Public Opinion and Political Power On Iraq
by Chris Bowers, Tue May 22, 2007 at 03:43:06 PM EDT
Also, it is unclear how much public opinion really has to do with any of this anyway. A few weeks ago, only two Republicans in the House voted to override Bush's veto, just as only two Republicans in the Senate voted for the timeline. In the end, the Democratic leadership has neither the short-term ability to override Bush's veto, nor the somewhat less short-term ability to prevent enough Democrats from joining with Republicans to pass a total blank check. That is an issue of political power, not one of ethics or public opinion. Speaking in terms of power, the situation could have been handled much better politically, especially by not creating a self-imposed Friday deadline before funds were released unconditionally. That self-imposed Friday deadline was only time a "date for surrender" was actually floated in this entire fight. There was no need to do that, and it heavily undermined our negotiating position.
Then again, even if that mistake had it not been made it seems doubtful the outcome would have changed all that much. The self-imposed Friday deadline was only a small blip in the overall balance of power in this fight. In contemporary American politics, neither public opinion nor an occasional slip-up in the media does not directly equal political power. In Washington, D.C., for those who run the government, the public is quite distant and faceless, and long-term images and narratives matter more than occasional soundbites. By way of contrast, large donors, consultants, lobbyists, center-right opinion journalists and policy presentations from "think tanks" like Third Way are quite real. While we certainly seem to have public opinion behind us in terms of Iraq policy, and even though we now have a majority on Congress, we seem to lack the political power in those other areas to turn that public opinion into actual, legally binding policy. In fact, this is an important deficit we face not just in terms of the Iraq supplemental fight, but in terms of basically every policy issue, and every framing of every policy issue, that comes down the pipe. Public opinion just isn't enough anymore, especially when the next election is eighteen months down the road. If public opinion was the decisive factor, Bush's veto of the Iraq Accountability Act would have been easily overridden, and any benchmarks, timelines and troop readiness standards in the act would have been legally binding.
Given this, the biggest meta-issue for progressives after this phase of the fight should not be how we stiffen the resolve of the Democratic leadership, or how we get more Republicans to defect. Those are important issues, but they are somewhat narrowly focused. The overall issue is how we move from a solid base of about 160-175 progressive votes in the House, and 25-30 solid progressive votes in the Senate, to number far closer to a majority. Where can we make improvements in solid blue open seats, in primary challenges, and in seats currently held by Republicans? Further, where we are unable to replace members of Congress with new members who would vote better, how do we improve the voting behavior of current members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican? What campaign and messaging opportunities present themselves in the short term, and what infrastructure changes do we need in the long term? Only when we develop comprehensive answers to all of those questions can we develop a roadmap to building the political power necessary to win fights like the one over the Iraq supplemental.
Clearly, securing a majority of public opinion and a Democratic majority in Congress simply are not enough. It should be enough, but it isn't. Even if we have the trifecta, it might not be enough on a whole range of issues. Beyond public opinion, and beyond elective office, we need a majority in terms of political power as well. Right now, we just don't have that.
One of the problems the Democratic congressional leadership faces on Iraq is that the public is somewhat of two minds on what they should do to change course. For example, two months ago Pew produced polling that most people did not think Democrats in Congress were going far enough to stand up to Bush:
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. March 21-25, 2007. N=1,503 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.A quick look at the partisan breakdown of these numbers shows that a majority of Democrats, 56%, and a plurality of Independents, 40%, thought that Democrats in Congress were not going far enough. Only 7% of Democrats and 20% of Independents thought they were going too far. While it is possible that those numbers changed after Democrats sent a bill with a timeline to Bush's desk, there is no data either way. Anyway, and unfortunately, while the public thinks Democrats need to go further in challenging Bush, they also accept the Republican frame Congress will be held responsible. From a recent CNN poll:
"Do you think Democratic leaders in Congress are going too far or not far enough in challenging George W. Bush's policies in Iraq, or are they handling this about right?"
Too Far: 23%, Not far enough: 40%, About right: 30%, Unsure: 7%
CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll. May 4-6, 2007. N=1,028 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.There are probably justifiable arguments to be made about the wording of this question, but a poll from CBS last month really sums up this split well:
"Who do you think is MORE responsible for the fact that the U.S. troops currently in Iraq have not yet received additional funds: President Bush, because he vetoed the Iraq funding bill passed by Congress, OR, the Democrats in Congress, because they passed an Iraq funding bill that they knew Bush would veto?"
Bush: 34%, Congress: 44%, Both (vol): 14%, Neither (vol): 4%, Unsure: 4%
CBS News/New York Times Poll. April 20-24, 2007. N=1,052 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3Aaarrgghhhh!!!! By an overwhelming margin, Americans think that Congress should have the final say, but by an equally overwhelming margin, they think Congress should do what Bush wants. Make up your mind, America. This seems to indicate to me that they agree with Democrats on Iraq policy, but that they also accept Republican framing that withholding funds would be abandoning troops in the field. These two positions are ultimately contradictory, and probably based in the Democratic failure to challenge Republican "cutting funding for the troops in the field" frame back in December-February. And so, we are left with an electorate that agrees with us on Iraq, but doesn't actually want us to carry out those policies if Bush fights back. Given these contradictions, I am really not sure what impact temporary capitulation to Bush on Iraq will have on Democratic popularity in Congress. In both cases, by sending a timeline and then caving, we are taking the popular route. Certainly, some elements of the base will feel frustrated with the leadership. However, low approval ratings from fellow Democrats did not hurt congressional Democrats in 2006, and that frustration could disappear if Democrats achieve real Iraq success is slowing the war down the road.
"Currently, President Bush and Congress disagree about what to do about U.S. troop levels in Iraq. Who do you think should have the final say about troop levels in Iraq: the President or Congress?"
President 35%--57% Congress
"The Democrats in Congress have proposed to fund the Iraq war only if the U.S. sets a timetable for troop withdrawal, too. George W. Bush has stated he will veto that proposal. If George W. Bush does veto it, what should the Democrats in Congress do next: should they try to withhold funding for the war until George W. Bush accepts a timetable for troop withdrawal, or should they allow funding for the war, even if there is no timetable?"
Withhold funding 35%--56% Allow funding