The Democrats' War Mandate

What Are They Going to Do About It?


I predicted back in Reason's August-September issue that public dissatisfaction with the war was not apt to be a major factor in the results of November's election. Everyone seems to agree I was wrong. The standard story of the election has it that the Democrats were propelled to control of both houses of Congress to a very large degree over their opposition to Bush's steadfast stay-the-course path.

This set of CNN exit poll results seems to tell the story unambiguously—as we keep hearing, Iraq was "extremely" or "very" important to 67 percent of the electorate, 56 percent of them disapprove of the war in Iraq, and 55 percent think we should withdraw some or all troops from the baby quagmire.

The standard narrative seems to imply that concern over/dissatisfaction with the Iraq mess means you voted Democratic, the opposition party. But the data tells a slightly more complicated story than that. That same CNN exit poll, with over 13,000 respondents, shows that of the voters who considered Iraq "extremely important" in their vote, 39 percent went Republican. Even more interestingly, of the almost equal percentage of voters who thought the war "very important" (32 to "extremely"'s 35), a majority went Republican—52 percent. Similar, though not as drastic, complications arise from viewing the Democrat/Republican breakdown of those who want to see some or all troops leave Iraq—24 percent of that vote went GOP.

However, if we agree to agree—with some of those complications noted—that dissatisfaction with the occupation of Iraq won the Democrats' the lovely gift of Congress, two other questions remain: were antiwar voters right in assuming—assuming they did--that the Democratic Party stood unambiguously for severe change in policy in Iraq? And now that the Dems won with this supposed anti-occupation mandate, what are they prepared to do about it? What can they do about it?

Every single Democratic incumbent running for their congressional seat won this year—even though 81 House Democrats voted for the original Iraq war resolution (compared to 126 against), as did 29 Senate Democrats. The party certainly had no announced plan to bring the war to a conclusion pushed as an overall national strategy—and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee head Rahm Emanuel seemed to be going out of his way to support less energetically, or not at all, antiwar candidates over ones who wanted to make stopping the war a primary issue. (He has now admitted he was wrong in underestimating how important it would be to the party to be seen as staunchly antiwar.)

Thinking that the newcomers might be a better bellwether of Democratic seriousness over change in Iraq, given the sitting party members checkered and uninspiring record on the matter, I checked out the pre-election statements of all 21 Democrats who beat incumbent Republicans for House seats. In my estimation, in which I tried to err toward giving them antiwar props, I'd place 38 percent of them as solidly for getting the troops out as a high priority, and an equal 38 percent for some variation of sure, the troops need to leave, after everything in Iraq is all cleaned up and hunky-dory. And 24 percent—nearly a quarter of them—didn't seem to be publicly for any serious change in Iraq at all, even if they might pay lip service to the notion that Bush has bungled things. One of our Democratic freshmen, Tim Walz of Minnesota, went so far as to accuse his Republican opponent Gil Gutknecht of "calling for an irresponsible partial removal of American troops."

So, if the American people really have an overwhelming desire to see Bush's Iraq plans turned around, it's not clear that voting Democrat was a means intelligently fitted toward that end. Then again, what the people want to have happen now in Iraq is as filled with ambiguities as trying to suss out the "Democratic Party" as a whole's position on Iraq. This set of recent poll data from multiple sources finds, from Opinion Research Center, 63 percent opposed to the war but only 33 percent wanting full withdrawal; 51 percent, via Pew, who think starting the war was a mistake, but only 48 percent who say bring the troops home; and even within the realm of bringing the troops home, unambiguous majority support for a schedule by which to do so, or what we expect the situation in Iraq to be before we can safely leave, is as hard to find as a street in Baghdad unscarred by improvised explosions. To boot, the Chicago Tribune reports on a poll apparently claiming 51 percent of Americans are "very worried" the Dems will go for a too-hasty troop withdrawal.

What have we seen in the leadup to their official January takeover of Congress? Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi loses her push for the party's most mediagenic antiwar voice, Pennsylvania's John Murtha, to be majority leader, interpreted by many as a sign of immediate weakening of the antiwar forces in the party; winner Steny Hoyer of Maryland, according to the Baltimore Sun, "followed Pelosi'scall for a troop withdrawal from Iraq last year with a warning about the effects of a precipitous pullout." Matt Taibbi writes in the Dec. 14 issue of Rolling Stone of hanging out in antiwarrior Congressman Dennis Kucinich's office and seeing a thick binder his staffed compiled called "Iraq: Post-election Democratic Stances."

