The Trouble With Harry

red states rule

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May 30, 2006
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When it rains - it pours. As approval numbers for the Dems continue to sink, even the liberal media is starting to get worried

Harry Reid's strategic errors.
The Trouble with Harry
by John B. Judis
Only at TNR Online | Post date 06.20.07


The current Democratic leaders have only been in charge for half a year, but so far their record is at best mixed. Pelosi has avoided disasters, but Reid stumbled badly in managing the Iraq war votes. That may not be surprising. Foreign policy is notoriously difficult for Congress to deal with. And Mitchell had his own problems with the Senate vote in January 1991 on the first Gulf War. But Reid's tactics succeeded in splitting his own party, uniting the opposition, and potentially undermining his party's presidential candidates.

The president, of course, has the main responsibility for foreign policy. Faced with major decisions, Congress has ordinarily limited itself to holding hearings and registering disapproval, as Congressional Democrats and Republicans did over the Vietnam War during the Nixon administration. By reinforcing public opposition, these kind of measures can significantly affect White House decision making. Congress can theoretically prevent a president from going to war or force a withdrawal by withholding spending, but that is an extremely blunt instrument that precludes any kind of sophisticated strategy toward an adversary. When a war is in progress, it also opens legislators to charges of defunding the troops in the field.

Reid and Pelosi initially followed a careful strategy of passing measures, with some Republican support, that registered disapproval of the administration's conduct of the war. In April, the Senate passed a measure 51 to 46, with support from Republicans Chuck Hagel and Gordon Smith, setting non-binding timelines for withdrawal and laying out benchmarks for success. The measure put the White House on the defensive and forced Bush's first veto. But after failing to override Bush's veto, Reid, heeding cries from the party's left, upped the ante by proposing a measure that would force a withdrawal by cutting off funds. That measure lost by 67 to 29. It got no Republican votes and was opposed by 19 Democrats, including Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who earlier had been a leader of the opposition to the administration's "surge" strategy.

Besides dividing his own party, Reid's measure also put presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a bind. In a general election, the Democrats want to be able to paint the opposition as recklessly endangering Americans through prolonging the war in Iraq. They don't need to advocate and defend an ambitious and potentially reckless plan of their own for immediate withdrawal. And, indeed, a position favoring a staged retreat combined with diplomacy would serve the Democrats best if they were actually to win the White House.

But, with former war supporter John Edwards and the leftwing netroots clamoring for immediate withdrawal, and with Senate rival Chris Dodd running ads favoring the Reid proposal, Clinton and Obama were forced to choose between a position that would be popular with Democratic primary voters and a more calibrated position that would serve them well in a general election and that would avoid charges of defunding the troops. They chose to join Reid--a vote that could come back to haunt one of them in November 2008. If Reid had been doing his job well, he would have either kept the measure off the floor entirely or made sure that it was seen as marginal and backed by only a handful of anti-war Democrats. Instead, he put his imprimatur on it.

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