"Kabuki dance" has become a fashionable, if not hackneyed, phrase in modern politics: a metaphorical description of equally powerful and opposing forces slowly circling each other, taking each other's measure and generally displaying theatrical splashes of bluff and desire, but little else. This penultimate drama is intended to influence the dance's ultimate outcome -- an orgiastic union, it is hoped, in accommodation and compromise.
Historically it has been an apt little phrase, signifying the subtle power struggles between executive and legislative branches, but alas, no longer. For it takes two to dance the Kabuki tango. And in Mr. Bush, the Democrats have an unwilling, even indifferent, dance partner. Since the administration's immaculate judicial conception, its chief executive has merely glanced at Congress and promptly dismissed the whole lot as unworthy of presidential favors. The new opposing majority hasn't aroused any attitudinal change.
The latest unrequited Kabukism -- that of Democrats blustering as though they're going to get tough on Iraq -- is proof positive that the metaphor is merely an anachronism nestled in pre-9/11 thinking: the idea that Congress -- you remember Congress, that theoretical branch of government with war-declaring and budget authority and all that -- can and will influence Mr. Bush's actions. The reality is that Mr. Bush couldn't care less. His attitude? Let them eat Kabuki.
On the face of it, the Democrats' crooning is impressive indeed. As the Washington Post reported: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid declared [Friday in a letter] that 'it is time to bring the war to a close' and warned President Bush that sending more U.S. troops to Iraq would be unacceptable to the Democratic majorities that have just taken over Congress."
Warned. Unacceptable. Sounds pretty tough. It's about to hit the fan, right?
"The letter by Pelosi and Reid sent a signal that the new congressional leadership intends to be aggressive in voicing opposition to Bush's handling of the war." So far, so good, although the verbal phrase of "voicing opposition" comes up short of "voting opposition."
"With their new majorities, they have a bigger political megaphone and more ability to bring pressure to bear." Excellent. But wait. Do we hear a big "but" coming?
"At the same time, Pelosi and Reid have eschewed using the main legislative mechanism to change policy, namely cutting off funding for the war."
The toughness and resolve you first heard? Pure, empty, Kabuki smoke and mirrors; and the hissing sound of Democrats' submissive deflation was surely music to Bush's ears. Why should he dance the drama, buy the wine and the dinner, when all along there was little question he would have his way?
Our democracy must be an unfathomable mystery to those we're introducing it to overseas. Here we were, in the midst of a stupid, unpopular war. We had an election. The voters threw out the party principally responsible for the stupid, unpopular war. The voters voted for the party that promised "to bring the war to a close."
The result of all this democratic disapprobation and demand? The president goes to work on adding more troops to the stupid, unpopular mix. And the new Congress opposed to having any troops in the harmful way of someone else's civil war, let alone the addition of troops, turns and finances the wholesale insanity.
I realize the complexities of our democratic system, especially in a time of war. And I understand those arguments that political scientists would offer -- arguments about the unmitigated difficulty of extrication, the antiwar party's not unreasonable fear of voter susceptibility to martial demagoguery, the inherent and unavoidable struggle between a determined commander in chief and nervous legislators -- and most of all arguments about the essential art of nuance in that power struggle.
But here's the one and only argument that Congressional Democrats must come to understand in today's political environment: Mr. Bush doesn't do nuance. He doesn't get it, doesn't abide it, and Democrats are wasting their trained talents exercising it. Like any bully, Mr. Bush only understands brute, frontal, uncompromising force.
And in that environment Democrats must give up Kabuki dancing and take up Sumo wrestling. No nuance is useful, just as there's no middle ground in war. We're either in one or we're not.