Taibbi comes to two apt conclusions: "One, the Democrats have already taken enough different positions on Iraq since the elections to fill a large binder; and two, that the party is under intense surveillance by its more progressive-minded wing, who already suspect the leadership of looking for ways to pass the buck on Iraq." We've got Senate Democrats calling for a special envoy to Iraq—yes, if only the right person can be found to talk some sense into those Shiites and Sunnis, things might just turn around—and Sen. Carl Levin, next chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talking about talking about a phased withdrawal to begin in 4-6 months, end who knows when, and which he can't make the obstinate commander in chief agree to at any rate. Presidential hopeful Barack Obama can only summon the energy for a "limited drawdown" and Our Next President Hillary Clinton, while a Johnny-come-lately to Iraq criticism, is "still essentially a hawk" in the summation of the National Journal's Chuck Todd.

I talked to antiwar watchers from both the left and libertarian sides late last week—John Nichols of the Nation and Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute. Both thought the election was an antiwar mandate. But both also agreed that it isn't apt to mean anything. There are various "radical change" plans floating around the Democratic Party world of chatter, none with a strong phalanx of support—from the McGovern/Polk "leave, and pay for international security in Iraq" plan to Sen. Joe Biden's tripartite split to incoming "Still the One" songwriter Congressman John Hall of New York's affection for Thomas Barnett's Pentagon's New Maptruly multilateral force to pacify Iraq. Amidst this conceptual chaos, the Nation's Nichols praised Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska for "sounding more realistic and responsible than most if not all of the Democrats who are positioning themselves for 2OO8 presidential runs."

Both Nichols and Carpenter hold out hope that that Republicans might be the secret force that will ultimately push harder on Bush than the Democrats, even with their antiwar mandate, will. Carpenter predicts that many more Republicans, especially in the Senate, might start abandoning Bush on his pet war in the next two years, pointing out that in 2008 many Senate Republicans elected in the disproportionately GOP-lucky 2002 might not want the albatross of public dissatisfaction with Iraq weighing on them. Nichols agrees on the 2002 factor, and thinks the results of November may free many GOP senators to give in to their realism—whether classic foreign policy realism or merely realism about their electoral chances in 2008—and try to give the people what they seem to want when it comes to Iraq.

Next up in the Iraq game, of course, is the forthcoming Baker-Hamilton report, with its rumored combination of an untimed shifting of 15 brigades and renewed diplomacy with nations Bush doesn't trust. It represents a possible danger in Nichols' estimation for any more radical pullout plan; Nichols thinks it might provide a half-assed beginning to a continued but unending shifting of troops and that might give the Democrats bipartisan cover to claim that a change in Iraq policy is at least on the table, and thus fulfills their difficult mandate.

The ultimate reason why voters' faith in a Democratic Congress as a force for change in Iraq, to the extent it existed, was foolish: except for cutting the president's funding for the war, there isn't a damn thing they can ultimately do about it in the face of a Bush who is even now saying things like, as in Latvia last week, "there is one thing I'm not going to do: I'm not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."

And though Nichols fondly remembers the very old days of the Republic, when even as the Brits were invading our soil in the war of 1812 Congress was still seriously debating whether to continue funding the war, the fact is, there is no way this Congress is going to do anything that radical. Pelosi has said so; so has Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid.

So, where does that leave us? With an electorate who seem to want the war over and a president who insists on hanging tough despite the mounting blood and exploding bombs. Between them stands a Congress that can paper Bush with resolutions until the 12th Imam comes home, but until they are prepared to give him a budget that gives him no cash "for the troops" then nothing will change.

Both Nichols and Carpenter rightly noted that antiwar forces cannot fool themselves into thinking that a U.S. withdrawal will produce some obvious and quick good result on the ground in Iraq. Given the sad reality that, forced as we are by Bush's bungling into a situation with nothing but bad options, the situation in Iraq during and immediately after any U.S. pullout is apt to be as big, or even bigger, a chaotic violent horrifying mess than the one we are now futilely and poorly babysitting, will the Democrats, especially ones with presidential dreams, dare to run in 2008 against a hideous backdrop where they can be demonized as the craven capitulators who "lost Iraq"?

As David Sanger summed up in the New York Times last week, "Despite the Democrats' victory last month in an election viewed as a referendum on the war, the idea of a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal is fast receding as a viable option." What fueled my column predicting little effect for the war on this year's election was a belief that our political masters don't always feel inclined to follow the public interest or the public will. Especially given that voting Democratic was by no means the same as voting for a clearly expressed withdrawal from Iraq, even if many voters seemed to think so, while my prediction that the war would not be a decisive political issue seems falsified specifically, I'm not convinced I was entirely wrong: if elections are meant to be a way for the people's will to be actuated through politics, then it does seem as if people's attitudes toward the war were not really vitally important after all.

Senior editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and the forthcoming Radicals for Capitalism.