The conversation and the subject of the conversation
8 April 2007, 10:27 AM
Matthew Yglesias drew my attention to Our Only President’s radio address for the week, and to the rhetorical battle over which side is obstructing which. He had noticed an article on the Washington Post’s web site by Bill Brubaker, which evidently originally said that “President Bush used his Easter weekend radio address to suggest that while Americans are "blessed" to have so many brave, volunteer military service members, congressional Democrats are jeopardizing their safety by refusing to sign his $100 billion war funding bill.” This was an early draft of the article that appeared on the web site, and which may have been written from a press release describing the address, rather than from the address itself. As Mr. Yglesias notes, the Congress does not sign the President’s bill, the President signs the Congress’s bills. Or vetoes them.
A later draft of Mr. Brubaker’s story changed sign to endorse, but according to Mike in Houston in the comments, said later in the story, “A clear majority of Americans oppose the war, which has cost more than $300 billion so far. But Bush said the Democrats' delay in signing his bill, which does not have a troop pullout deadline attached, will soon deprive U.S. military personnel of the equipment and training they need to do their jobs.” As of 6:34pm (EDT) the quote in the opening paragraph is “jeopardizing their safety by delaying passage of a $100 billion war funding bill” and the later one is “Bush said the Democrats' delay in passing a bill with no troop pullout deadline”. The impression, still, is that Our Only President has a bill, and that the Democrats are delaying its passage.
[Note: I don’t think that the article in question made it into the print edition of the Post, but I could be wrong. I’m not sure what editorial processes are for web-only articles, or for web-published drafts that may or may not be printed. The web site doesn’t make a clear distinction, except that this article does not, this morning, list a page number.]
The actual transcript of the radio address is interesting in this light. Our Only President emphasizes the time since his “emergency war spending bill” was submitted to Congress. He says that “Democrats in Congress have spent the past 61 days” not doing so, but instead making a “statement” about the war. This does two things: it portrays the Democrats as obstructionist, playing on the idea of legislators as slow, inefficient and disposed to posturing; and it sets up an idea that was is supposed to happen is that the Congress swiftly passes whatever the President sends them, and that any other course is deviant.
Then, he twice talks about “a bill I can sign”. Not a bill he will sign, or a bill he would like to sign, but a bill he can sign. Not only does this underscore his famous resolve, but it removes him as a part of the delay. It becomes a part of the other bill, his inability to sign it, and he goes on to say that the unsignable bill should be quickly passed, vetoed, and returned to Congress, where it will die. The death of the withdrawal bill is inevitable, and if it is anybody’s fault, it’s the fault of the people who conceived it. It is the responsibility of the Congress to pass bills he is able to sign, you see.
The reason why this is so powerful is that it’s essentially correct. Let’s be clear: procedurally speaking, the Democrats are passing a bill with a troop pullout deadline. Our Only President has promised to veto such a bill. Procedurally, then, the delay is entirely on the Executive side. It is the President who is obstructing the will of the Congress (which happens to be the will of the people, as far as can be estimated, and as far as such a thing can be said to exist). On the other hand, the Democratic leadership is deliberately passing a bill that will be vetoed, and the veto seems unlikely to be overridden. The Democrats could, if they wanted, craft a bill that would be made into a law. Their refusal to do that is, in essence, obstruction.
In reality, what we have here is not one party guilty of obstructing the other party, or one branch guilty of obstructing the other branch, but two parties and two branches in disagreement about policy, working out their disagreement as the Constitution provides. There is no violation of norms, here. Both the Legislature and the Executive are acting quite correctly, as far as procedure goes. If the argument is about who is obstructing who, both sides have a legitimate case for them, and against them, and there are lots of exciting civics lessons nobody really gives a damn about. However, it’s worth pointing out that the two sides have entirely different policies about what we should actually do. Most people seem to think that the Democrats in Congress have a good idea, and that Our Only President wouldn’t know a good idea if it wore a hat with G-O-O-D I-D-E-A spelled out in red, white and blue sequins, a pair of ass-kicking boots with GOOD on one side and IDEA on the other, and Kevlar body armor provided by the Good Idea organization with the Good Idea logo prominently displayed where one might expect the USANG would ordinarily be, and was followed by the Good Idea Marching Band playing “Hail to the Good Idea”.
But instead of either getting their good idea implemented, or even talking about their good idea, Democrats might have to waste their time defending against the accusation of delay (of which, even better, they are to some extent guilty), and tell people why they are delaying the passage of Our Only President’s idea.
As a hint: Because it’s a bad idea. Leaving Iraq is a good idea. If the President wants to veto a good idea, because he cannot recognize that it is a good idea, well, that’s his prerogative under the Constitution, and Democrats should say very politely that they feel obliged to pass this good idea on to the President, and that they hope he will know what to do with it.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,