In the spring of 1910, after he had left office, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke eloquently about “Citizenship in a Republic” to a gathering at the Sorbonne.
“It is not the critic who counts,” he said, “not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who … spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”[IMGCAP(1)]
With 140,000 men and women on the ground in Iraq striving at great personal risk to bring us security and victory, the least we should expect from the party that promised change and a new direction if given the responsibility for leading Congress is that it heeds Roosevelt’s words, that it enters the arena on the question of the Iraq War. Instead, for the past two weeks, Senate and House Democrats, in search of a politically “safe” haven, have put on one of the most pathetic performances in recent Capitol Hill memory.
The Democrats’ nonbinding “no confidence” resolutions are little more than empty window dressing, a sad commentary on a national party that has the power to do what it promised — deliver a new direction in Iraq — but, apparently, not the political will. Yet their criticism of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies hasn’t changed since it propelled them to power in November.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) slipped last week and characterized the loss of troops in Iraq as “wasted” lives. During her January trip to Baghdad, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), guarded by a large contingent of U.S. troops, told ABC News: “I don’t know that the American people or the Congress at this point believe this mission can work.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called the war a “gross mistake,” while her point man on the war, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), said, “This country needs a dramatic change of course in Iraq, and it is the responsibility of this Congress to consummate that change.”
If these Democrats and so many of their colleagues really believe the Iraq War is lost, don’t they have a moral responsibility as the leaders of Congress to take action to end the war? Democrats have the votes to cut off funding for the “surge” in troops.
They have the votes to cut off funding for the war itself. They have the power to bring the troops home tomorrow, but they have failed to act. The Democratic resolutions so far have been meaningless as policy instruments, which makes them all the more reprehensible given the resolutions’ potential to hurt the morale of our troops and embolden our enemies. Yet they are treated, by the media especially, as serious proposals.
When challenged, Democrats have characterized the resolutions as “first steps” but failed to tell the American people to where they lead. Given their recent statements, we might have expected Democrats to support the president’s surge strategy.
In mid-December, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week,” “If the commanders on the ground said [a surge] is just for a short period of time, we’ll go along with that.” Fifteen days later, he reversed course, saying, “I am totally opposed to the escalation.”
The list of Senate Democrats who supported the idea of a surge until President Bush proposed one ranges from presidential candidates such as Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) to leading spokesmen on defense issues including Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sens. Jack Reed (R.I.), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).
Sadly, the reason behind the Democrats’ unwillingness to enter the arena on this most important of issues is all too easy to understand.
What the leaders of the new Democratic majority in Congress fear most is having to take responsibility for their actions.
If Democrats cut off funding for a war they believe is misguided, misled and likely to fail, a war that they argue is wasting the blood and treasure of this nation, they know that their party, their Caucus and their individual Members will be held accountable by the American people, and rightly so, for whatever the consequences of a premature exit from Iraq.
And so, we see nonbinding resolutions that will change nothing.
We see Democratic leaders in both houses run from Republican alternative resolutions, even those that simply back the troops and promise not to cut their support while on the ground.
When asked by The New York Times last week to explain her description of the House resolution as a “first step,” particularly in terms of the supplemental military spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan, the Speaker responded: “First of all, I don’t have a plan. Hearings are taking place, people who have great experience and wisdom … will put something together. … Democrats will have a bill to support the troops, and they will not be left without that support.”
Empty words from outside the arena.
David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.