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A Short and Unhappy History of the Democrats and the Antiwar Movement

How We Got Here

by DAVID SWANSON


Over the past two months of repeated Congressional votes to fund the occupation of Iraq, culminating in President Bush’s signing the bill last Friday, what if anything have we learned? Have we learned anything about individuals or political parties or activist organizations to trust or despise, or have we learned better what to demand of them regardless of such emotions? Have we learned anything about policies to support, battles to lose, pyrrhic victories, or how to talk about ending the occupation?

A clear and growing majority of Americans wants to end the occupation. Yet many people are opposed to defunding it. So, not enough of us have learned that you cannot end this occupation without defunding it. And far too few of us fully understand that ultimately we’ll need impeachment before the occupation actually ends.

Because we don’t grasp the need for impeachment, we focus on asking Congress to oppose the war but ignore Congress’ failure to investigate the lies that launched the war (and we call it a "war," giving credence to the notion that it is something that can be won or lost).

Because we haven’t faced up to a choice between continuing the occupation and defunding it, we allow Congress Members to make anti-occupation gestures and then fund the occupation, not in order to prolong the occupation and fund its profiteers, but "for the troops."

As long as we allow the pretense to continue that wars are fought on behalf of the young men and women sent to fight them, we will never see a serious effort on the part of the Democratic leadership in Congress to end the occupation of Iraq. One thing many people have gradually come to realize is that we have not seen such an effort yet, only pretenses of it. Certainly, some who now disapprove of what the Congress just passed still think they were right to support what it was doing two months ago, and it’s less important to return to that debate than to get our act together from here on out. But we are more likely to make wise decisions in the future if we learn the right lessons from our mistakes. So, a quick review may be in order.

Two months ago, peace activists were pushing hard for the House to allow a vote on an amendment by Barbara Lee to end the war (or at least move significantly in that direction). Numerous activist groups sided with Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic leadership and opposed the Lee amendment in favor of a supplemental spending bill to end the war. The push back from principled peace activists against the supplemental was muted by concerns that if the Lee amendment passed, then the supplemental would be a good thing.

On March 22nd, the Democrats decided not to allow a vote on the Lee Amendment. So the debate became clearly one for funding the occupation or not funding the occupation, but there was only one day to lobby before the vote, and numerous groups were pushing the idea that the bill was the best we could get and actually took serious steps to end the occupation of Iraq.

This flew in the face of the simple fact that no bill at all would have been better than this one, not to mention that the bill promoted the theft of Iraq’s oil, failed to use the power of the purse to end the war, and allowed Bush to "waive" other measures he might not like. The Democratic leaders themselves didn’t pretend this was a bill to end the war, so much as a bill to move the war to Afghanistan. But the media lapped up the astroturf-roots talk about peace and standing strong against Bush. Here’s a video of Rep. Lynn Woolsey opposing the bill in a debate with Bob Borosage who promotes it as the best antiwar bill possible.

But even Woolsey, and Congresswomen Waters and Lee, played along with the game. They planned to vote No, but promised Pelosi they would not ask any other members to follow them. Only Congressman Dennis Kucinich pledged to vote No and urged his colleagues to join him. Peace activists demanded that standard from other members and an unfortunate split developed between those taking such a strong position for peace and those activist groups following Pelosi’s lead a split that may be healing as the Democrats’ position has worsened ever so slightly over the past two months.

But this history lesson could begin much earlier. Pelosi’s plan for her first 100 hours as speaker didn’t even mention Iraq. She pledged that defunding the occupation and impeaching the warmakers were both "off the table." Democratic Party-led activist groups take her "off the table" pledge seriously on impeachment, but pretend the one on the funding of the "war" never happened. This is an advantage because it means more people lobby her to end the war. But it’s a disadvantage if we’re insufficiently skeptical about what she’s doing.

Pelosi used every dirty trick imaginable to badger Congress Members into voting for this spending bill, including threatening to take away chairmanships and to back primary challengers and deny election support. On March 23rd, the House passed the supplemental. The corporate media and the groups following Pelosi called this a vote against a war, not a vote to continue funding an occupation. This made the position of peace activists almost incomprehensible, because we opposed the Republicans who voted no in opposition to the little bells and whistles and nonbinding deadlines, we opposed the two Republicans who voted yes to fund the occupation, we opposed the bulk of the Democrats who voted yes to fund the occupation, and we praised the eight Democrats and two Republicans who voted No for the right reasons. The media was completely incapable of telling this story, but Congress Members and the leaders of activist groups heard it quite clearly from constituents.

