Changing the Debate on Iraq is Not Good Enough

In The New York Times today, James Risen offers a paean to Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith, who earlier this month offered a rhetorical attack on American policy in Iraq. To briefly excerpt, Risen calls Smith's "one of the most passionate and surprising speeches about the war in Iraq yet delivered in Congress" and an "incendiary and marked a stunning break with the president". He also writes that "his somber cadence resonated in a way that made political Washington take notice" and that "Mr. Smith may have signaled that some moderate Republicans in the Senate are poised to break openly with the White House on the war, just as President Bush is seeking a new strategy to deal with the bloody stalemate in Iraq."

There is little question that Sen. Smith's speech -- along with the spate of books on Iraq that came out in the late summer and early fall (most notably Bob Woodward's Denial), the growing bloodshed in Iraq, the release of the Iraq Study Group's report, and the election results from November 7 -- helped change the debate over American involvement in the country. No longer does the President use the phrase, "Stay the Course." No longer does the White House insist we are "winning."

Yet while the debate over Iraq has shifted, the reality of the situation -- both on the ground and in Washington -- has not. President Bush is no more willing to begin the redeployment of American troops than he was six months ago; in fact, he is attempting to mount an escalation by sending even more American troops into Iraq. U.S. forces continue to bear an increasingly large burden, with more American soldiers dying every day in Iraq than at any point since April 2004. Significant violent attacks in the country are being systematically underreported, with the ISG finding that on one day in July 93 attacks were reported to have occurred while in reality "a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light more than 1,100 acts of violence."

Changing the tenor of the debate in Washington is neither alleviating the problems in Iraq nor actually forcing the President to take steps towards decreasing American involvement in the country. Even the fact that a majority of Americans support withdrawing troops and that Americans voted Democratic last month, at least in part in the hopes of sending a clear message to Washington that the current Iraq policies cannot be continued, has not been sufficient to cajole policymakers into truly changing course.

Given this situation, it is simply not sufficient to change the debate over Iraq. It's just not good enough. Real policy shifts must occur -- and soon -- so mere declarations and even sense of the House or Senate resolutions will not suffice. This goes both for the Republican "Up for Reelection in 2008/Change of Heart on Iraq" caucus as well as Democrats who genuinely believe in drawing down American forces but have thusfar been unwilling to take the steps necessary to ensure that happens. Congress must hold a vote on a firm timeline for the beginning of withdrawal of American forces. Even if Senate Republicans filibuster such a move, which I assume they would do, then at least there will be a clear record of their support for indefinite American involvement in Iraq.

It's no longer time for talk. It's time for action. Democrats in Congress can and should hold hearings on Iraq, because good policy rests on thorough investigations. But these hearings must culminate with legislation and votes -- not more discussion. Unless the Democrats begin to force the President's hand in one way or another, there will be no change before January 20, 2009.

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Memo To Incoming Congress: Save Our Country

The diary below was originally posted in my blog the Intrepid Liberal Journal.

Typically, I believe in setting ambitious progressive goals and pursuing them with patient deliberation. There is an ebb and flow to public perception, debate and popular will. The ideal approach is to build coalitions and let policy ideas percolate through the prism of debate. We don't have that luxury now.

Iraq continues to burn, the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan and America is perceived as a rudderless giant. Under the Bush regime America is weak and immoral. That is a recipe for calamity. Triangulation and splitting hairs is not an option. Our national security is under the command and control of a sixty-year old adolescent (Bush), a feculent viceroy (Dick Cheney), an inept bureaucrat (Condi Rice) and a scandalous Washington retread (Robert Gates on December 18th).

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Senate 2008: Will Gordon Smith's Change of Heart on Iraq Save Him in '08?

By now most have seen or heard of the speech delivered last night by Oregon's Junior Senator Gordon Smith -- the lone Republican Senator on the Pacific Coast (excluding Alaska...) -- in which the Senator said the war "may even be criminal" and said that is was time to "cut and run or cut and walk." On the surface, Smith, who is up for reelection in 2008 in an increasingly Democratic-leaning state, appears rather courageous. But as Torrid Joe of the outstanding local blog Loaded Orygun explains, it's very much like Smith to stake out a new position only after there is much political cover and much less potential political downside.

An stupid but fitting nickname for Gordon based on his legislative habits would be "Two Minutes to Midnight" Smith. On issue after ticklish issue, Smith's position is that he has no position until the issue has time to flesh itself out. He consistently holds back on making any kind of determinative statement until the cat is well out of the bag with the rest of the Senate. Then he comes in right on the cusp of a definitive shift, and drops in on the side poised to win. Last year he stayed mum on privatization of Social Security for months until Bush was just about to abandon it, and at that moment finally decided he was opposed, too! Very brave, Gordon. And here we are, at two minutes before midnight on Iraq it seems, and the President finds himself surrounded by people divesting themselves of the massive policy failure he directed so many to follow and fall on their swords for. And so now, right on schedule as the policy appears on the verge of collapse and only an idiot couldn't see the war is a failure...heeeeeere's Gordon!

