Kos: Can Dems Stand Up to Bush?

For a party that won historic gains in 2006, the Democrats have proven surprisingly reluctant to deliver on their chief campaign promise: forcing George Bush and his Republican Party to change course on their disastrous war in Iraq.

Anti-war sentiment among the American people is now approaching 70 percent, but Congress has proved incapable of action. Twice now, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate have caved on Iraq funding bills, giving the unpopular Bush everything he has demanded. Now the Democrats are reportedly ready to tackle this Sisyphean task once again tomorrow, when they consider a fresh $50 billion for Bush's wars.

Nevada's Harry Reid claims the Senate bill will establish a December 2008 "goal" for the end of combat operations. If Bush vetoes, the Senate majority leader says, "then the president won't get his $50 billion." The words sound tough, but we've heard them before.

Last spring, during the debate over the $100 billion spending bill for the war in Iraq, Reid vowed, "We will listen to [Bush's] position, but in return we will insist that he listen to concerns of the American people that his policies in Iraq have failed and we need to change course." When Bush vetoed the bill because it imposed deadlines for troop withdrawal, Reid promised, "If the president thinks that by vetoing this bill he will stop us from working to change the direction of this war, he is mistaken." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also seemed firm, declaring, "The president wants a blank check. The Congress is not going to give it to him."

Yet a mere two weeks later, in mid-May, both chambers signed that proverbial blank check—and congressional approval numbers collapsed from a two-year high of 40 percent during tough-talking April to 24 percent in weak-kneed June. Some polls peg congressional approval in the teens.

At the time, faced with a rebellion from anti-war Democrats and independents, the Democratic leadership promised new timeline legislation for September. Beltway pundits—and even some GOP members—predicted that chastened Republicans would return to D.C. eager for compromise after facing angry constituents during summer recess. Observers like me joked about a "magical September," seemingly more in tune with the realities in D.C. than the so-called experts, and our skepticism was justified. Democrats talked a good game but took little action in the face of Republican obstruction. Rather than force a true filibuster, Democrats caved quickly, blaming the need for 60 votes. Republicans didn't even have to break a sweat.

Now Bush is back for $50 billion more, with another $150 billion request on tap for a war expected to cost a budget-busting $1.5 trillion by the end of 2008. Democrats are once again talking tough.

As much as Republicans and the media like to talk about the 60-vote threshold for any anti-war legislation, the fact is that if no legislation gets passed, there's no money for war. A tough and principled Democratic caucus could force compromise on this legislation and, if none were forthcoming from the GOP, then see the war defunded by default. Either way, the public would cheer.

If Reid and Pelosi stand firm they will finally fulfill one of their key 2006 campaign promises, proving they have the courage to stand tough for what they believe, while giving the vast majority of the American people what they want.

If they yield they will reinforce perceptions of Democratic weakness. Worse, they will be siding with an unpopular president and an unpopular Republican Party over an unpopular war, and their own popularity will suffer as a result.

The options to those of us outside of the Beltway are so obvious it's truly unfathomable that we are still left wondering which path the Democrats will take.