By March 27th, the Democratic leadership had announced its willingness to compromise with Bush and weaken further the weak bill that had just been voted on. But activists’ eyes were moving to the Senate and devising a new way to get distracted. We focused on urging Senators to pass Jim Webb’s amendment to discourage an attack on Iran We failed to focus strongly on opposition to the money that could fund an attack on Iran, money that is now in Bush’s pocket. On March 29th, the Senate passed the supplemental and did not even vote on an Iran amendment. Again, the media called this a vote against the "war."

On April 25th and 26th the House and Senate passed a compromise version supplemental, which had been watered down further from what both the House and Senate had originally passed.

And on May 1st Bush vetoed the bill.

Now, here’s where things get really weird. Even though the bill funded the occupation, required stealing the oil, permitted an attack on Iran, and contained nothing useful with any teeth in it, the story line had been spread so effectively that this was a good bill, that even the peace groups that had opposed its passage supported protesting its veto. And of course the veto was objectionable. Bush opposed the tiny impositions in the bill on his dictatorial power. But once you’ve protested the vetoing of a bill to fund an occupation of someone else’s country, you pretty well have got yourself stuck promoting a new bill to do the same. And you can either back a bill with the same or greater likelihood of being vetoed, or you can back one less likely to meet that fate. And there can be no question which route the Democratic leadership will take. So, the question becomes whether you are yet ready to break with them, even if as it turns out they break with themselves and oppose their own bill after they support it.

But there was an important act left in this drama before we reached that deus ex machina. On May 7th the progressive Democrats in the House cut a deal with the leadership. They would be permitted to vote on a good bill to end the occupation (which the leadership would not whip for and which would fail), and in exchange they would turn around an hour later and vote to fund the occupation with an even weaker bill than last time.

The new supplemental did not contain even a hint of a deadline to end the war, and for most of the month of May almost no one noticed or remarked on this state of affairs. Media coverage by May 8th had completely dropped any mention of the absence of a deadline in the bill. The focus was all on "benchmarks" and how many months of the occupation would be funded at a time. It was as if the presence of even a nonbinding deadline in the vetoed bill had been completely eradicated from history and memory, even though that deadline had been Bush’s primary professed reason for vetoing the bill. The story now was of the Democrats getting tough and standing up to Bush with "benchmarks" even though this meant sending him exactly what he wanted, a bill with no deadline, and even though he supported all of the "benchmarks."

So, what did peace groups and other activist groups do? They promoted Yes votes on Jim McGovern’s bill to end the occupation (or at least move significantly in that direction), and almost completely ignored the vote coming an hour later on funding additional months of "war". So, on May 10th, a huge number of Democrats (169) voted for McGovern, and then all but 10 of them turned around and voted to fund the war. And then we thanked them. They had played us like a fiddle.

The Senate was far less slick. It didn’t hold its votes an hour apart, but separated them by two weeks. On May 16th, the Senate voted down an amendment by Russ Feingold to end the occupation (or at least move significantly in that direction). The vote for the money was still to come, and who had voted right on Feingold would be forgotten by then.

Meanwhile, something quite unusual and dramatic happened. By May 23rd, Congress Members Pelosi and David Obey had turned against their own bill. They were going to make sure it came up for a vote and passed, but they were going to vote against it. Once this happened, Pelosi-following activist groups, too, turned against the bill. And the absence of a deadline in the bill reemerged in the media with a vengeance. Now everyone suddenly noticed that the bill no longer had any sort of, even nonbinding, deadline in it. This was a bill for endless war. The "benchmarks" were forgotten. The short-term funding talk was forgotten. And people were even beginning to see through the game.

While Pelosi was "opposing" the bill, she was also beginning to take heat from all sides for having brought the bill up for a vote and assured its passage. She voted No, but she did not whip, cajole, threaten, or bribe her colleagues to join her against the occupation as she had done to get them to join her for it. During the debate on the floor prior to the vote, Pelosi, Obey, and others made clear that they wanted the bill to pass and considered it necessary "for the troops." Obey remarked on the floor:

"I hate this agreement. I’m going to vote against the major portion of this agreement even though I negotiated it."

Then he went on to defend his record of "funding the troops" and blamed Bush’s veto for preventing money from getting to the troops. There was no chance Obey would let this bill be voted down.

No one mentioned that not a single troop gets a single dollar because the occupation continues, or that the Congressional Research Service said in April that the occupation was already funded through July, or that polls of troops in Iraq last year found that a strong majority wanted to end the occupation last year, or that most of the money goes to occupation-profiteers.

Republicans attacked Obey for voting against his own bill. Nobody criticized him for introducing it in the first place. But activists and the media were waking up to the game. And Bush’s statement after signing the bill containing his own "benchmarks" the next day was along the lines of "I was born and raised in this here briar patch."

