Like the ghost of Hamlet's father haunting Elsinore Castle, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan appeared at the Capitol this week to send the new Democratic leaders a clear message: Remember me.
"Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic leadership can no longer tell us what is on the table," Sheehan said on Wednesday, after commandeering a set of microphones from Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel. "We are the ones that put them in power and they are not including the peace movement."
Emanuel, the Illinois Representative who is credited with being one of the architects of his party's takeover of Congress, was holding a press conference on ethics reform when Sheehan and dozens of antiwar protestors shouted him down with chants of "de-escalate, investigate, troops home now." Emanuel retreated behind closed doors as Sheehan claimed the stage.
Although the incident was a just a footnote to this week's coronation of Nancy Pelosi as the new Speaker of the House, it is an indication of the tenuous position the new Democratic majority finds itself in. Democrats want to compile a set of accomplishments and shun the more radical elements of their party to demonstrate to voters that they can be trusted to govern responsibly, but by doing so they risk alienating the vehemently anti-war base of their party who helped put them in power.
After last year's midterm elections, many conservatives suggested that once in power, Democrats would show voters that they are dominated by the radical left of their party, creating the opening for a newly rehabilitated Republican Party to take back Congress in 2008.
All indications are that the Democratic leadership will do their best to prove the conservative caricature of their party wrong. The Democrats' much publicized agenda for their first "100 hours" includes hiking the minimum wage, implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, allowing the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices and cutting interest rates on student loans. While these measures may not be popular among conservatives, they make it difficult to paint Democrats as "radicals." For instance, President Bush is expected to sign the minimum wage increase, which has the support of 80 percent of Americans.
Any attempt by Democrats to move too far to the left will be tempered by the reality that a sizable chunk of their caucus is comprised of conservative Democrats who could be vulnerable in 2008 if they vote in lock step with the party's left wing. There are 60 House Democrats who were elected in districts that Bush carried in 2004, according to Americans for Tax Reform.
The problem for the Democrats is that much of their base worked to get them elected on the premise that it would lead to a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. So far, in attempting to come across as responsible, Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have dismissed calls for de-funding the war effort -- the one action the Congress could take short of impeachment to put an end to the war. Reid even said he could support sending more troops to Iraq if it was temporary and hastened the overall timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
With impeachment and de-funding the war not in the legislative horizon, Democrats will move to placate their base by investigating President Bush's conduct of the war and ramping up their rhetoric after the president announces his new strategy for Iraq next week, which is expected to include a call for sending more troops.
But Sen. Joe Biden, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who's planning as many as a dozen hearings on Iraq, has been quick to manage expectations.
"We should not exaggerate the ability of the United States Foreign Relations Committee or the Congress to get a president to act in a manner in which the Congress thinks is more rational or more appropriate," Biden said late last month, according to the Los Angeles Times. "There's nothing the United States Congress can do by a piece of legislation to alter the conduct of a war that a president decides to pursue."
By holding hearings, Democrats will show that they're doing something to oppose President Bush's war policy, and make the argument that the only way they can really end the war is to take back the White House in 2008. The big question is whether their restive base will remain patient until then.
Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.
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