Like clockwork, the debate over whether to debate the Iraq War is set to begin all over again on Capitol Hill. As House Appropriations Chairman (and YouTube star) David Obey (D-Wis.) can attest, the issue is being characterized as “Democrats are in disarray” or “Democrats lack the votes.” The truth: This is not just a matter of party loyalty, it’s a matter of conscience. [IMGCAP(1)]
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) stated Monday in his widely broadcast announcement about his future plans, “America is facing its most divisive and difficult issue since Vietnam — the war in Iraq.” He’s right. While I was too young to understand what my parents’ generation was protesting, I will never forget their reaction when my uncles and other relatives returned home from the war. They were so relieved and elated. But they told us to continue to pray for others to come home as well. Some did not make it back, and we were told to never forget their sacrifice.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pulled the trigger. By filing for a vote on cloture, he positioned the Senate to vote Wednesday on the motion to proceed with the debate that has stalled over the past five weeks. While there are few indications that the Republicans will step up and join the majority in their call for a timetable to begin redeploying our brave troops, Democrats must not yield or be deterred by a vocal minority’s persistent claim that this debate and subsequent vote will somehow undermine our troops.
Some things are worth fighting for even if you don’t have the votes. And I believe our troops and their future are something Members should be willing to debate openly and honestly — and then proceed to vote.
It’s time to put aside the rhetoric and begin to walk the walk — just as our soldiers are doing in the dangerous streets of Baghdad. Members must place the lives of our military men and women ahead of their own electoral concerns. I hope for once the Republicans will not stoop to name-calling and finger-pointing just to score political points and position themselves for the next election. There is serious peril of confusing dissent over President Bush’s strategy of escalation in Iraq with political treason back at home.
Once you start labeling people as treasonous, you feel empowered to treat them as enemies — withholding information from them because “it’s classified” and imprisoning them without due process because they are ”enemy combatants.” Even violence can be justified. Think about it: The reason Iraq is imploding right now is because political opponents are viewing each other as mortal enemies, not as people with whom they are allowed to disagree. Democracy without dissent is no democracy at all. Or, put another way, if America wants to show the world that we value democracy, we had better start practicing it here at home.
As one prominent Congressional leader taught me years ago, you never know how many votes you really have until Members are forced to put those little cards in the slot. A principled, well-fought debate will address what most voters are yearning to hear from their lawmakers — an exit strategy. The right thing to do is to have a debate on how we end the war and how we prevent more troops from coming home wounded or dead. We owe those whose lives already have been altered by war a debate and a vote.
And, yes, Bush has threatened to veto — assuming it passes the House’s military funding bill, which establishes benchmarks he also supports, along with ensuring our military has what it needs to both fund and train our troops. Look, he’s the president and it’s OK to use the threat of a veto pen to help shape the debate. What he’s looking for is another blank check, and Democrats are not in the mood to simply hide from a critical discussion.Voters should know where their Members of Congress stand and their solutions for bringing our troops home to a hero’s welcome.
This important debate will help both parties inoculate themselves from the voters’ wrath, which I believe is building. But if the Republicans decide to take a walk or just hang on to the president’s veto threat, they will risk being in the minority for yet another electoral season. Frankly, I would prefer to be a “divided Democrat,” willing to take a risk and start the debate, than be labeled as a “rubber stamp” united with a president who seems resolved to take us all over a cliff on an unending war.
In 20 months, the voters will have their moment of conscience, a moment of accountability and a moment to go on record. Members of Congress, where will you stand?
Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.