Not the Headline We Want on Iraq

The headline on the front page of tomorrow's edition of The Washington Post reads as follows: "Democrats Back Down On Iraq Timetable". Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray have the rest of the story for the paper.

President Bush and congressional leaders began negotiating a second war funding bill yesterday, with Democrats offering the first major concession: an agreement to drop their demand for a timeline to bring troops home from Iraq.

Democrats backed off after the House failed, on a vote of 222 to 203, to override the president's veto of a $124 billion measure that would have required U.S. forces to begin withdrawing as early as July. But party leaders made it clear that the next bill will have to include language that influences war policy. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) outlined a second measure that would step up Iraqi accountability, "transition" the U.S. military role and show "a reasonable way to end this war."

"We made our position clear. He made his position clear. Now it is time for us to try to work together," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said after a White House meeting. "But make no mistake: Democrats are committed to ending this war."

There are a number of reasons why this is exactly the type of story the Democrats do not want to see on the issue of Iraq. To begin, and this is extremely important, on a policy level is well past time to bring American military involvement in the Iraq War to an end. America is investing too much, both in terms of dollars and lives, for a cause that is not winnable militarily. What's more, that which America can still accomplish in Iraq is not necessarily contingent on a continued military presence in the country. As such, the suggestion that the Democrats are giving up on the cause of ending the war is extremely problematic.

On a political level, too, standing down to the President on Iraq is quite problematic. While one can argue as to whether the Democrats were elected in 2006 to end the war in Iraq -- there is certainly a case to be made that this is true, but others might argue that the Democrats' mandate on the issue is more properly defined as bringing "change" to America's Iraq policy, whatever that means -- it is clear that a strong majority of Americans favor setting a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq (57 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll; 59 percent according to a recent Pew Poll; 64 percent, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll; etc.). As such, there is real risk for the Democrats in not going far enough rather than going to far to end the Iraq War.

And on a meta level, headlines like this from The Post spell trouble for the Democrats. Josh Marshall has what he calls the Republican Bitch-Slap Theory of Politics which states, and I'm just paraphrasing here, that whenever the Republicans hit the Democrats and the Democrats don't hit back effectively -- whether in the case of John Kerry and the Swiftboats or the battle over ending the war in Iraq -- it makes the Democrats look weak, both as related to the specific issue but also more broadly ("Someone who can't or won't defend themselves certainly isn't someone you can depend upon to defend you", writes Marshall). By backing down so quickly on this issue, the Democrats don't exactly exude strength.

I will admit that I don't know exactly what the answer is on this issue. I tend to favor the strategy, espoused earlier by some including Jack Murtha, of sending legislation to the President that covers a more limited amount of time, funding the war for perhaps two or three months, and continue to do this until enough Republican votes are peeled off to force the President's hand. A number of Presidential candidates have layed out alternative strategies, with John Edwards advocating that the Democrats continue to pass the same bill they had already passed and force the President to continue to veto it, Bill Richardson favoring legislation that would deauthorize the war, and Chris Dodd backing legislation that would set a firm deadline, for example. Whatever the case, I'm quite skeptical that "back[ing] down" on a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, as The Post put it, is the best course of action for Congressional Democrats.

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Bush, House GOP Side with CEOs Over Shareholders

This afternoon the House of Representatives held an important vote on legislation that would, for the first time, allow shareholders of corporations to at least have a say in the salaries given to executives. While the legislation did not give shareholders veto power, the power to make a statement of approval or disapprobation could go a long way towards reining in excessive CEO pay -- particularly in cases in which corporations are hemorrhaging money but executives still receive fat paychecks and ridiculous bonuses.

Yet on this sensible piece of legislation, how did most House Republicans vote? Nay, naturally. Of the 184 memberds of the House Republican caucus who voted on this bill this afternoon, fully 70 percent (129) voted in the opposition. This group not only included members of the leadership, like Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Roy Blunt, but also potentially endangered members, including (and I got a lot of them, but certainly not all of them): Vern Buchanan (FL-13), Mike Castle (DE-AL), Tom Davis (VA-11), John Doolittle (CA-04), Phil English (PA-03), Vito Fossella (NY-13), Scott Garrett (NJ-05), Peter King (NY-03), Randy Kuhl (NY-29), Tom Latham (IA-04), Thad McCotter (MI-11), Dave Reichert (WA-08), Rick Renzi (AZ-01), Tom Reynolds (NY-26), Mike Rogers (MI-08), Jean Schmidt (OH-02), Chris Shays (CT-04), Tim Walberg (MI-07) and Heather Wilson (NM-01).

