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Reputation and the Vote


Several of the comments on this post make what is essentially a reputational argument about the failure of the Democrats to establish a timetable or create other limits on the ability of the President to carry out the war. Since I reject reputational arguments in reference to international politics, I’m not sure why I should take them seriously in the domestic context, either. If I can summarize (and I understand that I may do violence to the intent of some commenters), the argument goes something like this: By backing down, the Democrats in Congress displayed a lack of resolve, and the President will take advantage of this lack of resolve in future conflicts over war funding. I’m skeptical for several reasons:

  • The Democrats didn’t display a lack of resolve. They displayed a lack of votes. I fail to see how reminding everyone of this by failing to stop the war in a prolonged legislative fight improves the situation of the party or begins to end the war.
  • Resolve is important in a theoretical sense because it changes the behavior of the adversary. If the enemy believes we possess resolve, then s/he will be deterred from some behavior that we find unpleasant. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it makes no sense in this context. First, I doubt very much that the President’s beliefs about Democratic resolve or lack thereof are going to change his behavior regarding the war. His own rhetoric has left him with very few options. I don’t really see how, if the Democrats had displayed additional resolve at this juncture, it would have changed Presidential behavior down the line. Moreover, the behavior of the President doesn’t really matter. The next fight over funding will be determined by the ability of Reid and Pelosi to hold the caucus together and to chase down Republican defectors, which is another way of saying that capability instead of resolve will decide the outcome.
  • The theoretical case for the importance of resolve is, in any case, indeterminate. There are multiple ways in which the President (and anyone else) could have interpreted the series of votes on the war. It’s certainly possible that the President believes that the failure of the Democratic Congress to press the withdrawal vote is evidence of lack of will or lack of resolve. But people don’t always view such events in this way; it’s also quite possible that the administration (and other Republicans) understood this as a preparatory effort to a later fight. In any case, like I suggest above, the point is probably moot; I doubt very much that anything about the President’s behavior depends on the behavior of Democrats.

Fighting the tough fight now doesn’t necessarily make the next fight easier, and it can make that fight harder. A demonstration of resolve makes little difference either way. Pressing a fight at an inopportune time can actually prove counter-productive. While Atrios may be right that the oft-mentioned defection of a group of Republicans from the war party will never happen, the practical meaning of this is that, until January 2009, a withdrawal won’t happen, either. The Democrats cannot force a withdrawal without Republican support. Were they to force Bush into some funding shenanigans in order to continue the war, they would still need Republican support in order to punish the administration. The sad fact of the American political system is that what the Democrats want to do cannot be accomplished without the defection of some Republicans. Did the course of events make it easier or harder for marginal Republicans to support the President come September? It’s difficult to say, but my guess is harder; barring a radical transformation of the trends, Iraq will look as bad then as it does now.

I also quite strongly disagree with the contention that nothing was accomplished by the initial vote for a withdrawal timetable. While no formal restriction on the President’s powers was achieved, rhetorical position obviously matters in politics. Pelosi and Reid have taken a party that, a year ago, was confused and disoriented regarding the war have placed it quite clearly on the side of withdrawal. It’s now more obvious than ever that the war is, fundamentally, a Republican war, to be continued with the active support only of the Republican Party, and perhaps only part thereof. This is work that needed to be done in preparation for later funding battles, and is the central achievement of the last several months.

Finally, I quite agree with this, from Terence Samuel:

The war is obviously unpopular, and President Bush’s job approval rating is at historic lows — it would be tempting to just play the strongest available hand. That would be to force him to keep vetoing bill, and to force unpopular votes on the GOP in Congress. That would be easy, but it wouldn’t end the war. The vetoes would be sustained, and at any rate wars don’t end at the conclusion of a roll call vote. It will take Republican votes to force the president into the corner. Those are starting to come; cutting off funding would turn back that support.

So even though the supplemental compromise had the look of past weak-kneed Democratic surrenders, there was a strategic rationale to it that should make the opponents of the war, if not proud, at least hopeful. The slow build from a series of failed non-binding resolutions last summer to a presidential veto this spring shows a level of persistence — and strategery — among Hill Democrats that would make the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue proud.

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