Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Vote for Change, Get a Troop Surge


Timothy Sherratt

02-16-2007


February 16, 2007


Beware of voting for change. You may get what you voted for and be unable to recognize it.

In November, the Democrats rode to victory on a familiar American platform—rejection of a failed policy. But they have not yet redeemed their IOU to the voters who returned them to control of Congress, unless, that is, a non-binding resolution to condemn Bush's Iraq strategy can be called redemption.

Congressional Democrats and the Republican administration both accepted the verdict handed down by the Iraq Study Group and the electorate last fall. Iraq policy had failed and had to change. But it has been the Bush administration, not the Democratic Congress, that has taken the election verdict most seriously. Though the Bush administration chose to reject the findings of the study group and the presumed preferences of voters, the decision to increase troop levels was just as surely a response to failure.

The obvious beneficiaries of the electorate's verdict, congressional Democrats have failed to coalesce around an alternative to the president's troop surge, let alone reject the latter out of hand. What's wrong?

For several election cycles, Republicans set both the agenda and the interpretive terms of American politics. Beginning in the 1980s, the GOP constructed a powerful narrative that portrayed their opponents as purveyors of big government, irresponsible taxing and spending, waste, and fraud. Instinctively patriotic, the Republican vision lent a reassuring aura to its components—free-market economics, a strong national defense, and traditional moral values. After 9/11, the Republican vision morphed into a limitless unilateralism in foreign affairs, marketed in the soothing nostrums of homeland security. But then, things began to go badly wrong in Iraq.

Now the bloom is off the Conservative Revolution: deficits rival anything tax-and-spend Democrats ever contrived. Iraq as Vietnam sounds sober, not shrill. The Conservative Revolution appears ready to unravel into a shallow libertarianism headed by an unresponsive executive on a fundamentalist mission.

But Democrats have failed to regain anything like the momentum of the Civil Rights era. After a few promising attempts to grapple with America's persistent religiosity, they appear to have settled instead for bashing Bush and hoping the electorate will distance itself from the religious right. Their celebrations of diversity promote a few powerful interest groups that many find toxic. Their foreign policy can still be cast as retreat, which explains why the Democratic Party is still divided on Iraq. Their demonizing of Bush shrinks the issue to one of leadership, but it offers no coherent narrative for voters to embrace.

What do the Democrats offer in place of Bush? Senator Obama wants to lead an apolitical social movement to overcome the politics of gridlock. Senator Clinton has become a polarizing force in her own party thanks to her right-of-center stand on Iraq. With Senator Kerry having stepped aside, some in the party look longingly to New Democrat Al Gore. But Gore, it seems, will eschew herding cats in his own party. Thus, the Democratic presidential primaries next year will be full of prominent Senators who have never run anything, while the Republicans will field a highly competent former governor and the ex-mayor of the nation's largest city among their contenders.

So far, the Democrats seem to be proving themselves as incoherent in power as they were out of it. The days turn into weeks and still leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have nothing to show for the power of their new offices. Process does not help. Congress has the tools to end the Iraq war by the simple expedient of turning off the money spigot. But the divided party shies from such strong medicine and settles for the merely symbolic—to the disgust of their supporters across the country.

Beware of voting for change. You may get what you voted for and discover it's a troop surge.

—Timothy Sherratt, Professor of Political Studies
    Gordon College

 



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