Don’t be fooled by last minute Republican feuds over whether up to $10 billion slated for Iraq should be a "loan." The uneventful passage of President Bush’s new $87 billion package continues a shocking pattern of "debate" in which the central issues are barely mentioned. The timidity Democrats displayed in refusing to make a stand over the plan’s financing is a depressing reminder of how unwinnable Democrats believe most political fights are nowadays.
Critics are mad at Democrats, to be sure, but ultimately for the wrong reasons. Some complain that in voting against the package, House Democrats and some presidential contenders proved the party is unfit to manage national security.
Others instead lament Bush’s high-handedness. How dare Bush tell Democrats that he was not interested in negotiating on the $87 billion, that "this is the way it has to be." What can you do, Democrats whine, when a president says it’s my way or the highway?
For many Democrats, the apparent answer is: "You cave and give the president what he wants." The better answer, which Democrats didn’t have the guts to pursue aggressively, was to filibuster over the plan’s financing, and use the showdown to sear into the public mind the perverse priorities of the Bush White House at a time of supposed war and "sacrifice."
This was the course not taken – a course that would have let Democrats avoid senselessly voting against the $87 billion outright, or simply acting as a rubber stamp.
Senate Democrats should have said, "Whatever you thought of the war, there’s no question we have to finish the job properly in Iraq – the only question is how you pay for it. President Bush wants to put this $87 billion on our kids’ credit card even though we already have record $500 billion deficits – and he’s doing this so that he can give $300 billion in tax cuts each year mostly to the best off people in the country. At a time of supposed sacrifice – not to mention a time when the president says we can’t do anything for the 44 million uninsured in our own country, or for other domestic needs – funding post-war Iraq in this way is immoral. We should pay for it by repealing tax cuts for the best-off."
To his credit, Joe Biden put up such a plan, and John Kerry supported it. But when it lost by a vote of 57-42 in the Senate, Democrats quietly retreated.
Now imagine the national drama that would have ensued if instead John Kerry or Joe Lieberman or John Edwards filibustered and forced a high-profile debate over how we pay for Iraq. It would have been risky, yes – because it would have meant being smeared as "unpatriotic" by the White House. But Democrats could have united behind a message that said, "of course we support the troops — it’s how we pay for this that matters, and I’m sorry, Mr. President, but your plan to make our kids pay for Iraq because you want to keep trillions in tax cuts mostly for the wealthiest is just plain wrong."
The $87 billion request offered what educators call a "teachable moment." The public was stunned by the sums involved, and Democrats could have called a national timeout and broken through.
Why didn’t Democratic leaders seize this opportunity and make a real stand? I can see only three explanations, each as depressing as the next:
1 – They didn’t care enough substantively to pursue it.
2 – They cared substantively but didn’t think they could prevail in such a showdown, given how they think the debate would have played out in the media against a White House with a bigger megaphone.
3 -They cared, but the party is too incoherent on Iraq and its aftermath to agree on a simple message like the one laid out above.
I never heard the word "filibuster" mentioned in relation to the $87 billion. Yet we know top Democrats are threatening the "F" word to stop a tiny voucher plan in Washington D.c=, and a small increase in monthly Medicare premiums for the highest-earning two percent of senior citizens.
To fight to the end for those causes, while rolling over when it comes to funding post-war Iraq more sanely, seems about as wrongheaded as a party can get.
Matthew Miller is a syndicated columnist and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.