But it's not only the House Republicans, including some of their most vulnerbable members, who are staking out a position against the average shareholder and in favor of corporate CEOs making tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year (even as some of their companies lose money). Today we learned that the White House also opposes such a move by Congress to empower everyday Americans to take real ownership over their investments, just as the extremely wealthy are able to do. While the President has apparently stopped short of issuing a veto threat, it has nonetheless indicated quite clearly to the American people just whose side it's on.

Judging by the vote in the House today, Democrats could be within fewer than 10 votes of a veto-proof margin in the House (if you count the dozen or so Democrats not voting as "ayes"). Now action will move to the Senate where the corporatists up for reelection in 2008 -- the John Sununus, Gordon Smiths, Norm Colemans and others -- will have to decide whether they care more about appeasing their big-money supporters or the people who will actually have more of a say as to whether or not they will have another term in Congress. My guess is that most of these endangered Republicans, just like their brethren in the House, are dense enough to believe that they can get away with voting for corporate CEOs and against the average shareholder, but we shall have to wait and see.

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A Little More the Republican Overreach on Prescription Drugs

I'd to add just a few thoughts to my previous post on John Sununu's vote against allowing the federal government to negotiate the price of drugs it helps subsidize for seniors through the Medicare Part D program that go beyond the particulars of the New Hampshire Republican.

As I noted yesterday, the concern trolls are out in full force these days warning Democrats that they had better not "overreach" on issues like Iraq for fear that they might end up in the same situation as Newt Gingrich a decade earlier. But where are those analysts warnings to Republicans who are much more clearly overplaying their much weaker hands?

Looking at the polling on this particular issue -- empowering the government to negotiate prescription drug prices -- the vast majority of Americans back the Democratic position. It's not even close. Nonpartisan polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation released in December found that an incredible 85 percent of Americans want the government to be able to negotiate prescription drug prices. According to that same poll (.pdf), which was in the field in last November after the midterm elections and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, more than one in six (18 percent) want presidential candidates to talk about and the President and Congress to work on "improving the Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors", and the program as a whole receives fairly low ratings from the public, with 37 percent rating it favorably and 31 percent rating it unfavorably. A whopping 70 percent believe that the program either needs minor or major changes and 57 percent at least somewhat agree that the program "benefits private health plans and pharmaceutical companies too much."

But even more to the point, while 60 percent believe that a move to allow the federal government to negotiate would "lead to government price controls on prescription drugs", even larger majorities of 80 percent and 81 percent, respectively, believe that such a move would "make medicines more affordable for people on Medicare" and would make "sense because the government already negotiates lower prices for members of the military and veterans."

So the numbers on government negotiation make one point clear: The Republicans are on the wrong side of the issue. Yet what is the headline in The Hill newspaper today? "Senate Republicans triumph on vote on prescription drugs". Instead of analysts warning Republicans that filibustering extremely popular legislation is a bad political tactic, Republicans are rewarded with positive headlines that make it seem that they are reaping political benefits, not the Democrats. Frankly, I don't buy it. And if Republicans continue to obstruct Democratic moves to pass good, much-needed legislation that has the wide and deep support of the American people, they are going to find it mighty difficult to reemerge from the political wilderness come next fall.

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Is Harry Reid Really an Albatross for Senate Dems? Really?!

During the course of the 2006 midterm elections and even since, we've often heard from the pundits and those on the other side of the aisle that Nancy Pelosi, then Minority Leader and now House Speaker, was such a partisan and divisive figure that she would drag down the Democrats either by hurting the party's candidates in districts around the country on November 7 of last year or by making incumbents seem to liberal for their districts by next fall. As early as September and several times since (here, here, here, here, here and here) I've tried to underscore the fact that these predictions from the concern trolls were bound to fail and have indeed failed as Pelosi has remained remarkably popular among the electorate despite the near-constant barrage of attacks from the right in recent months in years.

Now the concern trolls are turning their attention to the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, similarly warning Democrats that they could face dire consequences if Reid continues to hold steadfast to his principles rather than caving into the President and Republicans in the chamber. To get an idea of this, take a look at Daphne Retter's article in the most recent issue of CQ Weekly (sorry, no link available).

If Reid continues to run the Senate without reaching out to Republicans, experts say he could overplay his hand in the manner of Newt Gingrich, who as House Speaker made the congressional majority in the middle 1990s a politically unpopular foil for President Bill Clinton. "The big pitfall is the Gingrich pitfall: Do they become an extremist party that the president can work against?" said congressional historian Julian Zelizer of Boston University.

