The Democratic Process

I was surprised and delighted to see that Jack Murtha, Nancy Pelosi’s candidate for majority leader, in the House of Representatives lost decisively to Steny Hoyer, the current number two. She made a big deal of pushing Murtha, and the party went with Hoyer .

Now you have to understand that I am a Democrat, but that I am so angry at the party that I always vote Republican all the way down to Dog Catcher because of people like Murtha. Democrats have to prove to me what Joe Lieberman has proved – that he puts his country before his party before I’ll vote for any of them. I feel a little strongly about national security. I want two parties truly competing to provide better national security. So the election of Hoyer is a clear rejection by the Democrats of the left of the party trying to put one of their anti war stars into a position of power. As far as I’m concerned, they just did themselves good for 2008.

My gut tells me that the American people are quite aware that giving up in Iraq would be a disaster and that they didn’t elect the Democrats to create a disaster. They elected them because they are dissatisfied with Bush’s ability to bring the Iraq war toward a satisfactory conclusion. How the fight between the left of the Democratic party and the center works out over then next two years will determine the degree to which the electorate will trust the Democrats with national security. The left already has Pelosi as Speaker, electing Murtha would have put the party clearly under the leadership of the left. Now Pelosi and Steny Hoyer will have to work together. This little faction fight is an excellent example of the democratic process in action. Here is columnist John Podhoretz’s take:

There are reasons to question Pelosi’s political judgment, as Murtha’s bungled majority leader bid demonstrates. The fact that Democrats did question it and went their own way suggests they’re not going to march over a cliff behind Pelosi, whose views constitute almost a caricature of American left-liberalism at its most provincial.

And the fact that they supported a strong majority leader in Steny Hoyer means that they voted for a certain amount of creative tension at the top of the House – which is probably all to the good.

To me what is at stake here is the future of the Democratic party. The war in Iraq is no longer a war of choice. It has to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion and to do that the Democratic party has to take some ownership of it. The president has responded to the judgement of the electorate by opening the door to the Democrats. The center of the party has the opportunity to step up and get involved in resolving the situation in Iraq – not just destructively and irresponsibly declaring the war unwinnable as Murtha did. That kind of talk encourages the worst elements in Iraq – bluntly it encourages our enemies and weakens the US’s credibility world wide. On the other hand, pressure from the Democrats on Bush to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion puts new pressure on the Iraqi government to find a satisfactory formula to effectively govern the country. Charles Krauthammer put it this way here:

It was never certain whether the long-oppressed Shiites would have enough sense of nation and sense of compromise to govern rather than rule. The answer is now clear: United in a dominating coalition, they do not.

Fortunately, however, the ruling Shiites do not have much internal cohesion. Just last month, two of the major Shiite religious parties that underpin the Maliki government engaged in savage combat against each other in Amara.

There is a glimmer of hope in this breakdown of the Shiite front. The unitary Shiite government having been proved such a failure, we should be encouraging the full breakup of the Shiite front in pursuit of a new coalition based on cross-sectarian alliances: the more moderate Shiite elements (secular and religious but excluding the poisonous Sadr), the Kurds, and those Sunnis who recognize their minority status but are willing to accept an important, generously offered place at the table.

Such a coalition was almost created after the latest Iraqi elections. It needs to be attempted again. One can tinker with American tactics or troop levels from today until doomsday. But unless the Iraqis can put together a government of unitary purpose and resolute action, the simple objective of this war — to leave behind a self-sustaining democratic government — is not attainable.

There seems to me to be an opportunity here for the United States to use the fact of divided government to put pressure on the Iraqi government and, as Krauthammer suggests, to even encourage a coalition of Sunni, Kurds and the less sectarian Shiites to check Maliki and his tolerance of the likes of Sadr. To wax optimistic - to bring about a government that can better govern for all Iraqis. Recently a similar coalition voted for a federalized Iraq which means less national unity and more regional autonomy. While I think that eventually a moderately federalized Iraq is a realistic way to deal with the ancient sectarian differences in Iraq, any government that can govern across sectarian divisions – even in a limited way – is better than one that can not. Practically I think that a reduced role for the central government may make it easier for a more limited, but more effective, national government to emerge. I’d love to see some of our Democratic senators travelling to Iraq to encourage just this sort of thing – the democratic process - among the Iraqi politicians. Playing a bit of good cop bad cop. And letting them know that we are not going to hang around for thirty years while the Iraqis work it out. With both parties in power in the US we may actually have more potential influence over a failing Iraqi government than with one party rule. Until now, if Bush and his Republican controlled Congress pressured the Iraqi government they left themselves open to the accusation that Maliki was just a puppet. Now, if a Democratic senator lets Maliki know what he can expect under a Democratic administration then the effectiveness of the pressure on the Iraqi government increases significantly. In America a decisive struggle for power between the left and the center of the Democratic party has been brought forward in time by the party’s success in the elections. In Iraq the democratic process needs to be accelerated too.

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