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Cranky Grass-Roots Democrats Send a Message to Capitol Hill

By Stuart Rothenberg

Democratic insiders agree that their party rank and file’s reaction to the passage of the supplemental appropriations bill, which was signed by President Bush a few weeks ago and included money to fund the Iraq War for three more months, was one of anger and frustration.

Possibly more importantly, they also now privately acknowledge that some small-dollar contributors turned away from party fundraising appeals after the bill passed and was signed by the president.

“We saw some hit to online donations,” one knowledgeable Democrat told me recently, adding quickly that contributions already have started to bounce back.

But while party leaders are never happy to hear that Congress’ reputation is slipping — and the drop in Congressional approval a couple of weeks ago almost certainly was because of Democrats expressing dissatisfaction — or that angry base voters have closed up their checkbooks, even temporarily, Democratic House and Senate leaders don’t yet have much reason to fear a grass-roots revolt.

Congressional Democrats apparently were surprised by the base’s reaction to the bill’s passage. They shouldn’t have been. Have they been living under a rock?

We’ve seen grass-roots Democratic anger for the past few years directed at the White House, and the animosity and invective aimed at Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) during his bid for renomination and re-election should have warned House and Senate Democrats that even they are not immune to attacks from left-of-center bloggers who see any cooperation with the White House on Iraq as perfidy.

Increasingly, the Democratic left is acting much the way the Republican right has acted for decades, measuring Capitol Hill behavior against a standard of ideological purity that treats pragmatists as traitors and those who compromise as worse than the enemy.

These voices have always been around, mind you. It is just that they now have a megaphone with the Internet, much as angry conservatives did when talk radio burst on the scene more than a decade ago.

“It makes no sense for our friends in the grass-roots community to hold us responsible when it’s the president’s party that makes change [in Iraq policy] impossible,” one frustrated Democratic Member of Congress said to me recently.

“Our goal,” said the Member, “is still to turn the corner on Iraq. We haven’t changed our position” just because the appropriations bill passed.

Maybe Democratic leaders could have done a better job preparing angry party activists for the passage of the spending bill, possibly sparing Hill Democrats the nasty e-mails and angry comments on liberal blogs, but I doubt it. Democrats have spent so many months cranking up the volume on Iraq — making it a major issue in the 2006 elections and since then increasing their attacks on the president and his policies — that it would have been very difficult to persuade grass-roots anti-war activists to accept a deal with the White House that funded the war for even another week.

Given the bigger picture, it really doesn’t matter that many grass-roots Democrats were very frustrated and angry by Hill Democrats’ behavior (which probably only angers them more).

As we have already learned, Congressional Democrats are planning to take more bites out of the Iraq War apple over the next few months, either in stand-alone bills or as amendments to appropriations bills. A de-authorization vote, for example, seems likely.

Even though it is inevitable that those Democratic initiatives will be blocked by Republicans in the Senate, or vetoed by the president (if any get to his desk), Hill Democrats will be able to crow about their efforts to end the war and blame Bush for the daily doses of bad news from Iraq. That should mollify Democratic confrontationalists, redirecting attention back toward the Republicans and calming the mood of the now-angry crowd on stage left toward Democrats.

The next question for Congressional Democrats is what to do in September, when the president will need Congress to commit additional spending for the war. But their choices depend on the various reports about the so-called surge that are due then and on Republican decisions on the war. If the recent public statements of Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) are any indication, Democrats will have plenty of company when they try to tighten the noose on the president’s Iraq policy near the end of the summer.

Increasingly, the Democratic left resembles the Republican right. That’s likely to be a long-term problem for Democrats, but it isn’t a terribly significant one between now and November 2008.

But as Democrats grow confident about next year, and especially if they win the White House and increase their majorities in both chambers of Congress in 2008, you can expect the party’s liberal wing to become more confrontational against party moderates and pragmatists. Democrats will go after Democrats who stray from the party and ideological line, much as social and anti-tax conservatives have tried to cleanse the GOP of incumbents who fail to meet their litmus tests.

The writing is already on the wall.

Stuart Rothenberg is the editor of the The Rothenberg Political Report, and a regular columnist for Roll Call Newspaper. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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