On David Sirota, David Obey, and "Idiot Liberals," Never Mind Ending the War

By David Swanson

David Sirota has just published an article disagreeing with me, which is quite disturbing because I usually agree with and often admire Sirota’s work. And yet, the claims he makes in this article don’t persuade me. So, my inclination is not to pretend they do because Sirota has done good things in the past. Sirota, however, would like us to all pretend that what Congressman David Obey is currently doing is acceptable because he’s done something good in the past.

Sirota’s article is headlined “On Dave Obey, ‘idiot liberals’ and ending the war.” It begins with a link to a video I posted and a link to an article I later wrote about it:

“The blogosphere is abuzz with talk of Wisconsin Rep. Dave Obey’s (D) frustrated outburst about Iraq caught on YouTube. Antiwar activists are high-fiving each other, almost as if catching Obey’s outburst about ‘idiot liberals’ is as big a YouTube feat as catching George Allen saying ‘macaca.’ This is deeply troubling on a number of levels, and an opportunity for a bit of constructive self-reflection about where we as a progressive movement are.”

Obey’s outburst provides the sort of “drama” that television producers favor, which creates the opportunity you mention for more useful thought. Obey’s rant outlines a point of view that we should think very carefully about.

“I’m going to say a few things here that some of my readers aren’t going to like – some things that I’ve been pondering as I am writing my new book. But it’s important at times to look at ourselves and our movement critically if we are to continue advancing. Here’s the deal folks: There are some ‘idiot liberals’ out there, and this episode actually highlights that reality.”

You’re off to a constructive start.

“Dave Obey represents a pretty conservative district that is not exactly easy for a Democrat to represent (this is why the NRSC can’t wait for him to retire). He originally voted against the war, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of the war, and he has repeatedly used his position as Appropriations Chairman to try to get the situation in Iraq under control. These are the facts, and I witnessed it first hand, having worked for him a few years ago.”

You can actually look at Obey’s voting record and bill-sponsoring record on this war on the website of United for Peace and Justice. Obey has not joined the Progressive Caucus or even the Out of Iraq Caucus, a step that requires merely wanting the U.S. to get out of Iraq some day. He has not cosponsored any of the bills that would end the war, not the strongest, not the weakest, not any of those in between. He did not sign the petition last year that was aimed at forcing the Republican Congress to allow a vote on the weakest of the Democratic proposals aimed at possibly ending the war some day. He has not cosponsored bills opposing the ongoing construction of permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq. He has not cosponsored a bill aimed at allowing students to keep their personal information from being handed over by their schools to military recruiters. He has not cosponsored a bill to provide adequate VA health care. (He’s adding that into a war funding bill as a means to garner votes and cover some of the odor, but he has not supported a clean bill to fund VA health care.) In 2003 Obey voted to fund the war. In 2004 he voted against funding. In 2005 he voted to fund it again. Obey, like most Democrats, voted in favor of Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey’s amendment that would have asked the President to devise a plan to end the war some day. There are not many Democrats with a worse record than Obey’s.

At the Democrats’ March 8, 2007 press conference, Obey made clear that he did not want to end any war at all. He wanted to shift the war from Iraq to Afghanistan, where the U.S. could, he said, attack “the people who attacked us.”

Sirota continues:

“Now, you can argue whether his tactics right now are smart. You can have a reasoned disagreement about whether he should be pushing a supplemental appropriations bill that includes new money for veterans medical care and binding language to end the war by March of 2008. There is a very legitimate case to be made that Democrats shouldn’t support any money to continue the war and that the supplemental appropriations bill that Obey is carrying does also do that.”

No, David. With all due respect, it does not ALSO do that. That is the overwhelmingly enormous and central and costly thing that it does. That is THE purpose of the bill. How dare you try to imply that I oppose veterans’ medical care or binding language to end the war? How dare Obey use injured veterans’ need for care to package his bill to put our grandchildren into debt funding more war and more deaths and injuries? And there is nothing binding about requiring George W. Bush to stop doing something, while giving him the money to keep doing it. If you want to be binding, you’ll have to use the power of the purse, something this supplemental will not do unless Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s amendment is voted on and passed.

“However, berating one of the antiwar movement’s longtime leaders and then trying to mount his head on the virtual YouTube wall over a debate about the best WAY to end the war suggests that the antiwar movement fundamentally does not understand the very power structure it is trying to influence. It’s the same fundamental misunderstanding we at the Progressive States Network experienced when a few antiwar activists attacked us for pushing resolutions in state legislatures that ‘only’ call for Congress to defund the Iraq escalation, as opposed to ending the war entirely (which, by the way, many of these resolutions do – Progressive States, unlike some other organizations on the left, is not in the top-down habit of dictating to state legislators what they exactly have to do – we provide models and templates and support so the effort is actually homegrown, and in that process our models and templates are customized).”

Sirota and I had an exchange of Emails on this topic. I have never seen either Sirota or Obey at any antiwar events, and this is the first I’d heard that Obey was a hero of the antiwar movement. But when Win Without War and Moveon.org and Sirota’s group started pushing opposition to the Escalation rather than the war, many people all over the country were upset about it. All sorts of antiwar listserves carried outraged discussions. Local and national groups strategized over how to get these anti-escalation groups to shift to being anti-war. But when I Emailed Sirota about it, it took about three Email exchanges before he even understood what I was asking. It was clearly the first he’d heard that anyone made a distinction between being anti-escalation and anti-war. He then thanked me for what he called very constructive advice and said he would pass it along to the Progressive States Network. Whether he did or not, I have no idea. Whether he thought I was “attacking him” I couldn’t say, but he certainly didn’t act like he thought that. And he certainly didn’t claim PSN had no control over its rhetoric.

