When last seen before election day 2006, the Democratic Party seemed the very soul of moderation. And they stayed the course for the next two months. House Democrats refused to replace their No. 2, the moderate Steny Hoyer, with the antiwar Jack Murtha. Speaker Nancy Pelosi emphasized her maternal and grandmaternal qualities as she shepherded through the House a modest and popular agenda of ethics reform, a minimum-wage hike and cheaper drugs for seniors. The Democratic presidential flavor of the month in the shopping season before Christmas was the fresh-faced, not-too-partisan Barack Obama.
But in the past few weeks, the Democrats have gone wild. The mushy domestic agenda is quickly disappearing beneath a tide of antiwar agitation in Congress. Joe Biden is leading the way, seeking to have as one of the first acts of the new Democratic Senate a nonbinding resolution condemning a troop increase in Iraq. Others want action, not just words. On the presidential side of the party, Hillary Clinton has gone at breakneck speed from being a mild critic of the war to calling for a legislated troop cap and threatening to cut off funds for the Iraqi army. Obama and John Edwards are cheerfully one-upping her by demanding a firm schedule for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. What happened?
In part, an accelerated presidential race, with its own dynamic. In part, the fact of congressional majority status, which has its own dynamic too. But in largest part, Bush. He crossed up the Democrats. They expected him to stay the Rumsfeld-Abizaid-Casey course in Iraq. Or, they thought, he might accede to the Iraq Study Group, admit errors and lead us to gradual defeat. Neither would have required Democrats to do anything much except lament the lamentable situation into which Bush had got us. Instead, Bush replaced Rumsfeld, rejected the Iraq Study Group's slow-motion-withdrawal option and chose to try a new strategy for victory, backed by a troop surge. The Democrats were genuinely shocked that Bush wouldn't behave as if the war was lost.
What's more, the Democratic presidential race was beginning, and the candidates were under pressure to do more than express generalized disapproval of Bush. And so for the past three weeks, Democrats have been outdoing one another in lambasting Bush and--as they see it--his war.
But in politics, as in life, exercises in competitive indignation can get out of hand. Biden got rolling his resolution disapproving of the surge--but without thinking through the counterattack that would be opened up. Now, as the troops begin to enter the theater, Republicans can ask whether the main effect of these merely symbolic resolutions isn't to undermine the chances of Americans succeeding and to encourage our enemies. Similarly, the idea of a legislated cap on troop strength had seemed a good way to show real commitment to the antiwar cause. Yet actually explaining why 137,000 troops in Iraq was fine but increasing the number to 160,000 should be prohibited-- when the new commander wanted those reinforcements and said they were necessary to give the new strategy a chance of success--that isn't so easy.