Rich Galen, former communications director for Newt Gingrich, recently compared the Democrats fight to fund the Iraq War with the newly elected Republican house of 1995. His point was that both parties tried to set the agenda and introduce change by using the “will of the American people” argument. Newly elected leaders say things like they have a “mandate” from the people because a majority just voted for them. Political capital, they call it.
However, just like Gingrich in 1995, Pelosi failed in her efforts to introduce a timetable to end the war. Galen’s point was that both efforts failed because of the increased powers of the President to set the agenda. Bush effectively argued that a bill was needed to fund the troops and painted the Democrats as standing in the way. In Clinton’s case, he called Gingrich’s bluff and shut down the government due to lack of funding. Then, he portrayed Republicans as standing in the way of progress.
Now while it’s true that the President has an increasingly powerful role in setting the agenda, I believe Pelosi and the Democrats have lost for quite another reason. A timetable for getting the troops out of Iraq is not what most Americans want.
I don’t care how many polls are taken saying that Americans agree with a timetable for withdrawal. This question is not getting to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is not the policy, but our values.
So what are our values when it comes to Iraq?
Most people I’ve talked with say that they feel responsible for the war and are worried about what will happen to the Iraqi people if we leave now. We want an end to the war, but we want a successful end to the war. And success does not mean abandoning the Iraqi people.
This belief is one reason why Bush’s argument about timetables emboldening the enemy has been so successful. Establishing a timetable for withdrawal, to most people, means we’re going to leave without success.
Notice how Republicans also have used the leaving the decision to the “boots on the ground” argument very effectively. They’re closest to the situation, have the most experience, and offer the best odds of success. (Sure, he keeps replacing the “boots on the ground” with his own boots, but we’re talking about the Republican strategy here, not what has actually happened.) This strategy speaks to our values.
Democrats, if they want to be more successful, should come up with a strategy that speaks more to what the average American wants, a successful end to the war in Iraq. Notice that the key word here is “successful.”
So what would I suggest the Democratic strategy should be?
1) Talk about a successful end to the war in Iraq
2) A successful end to the war in Iraq will require us to listen to the experts such as the Iraq study group. We have a plan, it’s just being ignored.
3) Push Bush to explain what the goal in Iraq is
4) Don’t get drawn into a policy discussion, keep coming back to the fact that we need more diplomacy and better management
Democrats have to win the values war before they win the policy war. If there’s one thing that Republicans understand, it is this point.
People believe that George Bush has created a giant mess in Iraq. But people also believe that the Democrats are offering few alternatives. Why do they believe this? Because of showdowns like the Congressional timetable bill.