“Liberal Idiots”

Reality Check for Iraq War Opponents

Scott Lilly reflects on why his old boss, Rep. David Obey, tossed that quip about “liberal idiots” toward an Iraq War opponent.

As the result of a concealed camera and the miracle of YouTube, my old boss, Dave Obey (D-WI), roiled the political waters last week by using the term “liberal idiots” during an argument with an Iraq war protestor. The heated exchange offers lessons amid today’s debate on the War in Iraq—lessons we should have learned 30 years ago.

Tina Richards, the mother of an Iraq war veteran, took the time and energy last week to travel from the rural Missouri Ozarks to her nation’s capital without taking the time to learn what Congress had the power to do with respect to her issue (the war) or what the political realities within Congress made it possible for opponents of the war to accomplish. Accosted by Richards and a crew of young antiwar activists in a Rayburn Office Building hallway, Obey eventually lost patience and responded in the brutally frank but thoroughly honest manner that has been his hallmark.

I have been a liberal all of my life and I would take umbrage at anyone—even my old boss—suggesting that all liberals are idiots, yet I can remember more than a few occasions when people who professed to be liberals behaved like idiots.  

As a young soldier in the early 1970s, I prayed every morning that I would not “come down on orders” for Vietnam and would not be placed in a position where I would have to shoot at people who posed no plausible threat to me or my country. I was extremely angry and frustrated with the President and Congress for not putting an end to a mindless conflict that was disrupting my life, causing the deaths of so many innocent people, and wasting resources so desperately needed for real problems facing our society at home.

But I was almost as frustrated by the mindless antics of many opposing the war who did little more than harden the resolve of the war’s supporters and dissuade those who might otherwise have become war opponents. They provided a perfect foil for Richard Nixon, who had run out of explanations to justify the continuation of the conflict. Nixon turned the debate over the “war” into a debate over the “war movement,” a bait-and-switch that helped him rally support even among people who had growing reservations about what they witnessed each night on television.  

To this day, I think those who insisted on injecting arguments about drugs, sex, personal hygiene, and respect for law into the debate over Viet Nam prolonged the war (perhaps by years) and, as a consequence, contributed to the deaths of hundreds and possibly thousands of my fellow soldiers. That is a lesson that anyone engaged in a struggle to build a coalition large enough and strong enough to change national policy should remember.

If opponents of the Iraq War truly care about stopping the carnage, it is worth the time and trouble to understand the political process and work for the smartest strategy to end this engagement rather than the one that is most extreme or viscerally satisfying. Passion is only part of the equation. In many instances, passion alone can be counterproductive.

The 2006 election handed President Bush a clear rebuke for his handling of a range of issues and the Iraq war in particular. But some liberals (championing a variety of causes) have tried to exaggerate the meaning of that election and the message sent by voters. The off-year election did not, among other things, invalidate the election that occurred two years before.

A majority of voters may now regret the election decision of 2004, but George Bush is clearly still president and continues to have the full Constitutional powers of that office, including the position of commander and chief and the use of the “veto pen.” Any legislation that is to become law must bear his signature or have the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress.

In simple terms that means 58 Republican members of the House of Representatives and 15 Republican Senators in order to pass legislation over the President’s veto. No matter how passionate you are in your opposition to this conflict, those numbers don’t change.

There is one decisive action that the Congress could theoretically take with respect to Iraq given Bush’s Constitutional authorities. Tina Richards referred to it in her exchange with Obey. Congress could simply refuse to pass any legislation providing further funding for the war. That sounds both simple and effective. But there are serious downsides to such a strategy that devoted opponents of this war should reflect upon.

Failure to pass further appropriations means a cut-off of supplies to troops in harm’s way. It means no fuel, no ammunition, and no medical supplies. As the months pass and the Congress and the President remain at an impasse, the men and women on the ground in Iraq will not only be caught between Sunni and Sh’ia militias, but also between the two branches of their own government. Such an action would actually even deprive the President of the funds needed to bring the troops home if he suddenly came to his senses and decided to do so.  

Members of Congress of both parties have overwhelmingly gone on record against such an approach. Many of the individual states and congressional districts responsible for the President’s party losing control of Congress were won by candidates who specifically promised their constituents that they would not support such a strategy.

Well-meaning people can argue about whether or not such a strategy would be good policy or whether or not it would be good politics. But there is little room for argument as to whether such a stance is a viable legislative strategy. There are 435 members of the House and if all are present and voting, 218 must support a proposition before it can even clear the House and be sent to the Senate.

If your opposition to the war extends beyond the blogesphere into the real world where laws are made and decisions have consequences, you have to think about 218 votes, where they might come from and what specific language might make it possible to attain them. It is hard work and it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it is a struggle that we will probably go through repeatedly in the coming months as the Congress and the White House face off on ways to put an end to our tragic involvement in Iraq.

At a very minimum, I would urge my fellow Ozarker, Tina Richards, to refocus her efforts in at least one respect. Your representative in Congress is not Dave Obey; it is
Jo Ann Emerson, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee. Unlike Obey, however, she does not (at least openly) agree with you on the President’s Iraq policy. If you, your friends, and your neighbors would spend more time talking to Emerson, then Obey might find the votes for language that you and he would both like better than the language on which he will likely be forced to settle.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His columns can be found on the Open Government page of the Center’s website. To speak with Lilly please contact:

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow