.

If, on the other hand, they go back to trying to find some kind of compromise legislation designed to bring enough Republicans over to their side to get a bill through Congress, they will first need to figure out what compelling narrative they can offer the American people about how their vote is principled rather than opportunistic. There may be such a narrative out there somewhere, but I haven't heard one yet. Whatever it might be, it needs to offer an emotionally compelling reason for compromising between ten thousand more American soldiers wounded or buried in the next year and none.

By Drew Westen