From the left to the center, everyone got this one right as soon as it was too late. Pelosi had joined the Republicans to put a Republican bill on the floor, had allowed right-wing Democrats to assure its passage, and then had pretended to rejoin the Democrats in voting against it. Reactions ranged from planning for the next vote, to a demand for protests and phone calls, to a plan to recruit primary challengers against the most pro-war Democrats, to a demand that all peace-loving souls reject the entire Democratic Party and either back the Green Party or (if you don’t care about poor people or think that right now keeping people alive has got to take precedence) support the Ron Paul Republicans.

There’s only one Democrat in Congress with a completely clean record through this process: Dennis Kucinich. He argued against invading Iraq prior to the 2003 vote that authorized it. He published his case against it and helped persuade many of his colleagues to vote No. Kucinich challenged the legality of the war in court in an effort to prevent it. He proposed a detailed plan to end the occupation of Iraq over three years ago. His current plan is found in his bill HR 1234.

Kucinich is the only Democrat who has voted against every new funding bill for the occupation and always urged his colleagues to vote against the occupation as well. He was one of only seven who voted against the Rule to bring the latest Supplemental to a vote.

Kucinich is the only member who has repeatedly raised the topic of oil theft in the Democratic Caucus’ meetings. And after Obey screamed as him for it and defamed him in the media, Kucinich obtained 60 minutes on the floor of the House to speak to the topic. (A result that seems sadly unlikely to convince Obey to stop screaming at people.)

Now, in March when Pelosi was threatening to not support or to challenge incumbent Democrats in the next election if they wouldn’t back her occupation spending bill, nobody called her a traitor or drummed her out of the Democratic Party. But on Friday I had to take a leave from my part-time consulting to Kucinich’s presidential campaign, because the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which has hated Kucinich for decades, began complaining that in my other job I was promoting challengers to pro-occupation Democrats. I told the reporter, Sabrina Eaton, and she refused to print, that I believed contested primaries were healthy for any party, and that participation in them was a pro-Democratic Party position at a moment when a lot of people were fed up and quitting the party in protest.

But Eaton operates under the common delusion that participation and challenges in primaries must be stifled so as not to nominate candidates too far from the middle to win general elections. That is to say, this is her rule for Democrats, not necessarily Republicans. And she compounds this with the false position, which is almost a matter of definition, that peace cannot be a centrist position.

But I favor peace candidates in primaries in every party, including Democratic, Republican, Green, and any other. And I favor a strong Green challenge to the Democrats for the same reason I favor strong primary challengers to Democrats, to influence the Congress now. To the amazement and frustration of some Green partisans I have not learned from the past two months or the past few decades that the entire Democratic Party is an evil plot that must be purely opposed. While Kucinich may be the best Democrat, others are relatively great, good, and mediocre. I’m not trying to identify role models. I’m trying to end a war and reestablish the rule of law.

And to the amazement of many Democratic real politikers I do not accept that promoting Greens is a dangerous temptation that will only give us more Republicans. I’ve seen virtually nothing over the past five months of Democratic rule that was superior to what we had under the Republicans. A few embarrassing hearings, but no enforcement of subpoenas, no impeachment. A partial correction to the minimum wage, but no end to the steady march of corporate trade deals. A hell of a lot of rhetoric, but no end to the occupation of Iraq, in fact no end in sight, and no resistance to attacking Iran. Ron Paul has done more for peace than Pelosi. And if we don’t make clear to pro-occupation, pro-Cheney-immunity Democrats that we will vote Green or Republican or stay home, then we should never bother leaving our homes.

I do hope that some people have learned not to be loyal to the leadership of any party when it requires setting aside their own views or those of the people they represent. I was never loyal to Pelosi and Reid, but I have learned more in recent weeks about the depths they will sink to. Politics for politicians is all about friendships and loyalties. For activists it is not, and if Kucinich supports a pro-war candidate for president I will not support him in that. But I will urge everyone now to do the one thing most likely to influence Congress toward peace: fund Kucinich’s presidential campaign.

The optimistic view of this story is, I think, as follows. We have finally had a vote for money in which a Yes vote was understood to be a Yes vote, and a No vote was understood to be a No vote, and 140 Congress Members and 14 Senators voted No, rejecting the absurd Orwellian dictum on "funding the troops." More and more activists and other Americans understand that story. More and more people are willing to demand of Congress what we know is possible rather than what they tell us is possible. And we know that Congress can, if it chooses, bring up a bill right after Memorial Day break to ban any future spending on the occupation of Iraq beyond September, require the withdrawal of all troops, mercenaries, and contractors by that date, turn Iraq’s territory, oil, bases, and our world’s largest "embassy" over to the Iraqi people, and make it a felony for Bush to violate these terms.

We have a duty to learn not to compromise until we need to, to ask up front for what we really want, to treat every member of Congress as if they work for us rather than the reverse, to stop calling an occupation a war, and to insist that the only harm done to US troops is done by those who fail to bring them home.

DAVID SWANSON can be reached at: david@davidswanson.org