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The Perils of Overreach

By Rich Lowry

Hillary Clinton incontestably spoke the truth about the Iraq war this past February at the annual meeting of the Democratic National Committee when she said, "I understand the frustration and outrage, (but) you have to have 60 votes to cap troops, to limit funding, to do anything."

She heard a smattering of boos for enunciating a simple fact of life in the Senate. The Left of the Democratic party didn't want to hear it, and it forced the Democratic leadership of Congress and the Democratic presidential candidates -- eventually including Clinton herself -- to act in contravention of this reality, to the party's serious detriment.

There is a limit to how much Democrats can hurt themselves on the war. No matter what they do, the war is still unpopular and a net drag on Republicans. Nonetheless, Democrats have helped drive the approval levels of Congress down to historic lows and suffered an enormous opportunity cost.

Throughout this past year, they could have seized the broad middle in the debate concerning the war. They could have worked with a slice of moderate Republicans on legislation that wouldn't have forced an end to the war, but made them the representatives of a bipartisan alternative to Bush's strategy. Instead they talked of ending the war outright, positioning themselves to the left of the public and setting themselves an unattainable goal.

Thus, they became the party of the impotent left-wingers. They fell victim to all the same dreary failings of overreaching congressional Republicans after their takeover of Congress in 1994 -- hubris, self-delusion, and a slavish devotion to their political base.

They made a hard timetable for withdrawal their bottom line when they could have gotten Republicans to support something short of that -- say, a bill calling for the implementation of the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. The timetable didn't have the votes, but Democrats figured that if they forced Republicans to keep voting on it, eventually they'd buckle. This meant the Democratic Congress would be characterized by partisan confrontation leading to ... nothing.

At least until such time as Republicans caved, which Democrats considered inevitable. They mistakenly believed the Iraq debate could head in only one direction -- theirs. Meanwhile, their base locked them into their strategy. A fear stalks the Democratic party -- of the bloggers and activists of groups like who will punish anyone for departing from the strictest antiwar orthodoxy.

August was supposed to be the surge's Waterloo. Republicans would go home and hear from angry constituents about the war. Antiwar groups would hammer them. But Republicans didn't hear much about the war. Lawmakers from both parties took trips to Iraq where they saw improving security conditions firsthand, and some Democrats were forthright enough to say so.

The table was set for Gen. Petraeus's September report, which Democrats had convinced themselves would be the war's final gasp. A few weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid even fretted that the administration wouldn't allow Petraeus to testify publicly. All through the summer, Republicans used Petraeus's September report as a placeholder -- urging that we wait to hear from the general -- and when he testified, he made as persuasive a case as possibly could be made for the war.

Democrats were wrong-footed. Their all-or-nothing opposition to the war made it impossible for them to digest any good news, so they resorted to ham-handed attacks on the general's credibility. Even the usually shrewd Rep. Rahm Emanuel -- architect of the Democratic takeover of the House -- blustered, "We don't need a report that wins the Nobel Prize for creative statistics or the Pulitzer for fiction."

So, amazingly, President Bush is able to endorse Gen. Petraeus's recommendation for a conditions-based drawdown in troops from a position of relative strength. Four years into an unpopular, often mishandled war, Democrats are the ones scrambling for a new political strategy. And, as so often happens in politics, they did it to themselves.

© 2007 by King Features Syndicate

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