Thursday, September 13, 2007

So, John Boehner thinks that the "investment" we're making in Iraq will be a "small price" to pay if it means we're able to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize the Middle East. Well, let's put aside for the moment the fact that that is about the biggest pair of "ifs" imaginable in foreign affairs today, and focus on Greg Sargent's point. Sargent is upset that the Democrats aren't making a bigger deal about this. "Bottom line: It's hard to see what Boehner said as anything but reprehensible," he says. "And his remarks could become a big story, if Dems wanted to make it one."

Kevin Drum has complained about the same phenomenon -- the Dems' inability to respond to something like this swiftly and decisively, and their apparent preference for waiting a while, and then responding when the story has faded away. It's a very ineffectual approach, and I'm sure we'll see it played out again here.

Now, I don't know what the Dems are thinking. But I have a guess. I think that there's an internal debate -- and maybe this debate is internal to a lot of individual Democrats -- as to what to do. Because using Boehner's remark as a cudgel to personally attack him, which is what the Republicans would do, is basically reprehensible and doesn't get us anywhere. Demanding apologies and the like does nothing but make Boehner look bad -- it doesn't advance the debate. And I like to believe that Dems want to be above that sort of thing. (Probably wrong though.) On the other hand, of course, they are missing a very big political opportunity to beat up the other side here, and god knows in today's political climate, that seems to be what needs to be done.

That said, here's what I think the Dems should do. They should immediately speak out about this comment. But they shouldn't demand an apology from Boehner, or address him directly at all -- they shouldn't scold him and all that, the way the Republicans probably would. Instead, they should talk about his comment to the American public, and say "Here is a perfect example of the problem. The Republicans just can't see the enormity of the price we're paying in lives and dollars. They just don't see 3,500 soldiers' lives as a real sacrifice. This is why we can't let them be the ones making decisions about the war anymore." Something like that. Because really, that's why it matters. I mean, I'm sure that if Boehner had been pressed on his remark at the time, he would have said, "of course that's not what I meant" -- and he would have been sincere. But the fact that he said it is telling. It means that, at the forefront of his mind -- when he's not thinking carefully -- he sees what's happening in Iraq as "small"!

This is extraordinarily important because at the moment the essence of the debate is a cost-benefit analysis: anti-war types think that the cost isn't worth whatever potential benefit there is; and pro-war types feel the opposite. And Boehner's comment reveals a very twisted, very warped gauge of the cost. We shouldn't take seriously the cost-benefit analysis of someone who can't gauge the cost.

UPDATE: after writing this post, I tried to summarize it in a comment on the Horse's Mouth blog. It didn't work -- comments are disabled or something, not sure. But I like my short version of this post, so I'm copying it here instead:
Well said, as usual, Greg.

I'd add that Dems should take this opportunity, not to attack Boehner personally, but to point out to the American public that this sort of thinking is the reason that the Republicans can't be trusted anymore to make decisions on Iraq. I suspect that many Dems aren't responding directly because they think that public scolding and demands for apologies don't get us anywhere, and they like to see themselves as above that sort of politics. But they don't have to go that route. Instead, they should point out that, when Boehner speaks frankly, he reveals that he has an inability to recognize the sacrifice in lives and dollars that Americans are making in Iraq every day.

This is particularly important because, at its heart, the Iraq debate is now largely a matter of cost vs. benefit. Anti-war types point out that the cost is enormous, and that the potential benefits (i.e., in Boehner's words, "if we’re able to stop al Qaeda here, if we’re able to stabilize the Middle East") are so incredibly speculative as to be probably non-existent. Pro-war types don't see it that way. In Boehner's remark, he revealed that he simply can't see the cost for what it is -- his gauge of the price we're paying is totally off, warped even.

Dems should hold this statement up as a rare glimpse of the way pro-war politicians, comfortable in their Washington offices, are making their decisions on Iraq.

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