Every now and then, buried among rambling lectures and thrice-posed questions, Hardball's Chris Matthews does manage a trenchant inquiry. Last night was one of those moments, when, in a fit of frustration over changing goalposts in Iraq, he presented this question -- which I'll paraphrase -- to columnist Frank Rich: Since 2002 the president has repeatedly and bogusly redefined our mission in Iraq, and though he's always been proven wrong, he keeps on winning the political battles at home. How the hell does he do it?
Rich answered with exquisite verbal economy: Senate Democrats don't have the votes. Simple as that.
And that reintroduces the age-old debate between realism and idealism -- between the dishonorably doable and the honorably quixotic. Should Senate Democrats largely accept the unacceptable, settling for little pieces chipped away? Or should they stick to their idealistic guns, no matter if it's a hopeless cause, because that's the right thing to do.
For now, at least, the leadership is opting for the former. This morning the New York Times reports there's a fresh spirit of tired resignation swirling through the Senate chamber: "With a mixed picture emerging about progress in Iraq, Senate Democratic leaders are showing a new openness to compromise as they try to attract Republican support for forcing at least modest troop withdrawals in the coming months."
In short, "senior Democrats now say they are willing to rethink their push to establish a withdrawal deadline of next spring if doing so will attract the 60 Senate votes needed to prevail."
In other words, if they cave on their righteous demands, they'll win by losing.
According to Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and Majority Leader Harry Reid, "a compromise may be worth making" because "it would allow Congress to assert its own voice on Iraq policy." In further, other words: You, Mr. President, can't tell us we're staying in Iraq, because we're telling you first that we're staying in Iraq.
Only in the ethically compromised world of Washington politics could such an utter capitulation be termed as "keep[ing] pressure on President Bush." My, the presidential agony of legislative interference. The pressure must feel crushing indeed.
But here's the summarizing line that, sorry to say, amused more than upset me, because of ceaseless conditioning: "Some Democrats have concluded that their decision earlier this summer to thwart votes on alternatives left them open to criticism that they were being intransigent."
Right there, in that one little line, beams the sorrowful Democratic Zeitgeist of the Bush era: Oh dear, if we do what's right, we'll be open to the intolerable scourge of criticism -- and from our political opponents, no less. We can't appear intransigent, even if such intransigence harbors rectitude and integrity.
So let's sell out.
I won't seize the mantle of self-righteousness, however. I won't claim that if I were in the Senate, there would be no chance that I'd think or behave any differently. After becoming accustomed to dozens of aides indulging my comfort and feeding my ego; after being hailed and queried by all the talk shows; after swelling my fractional sense of national importance and indispensability to more than one-hundredth -- I might very well cling to whatever ensures my political permanence.
I just might. Can't know for sure. I'm not there.
But what I'd like to think is that before voting to keep uniformed Americans in the dark and illegal abyss; before catering to a corrupt and dissembling executive; before compromising on what's so obviously and stupendously right -- I'd like to think that I'd pack my bags first. I'd sell out as a highly paid lobbyist, maybe, but I wouldn't sell out my country. Not on this.
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