“Dave Obey is an ally of the progressive movement on almost every issue, and on the war in specific. Go ahead and try to claim I’m only saying that because I once worked for him, but then take some time and look at his voting record and his actions. By any standard – other than those of a tiny group of, yes, ‘idiot liberals’ – Obey is a progressive hero. Spending time and energy attacking him, as opposed to the true obstacles to ending the war, is both a waste, and potentially counterproductive, because someone like Obey, representing the district that he does, could easily just walk away (he won’t, because he’s Obey, but conceptually he certainly could).”

I don’t think it’s only because you once worked for him. I think you’re cutting him too much slack, both in how you characterize his record and in what you demand of him now, because you think his district won’t reelect him if he really ends the war. I think you’re probably wrong, but I also think it’s an indecent misordering of priorities. An election is not more important than the lives of all the people who will die while Obey helps delay ending the war.

“The real news out of Obey’s outburst is that, as the Associated Press confirms, he really doesn’t have the votes in the Democratic caucus to cut off funding for the war, and that he courageously broke traditional etiquette by implicitly calling out the faction of pro-war Democrats who are standing in the way of stronger action on the war. These are the obstacles that the progressive movement should be focusing on pressuring. Obey’s frustration clearly comes from his perception (whether right or wrong) that he, an antiwar stalwart from a ‘tough district’ is being unduly harassed at the very time he needs the progressive movement to help him whip votes out of other Democrats who are the real problem. And his frustration is grounded in reality – fairly often, progressive activists, and the Netroots in particular, give passes to conservative Democrats because they come from the same kinds of ‘tough districts’ Obey comes from.”

But there comes a point when giving passes must end if a cause, not an electoral cause but a cause like peace or justice, is to succeed. Sirota knows this. He knows that activists for rightwing causes that have succeeded have built those successes by not giving passes to Republicans. Sure, there are other Democrats more viciously pro-war than Obey, but many of them are also in “tough districts.” They shouldn’t get to use that excuse either. Neither should Republicans. The point is not to single-out Obey, but merely not to excuse him. He is in a position of leadership on this issue, as Chair of the Appropriations Committee. He can use that position to lead in one direction or the other, and right now he’s got it wrong.

“I’m in no way excusing Obey’s behavior that was caught on film. He didn’t take time to communicate properly, he got way too angry way too fast and his frustration translated into him mistreating the people who were asking him questions. That is unacceptable, and I’m happy he apologized. He needed to.

“However, the troubling thing out of the spat is not Obey’s behavior: it is the reaction to it by the progressive movement, and what that reaction really says. The idea that Jack Murtha – the guy who voted for the war, the guy who was one of the most outspoken pro-war Democrats, the guy who has never seen a defense bill he didn’t try to increase – is now an antiwar saint beyond reproach, but Dave Obey is some sort of pro-war villain is so fundamentally absurd it suggests that at least some who liken themselves as progressive movement leaders really are ‘idiot liberals’ because they have positively no idea how the hell basic movement building or power works (mind you – I’m not saying Jack Murtha hasn’t been courageous in opposing the war of late- he has, which is why I thought he should have been Majority Leader – but the point is that the basic understanding of ‘allies’ and ‘enemies’ can be wholly misunderstood).”

I’ve criticized Murtha consistently and much more severely than you. His anti-escalation plan is still in the supplemental bill, although now as a request rather than a requirement. The absurdity of that is topped only by this. Here’s a paragraph from an article I published not too long ago:

Bizarrely, this whole discussion has taken place without any reference to the fact that, in November 2003, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004, which placed limits on the number of days that a member of the Armed Forces could be deployed. Bush signed that bill into law, but added a signing statement announcing his intention to disregard that section. The U.S. Constitution gives the President the power to sign bills into law and enforce them, or to veto them. There is no constitutional middle course. Yet Bush has routinely used signing statements to announce his plans to disregard portions of bills he signs into law. This abuse might be addressed by impeachment proceedings, something the Democrats are not currently considering. But short of addressing this abuse, Congress Members could at least behave as though they were aware of it.

Now Murtha is also touting an anti-torture measure in the Supplemental, avoiding recognition of the fact that Congress already banned torture and had the ban tossed out with a signing statement. We’re all walking around with blinders on, pretending there’s not a dictator in the White House, and bickering over which Democrats it’s permissible to criticize. Apparently Murtha is fair game, but not Obey. Sirota concludes:

“If those working in professional movement politics really want to end the war – and not just be in a perpetual state of unproductive contrarian outrage – they can start by remembering the need to target pressure and the need to apply both the carrot and the stick. Shoving a stick up the rear end of an ally is the behavior of ‘idiots’ – whether liberal or otherwise – because it only puts our goal farther out of reach.”

I don’t think Sirota is an idiot, and I don’t think Obey is an idiot. And I don’t think calling people idiots is productive. But Obey can’t be my ally as long as he is trying to fund an illegal and aggressive war that is killing hundreds of thousands of people directly and hundreds of thousands more indirectly by diverting so much money to killing. Many of us would like to speak with Obey and hear his explanations and arguments, off camera and out of the hallway. Sirota’s clearly do not suffice.

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