WASHINGTON–It's easy to understand why Democrats want Michael Steele to stay in the news. The Republican National Committee chairman is a wonderful distraction, a constant source of gaffes, laughs, clarifications and denials.
But Steele recently scored a victory of sorts, even though you wouldn't know it from the coverage: His comments on Afghanistan got Democrats to recite GOP talking points from the Bush era. Of course, those can be turned against anyone in either party who dares to question the direction of the war.
The most incendiary words came from the indefatigable Brad Woodhouse, the Democratic National Committee spokesman, who accused Steele of "betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan."
Woodhouse added: "It's simply unconscionable that Michael Steele would undermine the morale of our troops when what they need is our support and encouragement."
I have some empathy for Woodhouse, who must be weary of dealing with the other side's demagoguery day after day. He probably couldn't resist giving Republicans a taste of their own medicine. But this is dangerous stuff in a democracy and particularly perilous from a party that, less than two years ago, rightly insisted it could oppose the Bush administration's foreign policy on thoroughly patriotic grounds.
And Woodhouse's statement came shortly after 60 percent of House Democrats–153 in all–voted for an amendment sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and two of his colleagues that would have required President Obama to present a plan by April for the "safe, orderly and expeditious redeployment" of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
The amendment, which drew support from nine Republicans, would also have allowed for a vote in Congress to stop additional war funding if withdrawal does not start by next July, when the administration has said it would begin reducing forces in Afghanistan.
It's thus not surprising that one person who took issue with Democrats who piled onto Steele was McGovern. "The reaction to Steele from some Democrats sounded like Dick Cheney," he said in an interview. "Democrats need to understand that our base is increasingly uncomfortable with this war."
Now the truth is that Steele's statement on Afghanistan at a party fundraiser in Connecticut was something of a mess. Even McGovern said that "Steele was wrong" for asserting that "this was a war of Obama's choosing." After all, the war in Afghanistan began under President Bush following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with overwhelming support from both parties. And the situation deteriorated badly on Bush's watch.
Yet Steele's point–that Obama had criticized the Iraq War "while saying the battle really should (be) in Afghanistan"–was accurate enough. Obama had a choice, and he chose to escalate. And in asserting that "the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan" and that "everyone who has tried over a thousand years of history has failed," Steele was simply making arguments that other critics of the Afghanistan War had offered already.
It's fair enough to argue with Steele about all this, and it was honorable for Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the premier Republican hawks, to take issue with their party chair, given that Obama's approach is largely to their liking.
Personally, I'm still hoping Obama's strategy in Afghanistan will work. But it is maddening that Congress can appropriate $33 billion more for Afghanistan without anyone asking where the funds will come from even as self-styled deficit hawks insist on blocking money for the unemployed unless it is offset by budget cuts.
And McGovern is right that the most disturbing line in the Rolling Stone article that got Gen. Stanley McChrystal in trouble was this observation attributed to one of his senior advisers: "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular."
But the issue here is less about Afghanistan than about dissent in time of war. Even if Steele was just popping off, he had a right to offer his opinion without being accused of undermining our troops or "rooting for failure."
Some of our greatest leaders, from Abraham Lincoln to Robert F. Kennedy, courageously stood up against wars in their day. Steele is no Lincoln and he is no Kennedy, but as an American, he enjoys the same rights they had. "It is not enough to allow dissent," RFK said. "We must demand it." If members of Kennedy's party don't remember this, who will?
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.