June 1, 2006  

The Congress Awakes

Almost four years after passing the resolution that gave President Bush approval to go to war in Iraq, the leaders of the legislative branch of government have decided to renew the debate over what we now call The Long War, in several sessions next week.

It’s about time.

The immediate causes of the debate are unfortunately rather narrow and petty: Democrats believe they can score points by complaining about the Bush Administration’s conduct of the war; with mid-term elections looming, previously loyal Republicans feel the need to distance themselves from the president’s unpopularity. So the main motivation for both sides is politics more than policy.

Yet these sorts of debates have a way of getting out of hand – if history is any guide, they will produce a number of well-spoken, well argued speeches that advance the public debate about the war. For one, these debates will be long, stretching out over a number of days, even though the exact calendar is still being negotiated. Speakers are both spurred by their ambitions and compelled by the "long form" to develop remarks that go beyond the one-minute harangues, the chum for sound bites on cable news, that have come to dominate congressional "debate" in the past decade.

Second, there’s simply the gravity of the subject. It is a popular and populist trope that the Congress is populated simply by corrupt, grasping, self-interested, narrow-minded men and women – and the daily run of media coverage gives ample example of how low the House and Senate can go. It does not, however, prepare us for how high our great representatives can go, when challenged by an issue of great moment and the political imperative to be serious and to consider issues of national rather than simply local or personal issues. It’s not that the debates will produce a fountain of Churchillian rhetoric, but what we will see, most likely, is very smart and patriotic Americans wrestling head on with an issue – war – of historical import.

It’s also going to be a debate that will go a long way to defining the American political landscape through the fall elections. Both parties and individual politicians have much at stake. Democrats will fail the test if they content themselves with criticizing Bush policies without offering at least a reasonably well-developed alternative strategy that is not a simple withdraw and retreat plan; they must acknowledge, as they have yet to do, the consequences of failure in this war. Republicans will fail equally if they content themselves with implying Democratic disloyalty; they must acknowledge the Bush Administration’s failures.

In sum, those who offer ideas on how to win the war, not simply withdraw or endure it, will be the stars of the show. This doesn’t mean presenting a miracle plan for rapid, decisive operations in five simple steps; indeed, those who show how patience would be our greatest virtue for victory.

But this is the moment where the Congress reasserts itself and its role – in wartime, its necessarily secondary but still crucial role – in the American political process. Our men and women on Capitol Hill have been negligent for years, but are about, let’s hope, to redeem themselves.

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