It is a lost cause. Above all, it is immoral - with more men and women dying each day for a war that many Democrats concluded years ago was a terrible mistake.
But clarity gives way to muddle when you pose a simple question to Democrats: After eight months in power on Capitol Hill, why have you not done more to end the war?
Most answers come down to some version of “There’s nothing we can do.”
“If you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes,” Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said in an interview. He was citing all the familiar arithmetic.
It takes 60 votes to end debate in the Senate, two-thirds of both chambers to override a presidential veto.
These answers are correct - and misleading almost to the point of deception.
We’re not in the business of giving politicians advice.
But it’s a simple truth, whether you support the war or not: There is a lot more Democrats could do to change, or at least challenge, the politics of the war in Washington, even if they do not have the numbers to impose new policies on President Bush.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could force a vote a day over Iraq. She could keep the House in session all night, over weekends and through planned vacations.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could let filibusters run from now till Christmas rather than yield to pro-war Republicans.
Such tactics might or might not be politically sensible, but in their absence, anti-war lawmakers can hardly say they have done everything possible to challenge the war and bring attention to their cause.
Lawmakers over the past generation have threatened and sometimes carried out such extreme parliamentary maneuvers over less consequential matters than dying soldiers.
Republican leaders a few years ago warned they would pursue the “nuclear option” and rewrite Senate rules if Democrats tried to block Bush’s judicial nominees.
In the 1980s, some Republicans contemplated chaining themselves to pillars of the Capitol to protest a disputed congressional election in Indiana.
Democrats, in on-the-record and on-background interviews, said they do not do these things because they would be bad politics. Democrats in the House and Senate would splinter over such extremist measures.
In closed-door caucus meetings, members say, Democratic leaders like Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) have carried the day by warning that there is no appetite for such tactics in the districts of vulnerable Democrats, upon whom the party’s new majority status depends.
Many of these districts are in red states with rural regions filled with military families.
Above all, Democrats do not wish to open themselves to a charge they believe is demagogic, but effective - that they are turning their backs on troops in the field.
“People have made the intellectual distinction between the war and the warrior,” one House Democratic leader told us. “Bush has hidden behind the kids and held us hostage.”
Fair enough. But this calculation does not erase the gaping chasm between the visceral urgency claimed by congressional war opponents and the conventionality of their political strategy in trying to end it.
This is why Democratic activists are growing increasingly agitated.
Galling as it may be to Democrats, Bush still can claim to be acting with more clarity and courage than the congressional majority.
He believes the Iraq war is right and has thrown away things most politicians crave - approval ratings, and potentially his reputation in history - to get what he wants.
Democratic leaders believe the war is wrong but have pursued their beliefs with a series of ginger calculations that so far have achieved no substantive changes in policy.
They are acting with the same defensive-mindedness that led many Democrats to swallow deep misgivings and vote five years ago to authorize the war in the first place.
Many Democrats on Capitol Hill are in no mood just now to be lectured by MoveOn, the group whose ad denouncing “General Betray Us” was widely perceived to have backfired badly.
Whatever one’s view on the merits of the war, however, MoveOn Executive Director Eli Pariser is right that his ostensible Democratic allies have defined themselves by caution.
“Our view is that they are very strong, they have the public’s support at their backs, and they need to use that strength,” he said. “I think the efforts thus far have been good, but not good enough to put the Republicans on the spot about blocking an end to the war.”
Specifically, he supports forcing Senate Republicans who are trying to block measures to force Bush’s hand on troop withdrawals to back up their filibuster threats in a dramatic showdown on the Senate floor.
“Republicans are effectively filibustering, but no one knows it,” he said. “One way to demonstrate what’s going on is to make them stand there and read the phone book.”
Or go on a hunger strike. Or send the entire Democratic leadership to protest in the backyards of wavering lawmakers.
“I would rather use my energy to work intellectually to see if we can find common ground that all Democrats” want, to bring home the troops before Bush leaves office, said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).
“It is not my job to go to members’ districts and have sit-ins.”
© 2007 Capitol News Company, LLC