To be clear, it is important that Republicans are beginning to come to the realization that the current policy cannot be continued regardless of the posturing out of the White House. In fact, in the absence of veto-proof Democratic majorities or a Democratic President with strong majorities in Congress, it will take moves by Republicans to force a change in policy and bring about the redeployment of American forces out of Iraq. That said, there is also the issue of making the right decision when it counts, whether it was voting against the authorization of force in October 2002 (as did all four of Oregon's Democratic Reps. -- Peter DeFazio, Earl Blumenauer, Darlene Hooley and David Wu -- as well as Oregon's Democratic Senator Ron Wyden) or making a clear statement against the prosecution of the war before a bipartisan commission offers political cover.

And as it pertains to 2008, it's not clear to me that Smith's move significantly helps his chances at reelection, particularly if he ends up getting a stiff challenge from the Democrats, as seems quite possible if not likely. While this change of heart might help Smith endear himself in the short run to some Democrats and Independents in the state, who only mildly disapprove of him (in the range of the mid-40s for both, which is not too terrible for a Republican Senator from a state that has not elected another Republican to statewide office in a decade), many of these voters would inevitably return to the Democratic Party in the event of a contested election (as they did, say, in this year's gubernatorial contest in which the support for Democratic incumbent Ted Kulongoski jumped by 10-15 points from September to November, largely as Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents came home). Perhaps more importantly, his move could threaten to further undercut his support from jingoistic Republicans and conservatives who do not entirely trust Smith (his disapproval rating among Republicans is 29 percent, among conservatives 34 percent, both according to SurveyUSA).

So while Smith's move may have earned him plaudits in the national media and positive attention in the local media (the latter is not yet clear; Smith did not garner front page [.pdf] attention from The Oregonian today but perhaps will tomorrow), it is not clear that it will save him from facing a tough go as he seeks a third term in 2008.

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Gordon Smith Abandons Oregonians -- Again

I'm sure Republican Senator Gordon Smith is a nice guy, and from what I've heard, his constituent services are top notch. But why he believes he can consistently vote against the will  of his constituents in a Democratic state like Oregon is beyond me.

Earlier this month, we pointed to Smith's seeming support of the effort to widen a tax loophole that allows the extremely wealthy to skirt federal income taxes by buying a summer home in the U.S. Virgin Islands, even though he purports to be a moderate in favor of smaller deficits. No matter, of course, that the loophole would widen the already enormous federal deficit while aiding few, if any, Oregonians.

But Smith's deafness to Oregonian sentiments is not at all limited to helping out campaign donors in the Virgin Islands, where Smith has picked up $47,000 in contributions this cycle. On Tuesday, Smith voted no on Kent Conrad's pay-as-you-go amendment to the budget bill, which would have restored a semblence of fiscal responsibility to Washington by requiring offsets for any new programs or tax cuts. Once again, so much for fiscal moderation.

Smith did not stop there on the budget bill. When time came to vote up or down on the entire package -- which included a provision that would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve for drilling (something Smith has claimed to be opposed to) -- Smith voted "aye." While voters in Oregon care deeply about the environment and are not in support of drilling in the pristine reserve in Alaska, Smith showed that his allegiance is not to his constituents but rather to his party.

Outside of Gordon Smith, Republicans don't win statewide elections in Oregon, period. True, Smith has been able to defeat fairly strong opponents in two previous elections by running as a moderate, but time and time again, on key votes, Smith toes the Republican Party line rather than backing his own constituents. Sure, Smith votes down the middle on filler votes, padding his record and allowing him to earn solid middle-of-the-road rankings from outlets like National Journal. Nevertheless, when the time comes for him to take a real stand against his party, he loses his spine and executes the biddings of Karl Rove and Bill Frist.

Smith isn't up for another two years, but as we learned in 2002, when Democrats waited too long to settle on a candidate, it's never too early to start the recruiting and the campaigning. Oregon has an impressively deep bench of accomplished Democrats available to move up the line, whether it's Governor Ted Kulongoski, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, Congressman Peter DeFazio, Congresswoman Darlene Hooley, Congressman David Wu, Attorney General Hardy Myers, Treasurer Randall Edwards, Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo, Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner, Senate President Peter Courtney, Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, House Democratic Leader Jeff Merkley... the list goes on. Suffice it to say, there is no shortage of accomplished Democrats in the state. The only question is if one of them is willing to go up against a well financed and personally wealthy incumbent like Gordon Smith.

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