Friday Night Congress: What Was That?

By David Swanson

During the middle of the day on Friday, I spent an hour or two on a conference call with activists and congressional staffers discussing next steps to end the war. We planned, among other things, to organize support for Congressman John Murtha’s bill, H.J.Res. 73, which he introduced on Friday. The bill resolves that:

“The deployment of United States forces in Iraq, by direction of Congress, is hereby terminated and the forces involved are to be redeployed at the earliest practicable date. A quick-reaction U.S. force and an over-the-horizon presence of U.S. Marines shall be deployed in the region. The United States of America shall pursue security and stability in Iraq through diplomacy.”

While some peace activists had doubts about the bill (mostly focused on uncertainty as to what an “over-the-horizon presence” is and what it does, where, and for how long), many groups were clearly fired up about Murtha’s public statement in support of ending the war. U.S. Labor Against the War was among those ready to roll out an organizing campaign. Congressman Charles Rangel was rounding up supporters and comparing Murtha to Martin Luther King Jr. Murtha’s office was telling us they’d received 1,600 phone calls on the topic, and 1,300 of them had been positive.

The excitement clearly was based on the fact that Murtha is a well-known supporter of wars and a veteran who was now opposing, not wars in general (or even wars based on lies, which comes to almost the same thing), but this war in particular. Murtha is also the ranking Member and former Chairman of the Subcommittee on Defense, a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. These qualifications meant that the media would treat his position as significant, and so possibly might the nominal leaders of the Democratic Party. On the latter score, however, initial results were disappointing. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “I think that Mr. Murtha speaks for himself….” Senator Harry Reid said, “I don’t support immediate withdrawal.”

In the early afternoon on Friday we heard that the Republicans planned to bring Murtha’s bill to the floor for a vote the same day. From the perspective of an organizer, I assumed the point of this was to kill off the bill before it could gain any momentum, before we could organize people to pressure their congress members to sign onto it.

I could not have been more wrong. The Republicans were not thinking grass-roots. They were thinking mass media. This became clear when they chose not to allow a vote on Murtha’s bill but rather to bring a completely different bill of their own to a vote and talk about it as if it were Murtha’s. The Republican bill, introduced by Congressman Duncan Hunter resolved:

“That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately.”

Of course that will never be the sense of the House of Representatives, not in that many words without any qualifications related to safe withdrawal of the troops, or support of an international force, or payment of restitution for damage, or clarification on what will be done with the permanent military bases that the United States is building, or resolution of the question of who gets the oil.

But what Hunter’s bill did amount to was a quotation of Republicans’ and the media’s frequent caricature of the positions of war opponents. When Congressman Dennis Kucinich, two years ago, introduced his plan to end the war in 90 days, it included a well-thought-out and broad agenda. It could not be reduced to two dozen words, a’ la Hunter. Yet it was so reduced in every media report on it and every reference to it by Democratic opponents in the presidential primaries.

What Hunter and the Republicans did on Friday night was to embody a straw man argument in legislative action for the purpose of persuading the media that the straw man was not straw. And they failed miserably.

The media didn’t even catch on that this was what was happening. The New York Times reported that the Republicans’ goal was to split the Democrats and to put Democrats in a difficult position. This didn’t happen. The Democrats opposed Hunter’s bill with far greater unity than they had shown in opposing, say, the bankruptcy bill or the energy bill or CAFTA. And splitting the Dems was not what this was about.

This was about creating reality. The Republicans thought that could take what they do on talk radio and actually make it real in Congress. If the Democrats refused to advocate for a childishly simplistic position, why then a Republican would have to put the words in their mouths. The Republicans clearly thought this would work. They thought that some or most or all Democrats would vote for the thing, and that this would make the Democrats look bad.

When he was asked on the floor of the House where he’d come up with the wording of his resolution, and why he would introduce a bill and oppose it, Hunter replied that his bill was “precisely the way that I think describes the essence of the publicity that has emanated from Washington, DC. This is a message that has been sent to our troops.”

In other words, the resolution contained the essence of the “Democrat” position as depicted in the Republican-dominated media.

A grand total of three Democrats voted for it. I admire their courage in doing so. But I think the vast majority of Democrats were right to refuse to play a Republican game that sought to use them as actors in a scripted Republican drama. The Democrats seem more united since Hunter’s stunt than they had been before it. More importantly, the issue of ending the war is more prominently in the news, and people are fired up to organize. The peace movement finally sees light at the end of the tunnel.

Both Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean sent out Emails in support of Murtha, albeit without actually saying they agreed with him. The closest Dean came to saying something substantive was this: “Every one of us — right now — needs to let Jack Murtha know that we

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