Lessons from the Appropriations Fight


6-04-07, 9:27 am

In the last few days, pretty much everyone has weighed in on the final passage of the supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq. And, with the exception of Harry Reid, who fatuously suggested that the bill represented “great progress,” everyone across the entire spectrum from President Bush to Counterpunch agrees that it was a miserable capitulation.

Jon Stewart described it best on the Daily Show: “It's sort of like punishing your child by saying, 'If you don't get your grades up, you are grounded ... unless, of course, you would like to go out. And by the way, you are grading yourself and I keep the pot in the silverware drawer.’”

For once, the consensus on Iraq is actually correct. With unprecedented public opposition to the war and support for Congressional attempts to put limits on the president’s execution of it, the Democrats ended up allowing a bill that gives Bush all the funding he wanted, with only the face-saving measure of mandating that the White House give a series of presumably superficial and misleading reports on progress toward a set of “benchmarks” having to do primarily with the performance of the Iraqi government.

Adding insult to injury was the fact that the Democrats neatly pushed themselves into the awkward position of bringing forth legislation that the majority of Democrats voted against.

Most analyses have not moved beyond this fairly obvious analysis and beyond their indignation at the Democrats. Well, the Democrats didn’t disappoint me; I expected a result more or less like this. From the beginning, Nancy Pelosi had made it clear that refusing to fund the war was not an option. Not only for the conservative Democrats and those worried about re-election in competitive districts, but even for the liberal to moderate leadership, that was a red line not to be crossed.

For the rest, it was just a game of chicken. The best the Democrats could have done was to get Bush to agree to some concessions. Since he knew he had nothing to do but stand firm, he wasn’t going to make any except for purely cosmetic ones like those in the final bill.

Even so, at the end the Democrats played their hand badly. They decided to fold in the most humiliating way, they claim, because of fear that over the Memorial Day recess the administration would pound them for not supporting the troops. In fact, it has become very clear that on this matter no one is listening to the president any more.

Where does this result leave us?

I am encouraged by the fact that, excepting Joe Biden, all of the presidential candidates in Congress voted against the bill. Not because it is testimony to the sterling character of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton; in fact, if it was that, it would be a meaningless fact. But consider – out of a mere 10 Democrats in the Senate who voted against the bill, three were presidential candidates.

Dodd, as a minor candidate, has to do something to get people’s attention, but Obama and Clinton, who mostly blow with the prevailing winds and who generally stay in the middle of the pack among Democratic Senators, broke from the pack at the last minute because they realized it would be political suicide to vote for the bill.

Since the masses of the Democratic Party faithful are bitterly tired of the war, Democratic presidential candidates will be forced to oblige them, thus creating strong pressure to bring the rest of the Democrats in Congress on board.

John Murtha has promised another budget fight in September. Whether it has a different outcome than this one will depend strongly on whether the political climate in the United States has changed. Right now, although there would have been public support for showing a little more backbone, there is little for simply refusing to fund the war. The latest poll results show 13% for that position compared to 69% for funding it with “benchmark” requirements – pretty much like the final bill except that the requirements in the latter are toothless.

There is a very hopeful lesson to learn from the budget fight. As little as six months ago, the smart money was on the Democrats’ continuing their previous strategy of doing nothing, allowing Bush to intensify the catastrophe, so that they would win big in the 2008 elections. The appropriations fight shows that the pace of events has overtaken such political considerations – people want action now, not in 2009.

From Empire Notes.