The Coming Budget Fight

November 23, 2007 at 4:14 pm

Whitehouse Press secretary Dana Perino, before taking off for Thanksgiving, laid the blame squarely on the Democrats for not giving President Bush his war money with no strings attached.

Perino said Congress should “send the President supplemental war funding without arbitrary surrender dates and without micromanaging the war before they leave for their next vacation.”

Of course this was to be expected. What does the party of personal responsibility do? Blame Congress. To be expected.

Democrats at least seem slightly more prepared this time. David Obey offered this response:

“If the president wants that $50 billion released, all he has to do is call the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and ask him to stop blocking it.”

Clever. And I have to give Obey credit for taking a principled stand to end the war. His viewpoint that we have ruined any standing we once had in the Middle East is a view that the Democrats should express much more.

Unfortunately, I believe Obey is set for a political massacre as long as the Republicans are setting the vision and framing the argument in terms of success versus failure. They will say that we are winning, why pull the rug out from under our efforts? And it will appear to be true. And I don’t think that the Democrats have an answer because they spent so much time focusing on the death count in Iraq as the only sign of failure.

Now that the death count is down, it appears like we are making progress. Bush has built his case around winning Iraq. Now that it appears like we’re winning, Bush has the upper political hand.

The beauty (and horror) of Bush’s Iraq policy is that now, we really may need to have a force in Iraq to maintain peace. But not because of Iraq. Because of our invasion of Iraq. Like any good salesman, Bush created the problem and then offered the solution.

Given that this is true, Democrats still have to wrestle with the political reality that Bush’s strategy appears to be working. He is demonstrating less deaths in Iraq. And because of that, this budget showdown is painting Democrats into a “no win” situation. If they cave in to Bush’s demands, they look weak. And if they stubbornly continue to push for a timetable, they get massacred in the court of public opinion for “surrendering”.

Do you see how Republicans can’t lose in this fight? Their media publicists have to be licking their lips.

The Democrats need to think about their strategy. They are fighting at the procedural level while ceding the vision to Bush. As long as people accept his vision of the War on Terror, he will win. This is why the Democrats’ single biggest priority should be on establishing their vision, whatever it may be.

I’d propose that their vision should be “A Successful End to the War in Iraq.”

Obey has the right idea that we should be asking: what are we getting for all this money? But to add a timeline for withdrawal into the budget is political suicide.

Instead, they should be asking the President what we’re going to get for this money. Wherever possible, they should be attaching benchmarks for success to the money. And make the President tell us how he knows he’s succeeding. The Democrats can then claim the high ground and say that they’re putting partisanship aside to succeed in this war so that we can leave as quickly as possible.

But, and this is an important but, you have to tell us when we can claim victory. Tie it to an election, tie it to the creation of an Iraqi military. But tie it to something that doesn’t seem like surrender: aka timelines. The story then becomes we need to succeed so we can get out.

This strategy is very similar to what a board would expect from a CEO. We will continue to fund you as long as you are getting results. But you have to SHOW us how you are getting results. And these results have to be verifiable by independent means; we will not simply accept Bush’s generals telling us we’re winning.

Unfortunately, I think it may be too late. The showdown appears to be set. And as much as I hate to say it for as poorly as this war has been run, the current CEO seems to have the winning cards.