The Surge Dirge
Congressional Democrats hate the surge. But they don't dare try to stop it.
Sen. Ted Kennedy is the Senate Democrats' army of one, trying to launch a revolution when they would prefer cordial discussion. Scheduled to discuss health care at the National Press Club, Kennedy uncorked a stemwinder about the Democrats' responsibility to shut down the Iraq war. He is proposing legislation that would prevent the troop surge President Bush will unveil tomorrow night by prohibiting additional troops and additional dollars for it. Kennedy implored his brothers and sisters in Congress to resist the president's specific new plan, and to revive their branch of government—to "reclaim the rightful role of Congress and the people's right to a full voice."
"We have the solemn obligation now to show the American people that we heard their voices," Kennedy thundered. Democrats in Congress must fight Bush with something more than "pale actions, timid gestures and empty rhetoric."
Shortly afterward, across town in the U.S. Capitol, the new Senate Democratic leaders took their place before the microphones just off the Senate floor to put forward their plan: a bipartisan, nonbinding bill called the Pale Action and Timid Gesture Resolution. That wasn't the real name, of course, but it is exactly what Kennedy insisted Congress should not do. Afterward, I asked Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois what had happened to his own suggestion that Congress limit the number of troops that could fight in Iraq as a way to stop the surge. "That's Senator Kennedy's bill," said the second-highest-ranking Democrat. Yes, but didn't you suggest that troops be limited, I asked? "That's Senator Kennedy's bill." You're on your own, Ted.
Senate Democratic leaders say they are merely being sensible. They don't want an effort to stop funding for the new strategy to be misinterpreted as a lack of support for American troops. In two days of reporting on the House and Senate side, it is clear that Democratic leaders are more worried about being tagged as anti-G.I. than being penalized by liberals for not doing all they can to end the war. Their posture may change, but for now, what seems likely is that the Democrats will do no more than put together a nonbinding resolution that would show disapproval.
There are reasons for Democrats to be cautious in challenging the president on Iraq. As Sen. Joe Biden argues, the president has the authority to conduct his war, so why provoke an ugly fight that the Democrats would lose and that would also expose them to easy caricature? Polls show that Democrats do still have to convince the country that they can be stewards of America's national-security interests. The tepid measure also could fracture the GOP. By promoting the less confrontational nonbinding resolution, Democrats can corral uneasy Republicans like Susan Collins, Chuck Hagel, and Richard Lugar, who have said they are against a surge. A bipartisan piece of weak legislation would make more of a public statement than a partisan effort to limit funding.
These arguments will not sit well with the liberal activists who are planning to deluge their Democratic representatives in the coming days with petitions, rallies, and phone calls demanding a strong against the troop increase.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Photograph of Sen. Ted Kennedy on Slate's home page by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images.