Dueling Pro-, Anti-War Victories in the Senate

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

This morning while the Beltway media was covering President Obama’s pitiful attempt to hose and toothbrush the oil off his suffocating administration, they predictably missed a real moment of democratic accountability just a few blocks away. While the press was putting on their concerned eyebrows and asking Obama polite questions (that’ll teach him!), the Senate was taking a big step toward ending the war in Afghanistan. Robert Naiman writes:

Today eighteen Senators voted for Senator Feingold’s amendment to the war supplemental requiring the President to establish a timetable for the redeployment of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. This could be a turning point in U.S. policy on the war in Afghanistan.

With this vote, the number of Senators on the record in support of the policy of establishing a timetable for military withdrawal just increased from two to eighteen: on Tuesday, Senator Boxer added her name to S.3197, Senator Feingold’s bill that would have the same effect.

Why is this a victory? First off, 18 votes in the Senate is a lot. There’s only 100, so 2 to 18 is a massive jump. But there’s more:

This “surge” in Senate support for a timetable for withdrawal should make it easier to build support in the House for a withdrawal timetable when the House considers the war supplemental, as it is expected to do after the Memorial Day recess.

Already, 92 Members of the House have co-sponsored H.R. 5015, Representative McGovern’s companion legislation requiring a timetable for withdrawal, including members of the House Democratic leadership, like Rep. Barney Frank and Rep. George Miller; if you add in Members who earlier this year supported Representative Kucinich’s withdrawal resolution, more than 100 Members of the House are already on the record in favor of a timetable for military withdrawal.[…]

A handful more of co-sponsors on McGovern’s resolution would virtually guarantee that if the House is allowed to consider an amendment like the one the Senate voted on today, the majority of Democrats would vote no. This would establish “there should be a timetable for withdrawal” as the mainstream Democratic position, pressuring the Obama Administration to create one, just as Congressional pressure helped create the July 2011 deadline for the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to begin.

These 18 politicians aren’t luminous agents of peace working to save the world (Nobel Committee, please wait this one out). No, these are United States Senators. They’re our Americanized version of wealthy, land-owning lords. Their every institutional and professional instinct commands them to side with the elite, with the Commander-in-Chief, with power. Getting 18 Senators to buck the President’s demands for no accountability is a big accomplishment.

And again, these are politicians. They didn’t move to check the President because they’re brilliant, they did it because of you. But there is a bit of bad news here. The unchecked president and his forces in the establishment are fighting this change, fiercely, every step of the way. And they are also achieving victories.

Here’s the list of Senators:

  • Feingold
  • Udall (NM)
  • Sanders
  • Merkley
  • Tester
  • Murray
  • Brown (OH)
  • Durbin
  • Cantwell
  • Leahy
  • Dorgan
  • Wyden
  • Harkin
  • Boxer
  • Schumer
  • Baucus
  • Gillibrand

Because enough people called in, wrote e-mails, and just plain showed up at their offices, these senators were forced to back a timetable. They read the letters, they listened to your calls, and they saw the legions of peace organizations falling over themselves to run ads and campaign against them if they supported the war. Each one of those organizations individually represents anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of members, all of them ready to knock on doors, phone bank, and contribute money to the politicians most willing to listen to the demands of their constituents. These senators may want to support the Obama administration, but they have to listen to you. If they don’t, they’re gone.

That is, they’re only gone if we hold up our side of the bargain. 80 senators still voted no. They’re not listening to their constituents, they’re not concerned about crashing the economy with war debt and exacerbating our already crushing unemployment problem. Well, not all of them feel that way. Here’s one of those No votes back in September:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told John King on CNN’s State Of The Union this morning that she doesn’t see how Afghanistan will become a democracy. […]

The Democratic Senator also said the current mission in Afghanistan isn’t clear, and that Congress must be given a clearer idea of US objectives and time lines in Afghanistan.

Feinstein heard what her constituents were saying. They want this war over, and they got her to support a timetable. But she voted against the timetable today. Is it because she’s dense? Does she need a trippy cartoon scroll with eyeballs to explain that he can’t climb up the capitol steps and become a law if she votes “no?” Of course not, Feinstein is just playing games with her constituents. She knows that she can say she’s against the war, that she supports a timetable, but then do absolutely nothing about it.

What’s her evidence? Well, if you counted that list of senators above, there’s one of the 18 missing. Senator Arlen Specter. Feinstein saw that even though Specter planned to listen to his constituents and block the war that was costing them so much, he still lost. Specter can win on policy, but his opponent congressman Joe Sestak won the media game. And his supporters followed suit. This was a grassroots progressive uprising, we’re told. This unremarkable, empty suit Sestak with his ethereal, hyper-politicized positions were going to save the voters from out-of-touch incumbents like Specter. Specter voted yes today, but he won’t be around for many more votes. And not only do we lose his votes, we lose other members as well.

Just the same as a seemingly small act like picking up the phone and calling your senator can have a big impact, and cascade down to more policy victories, if we play into the media game with, again seemingly small, acts like peddling myths about leftist insurgencies and angry grassroots revolutions, it will have a big impact, immediately and further down the road. If we reward the politicians for those empty, rhetorical victories without results, they have zero motivation to then provide real results in office. Specter was a Yes vote, he knew he had to not only listen, but follow through on it. But he lost to a No vote, Sestak, with Yes-ish sounding positions. And thus we have Feinstein, saying the right words while defying her constituents.

And Feinstein’s hypocrisy is only stunning here because it’s obvious. She called for exactly the same legislation she voted against. But how did it affect other senators? Where is Senator Al Franken? Is he also learning that he doesn’t really have to do anything so long as we pretend he’s a populist hero? How many more, Democrats and Republicans (Specter was both), saw that votes mean nothing in the face of media narratives, and chose to vote No on the timetable today? Your phone calls turned 2 yes votes into 18 yes votes. How many no votes did Sestak’s media myth get?

Sestak is only singled out here because his media presence is so pervasive, there were other sham candidates who won alongside him. The media were predictably ridiculous, but it was a less than shining moment for grassroots activists who normally don’t succumb to the temptation of media cheer-leading and group-think. And there were consequences, both today in the senate and surely more later on.

Forget the media. Forget their stupid games about who’s more conservative or who’s more liberal, who’s the outsider and who’s the establishment, who has the president’s support and who doesn’t. It doesn’t matter, that nonsense is for the media and their cocktail parties. They’re not your friends, they’re employees with a job to do, and that job is selling conflict. Sometimes they’re going to a pick a side that you like, Katrina victims or Iranian dissidents or…grassroots progressive activists, but they’re not really out to help you, they’re out for commercial dollars. They win, you don’t get anything. Hell, they’ll support an aggressive, illegal war that kills a million and a half Iraqis for ratings, do you really think they care about your “lefty insurgent” candidates? Of course not.

We won’t get anything from playing the status quo’s game. We know how to get results. We got 18 hugely important votes in the senate today, all because of pressure. For the 10,000th time, Pressure Works. Now we have to keep up the pressure, and help turn today’s victory into more accomplishments. Call Congress at (202) 224-3121 and ask to speak to your representative. Tell them to co-sponsor HR 5015, the McGovern bill to require an exit strategy. Tell them about the 18 senators, and the pressure they’re facing. Tell them you don’t care about their words, that you demand results. Afterward join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page and collaborate with the tens of thousands of others around the country working to bring this war to an end.

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