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See You in September

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, May 25, 2007

"Let's grow up, conservatives!"

Barry M. Goldwater's declaration at the 1960 Republican National Convention was designed to quell a rebellion against Richard M. Nixon, whom conservatives saw as selling out to liberals on various platform planks. Goldwater's next line was uncannily prophetic: "If we want to take this party back, and I think we can someday, let's get to work." Forty-seven years later, the conservatives whose cause Goldwater championed still dominate the Republican Party.

The Democratic Party's progressive wing, furious at what it sees as the capitulation of its congressional leaders to President Bush on the Iraq war, should remember this history. The decision to drop withdrawal timelines from the Iraq supplemental appropriations bill is not a decisive defeat. It is a temporary setback in a much longer struggle for minds and votes that the administration's critics are actually winning.

The progressives' anger is not hard to fathom. Bush's botched war has been immensely harmful to our country. Polls show that most Americans want out. Democrats won the 2006 midterm election in significant part because of the public's exhaustion with the war and with the Bush presidency. According to the Real Clear Politics Web site, the president's disapproval rating across a series of polls averages 61 percent. Opponents of the war feel the wind at their backs. Why, they ask, did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cave in?

Pelosi is surprisingly calm in the face of the assault from the left. The speaker, whom Republicans love to attack as an off-the-charts liberal, is regularly confronted with antiwar demonstrators outside her San Francisco home. (Their activities, she says with a smile, are "making me an unpleasant neighbor to my neighbors.") "I understand their view," she said during an interview at her Capitol office on Wednesday, even as the liberal Web sites were burning with scorn for the Democratic leaders. "I'm one who voted against this war in the first place." She argues that the war's opponents are "relentless, dissatisfied and persistent" and thus "play an important role." But she adds: "My role is different."

Pelosi's case is that the war's congressional opponents have already helped move the debate by passing antiwar measures and by prying Republicans loose from the president's policy. "It is just a matter of time," she says, before Republicans can "no longer stay with the president."

She gets support from one of the House's most vociferous opponents of the war, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), lead sponsor of the strongest House withdrawal proposal. McGovern sees Pelosi as a passionate opponent of the war who is in it to win in the legislative process. "For her, it's not therapy," he says.

He notes that the agreement to go forward with the funding bill passed yesterday (a majority of House Democrats, Pelosi among them, opposed it) included a promise to take up his withdrawal amendment this fall. This gives teeth to Pelosi's pledge -- "we'll see you in September" -- to continue to battle Bush on the war.

As a tactical matter, it could have been useful for the Democrats to move another bill containing timelines to Bush's desk for a second veto, simply to underscore the president's unwillingness to seek bipartisan accord on a change in policy. But these are the brute facts: Democrats narrowly control the House but don't have an effective majority in the Senate since Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) votes with the Republicans on the war and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is still too ill to vote.

Democrats, in short, have enough power to complicate the president's life, but not enough to impose their will. Moreover, there is genuine disagreement even among Bush's Democratic critics over what the pace of withdrawal should be and how to minimize the damage of this war to the country's long-term interests. That is neither shocking nor appalling, but, yes, it complicates things. So does the fact that the minority wields enormous power in the Senate.

What was true in January thus remains true today: The president will be forced to change his policy only when enough Republicans tell him he has to. Facing this is no fun; it's just necessary.

Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said recently that no one remembers how long it took to reverse the direction of American policy in Vietnam. Obey is hunkered down for a lengthy struggle.

In a divided system, democracy can be frustratingly slow. But it usually works. Critics of the war should spend less time mourning the setbacks of May and begin organizing for a showdown in September. They would profit from taking Barry Goldwater's long view.

postchat@aol.com


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