Reid will have to produce more than symbolic partisan victories, said Zelizer, to prove to the electorate that the new regime is more effective than the one it threw out in November. That means looking at more than just Iraq when interpreting the results of the power-shifting election --yes, voters were frustrated about the war, but they also were unhappy with what they perceived as a Washington that wasn't working in other ways.

"The vote last November was a moderate vote," said Nancy Beck Young, a congressional expert at McKendree College in Illinois. "Democrats have to find a way to appear above the fray of politics. . . . It's hard to do it now, with the presidential election coming down the pike, but that's how things get done."

Even leaving aside the fact that the policies being pursued by Reid and the Senate Democrats, particularly on the issue of the Iraq, have the backing of a clear majority of voters, including a clear majority of Independents, there is real reason to discount these predictions.

The pundits indeed read the situation of Newt Gingrich correctly. Gingrich was a highly divisive figure who, in the end, did a lot to undercut his party by overreaching in his battle against Bill Clinton. But the comparison between the Reid/Bush relationship and the Gingrich/Clinton one is tenuous, at best. Perhaps most importantly, Clinton was significantly more popular (and greatly less unpopular) than the current President and, what's more, possessed a much greater political sense than his successor. But also -- and this, too, is extremely important -- far too few Americans know who Harry Reid is for him to be much of a divisive figure or one whose partisanship hurts his party.

In the most recent survey released by The Pew Research Center (.pdf), only 15 percent of Americans could correctly identify Harry Reid, making him far and away the least recognizable figure polled by Pew. Even Robert Gates had a higher name recognition than Reid. And Reid's name recognition is not going up, either, despite the fact that he is getting a decent amount of coverage in the media and a more than decent amount of flak from Republicans. According to PollingReport.com, the last time Reid was polled but was not identified as the Senate Majority Leader just 13 percent of Americans could muster an opinion either way while a whopping 70 percent said they had never heard of him (CBS News, Jan. 1-3, 2007).

As a matter of comparison, the previous Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, was rated either positively or negatively by between 39 percent (Pew Research Center, 1/2003) and 45 percent of Americans (NBC News, 1/2003) even at the outset of his term and by even a higher margin later in his term (source: PollingReport.com). Similarly, and also according to PollingReport.com, Reid's predecessor as Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, was identifiable by between 36 percent (NBC News, 12/2000) and 41 percent of Americans (Fox News, 6/2001) in the period immediately preceding his tenure as Senate Majority Leader (well, his second, slightly more permanent tenure).

With such relative anonymity within the American public, Harry Reid is not going to be and can't be made the type of albatross Gingrich was to his party a decade ago. Accordingly, there is no reason -- no reason whatsoever -- for Reid to lay off in his efforts to get his agenda passed regardless of the strong statements of the concern trolls within the Republican ranks and the punditry.

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Congressional Dems' Approval Hits New High

While Congressional Democrats no longer enjoy the type of glowingly positive reviews from the media, their approval rating among the American people has not diminished. In fact, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post polling, the Democrats are at a high water mark for support.

Currently, Congress' approval rating stands at a passable, though not wonderful 44 percent, with 54 percent disapproving. This marks the highest level support for the Congress in close to four years and it is 9 points higher than the President's approval rating. More importantly, however, Democrats in Congress have an approval rating of 54 percent positive, 44 percent negative, the best numbers the party has put up since ABC and The Post began asking the questing in 1994 -- and better than the Republicans have ever received during that same time period. Currently, the Congressional Republicans come in with an approval rating of just 39 percent, up from recent polling but still much worse than the Democrats' rating.

Not only are the Democrats, as a whole, enjoying record levels of support among the public, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also receiving high marks from Americans. While Pelosi's disapproval rating is up 10 points over the last three months to 35 percent -- likely a factor of of Republicans seeing her in more of a partisan light (though this is a hunch as I haven't seen crosstabs from the poll) -- her approval rating has held steady at a respectable 53 percent, 18 points higher than President Bush and 12 points higher than Newt Gingrich's best showing in ABC/Post polling.

Yet these numbers are not at all shallow. In fact, on what is perhaps the most important question from the poll -- whether Americans trust the President or Democrats in Congress on the issue of Iraq -- the public backs the Dems by just shy of a 2-to-1 margin (well, closer to a 7-to-4 margin), 58 percent to 33 percent. Simply put, all of the bluster of the Bush administration is just not buying any support for its Iraq policy, a fact that seriously calls into question the notion that the President would inherently win any showdown against the Democrats on the issue.

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