Robert Naiman | On Afghanistan, Michael Steele Speaks for Me

My friend David told me once that growing up in the South, he had the experience of people saying to him, “Jews are greedy,” before “correcting” themselves by “reassuring” him that, “Of course, we don’t mean you, David. We know you’re not like that.” To which my friend David said he would respond, “Well, if ‘Jews’ are greedy, then I must be greedy, because I’m Jewish. So in the future, instead of saying, ‘Jews are greedy,’ you should just say, ‘Dave is greedy,’ because when you say it about ‘Jews,’ you say it about me.”

I was reminded of this because when Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse accused Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele of “betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan” after Steele criticized the Afghanistan war, Woodhouse wasn’t just attacking Michael Steele; Woodhouse was attacking me and every American who is against the war.

That would be wrong, even if there were only five of us. But, in fact, there are many of us, and Brad Woodhouse has wronged us all.

In June, the Washington Post reported that 53 percent of Americans say that the war in Afghanistan is not worth its costs; 41 percent feel that way strongly. Two-thirds of Democrats, 53 percent of independents, and 35 percent of Republicans say the war is not worth its costs.

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Just before Brad Woodhouse made his statement attacking Michael Steele, three-fifths of the Democrats in the House, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the two Congressional Vice Chairs of the DNC, Representative Mike Honda and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, voted for an amendment introduced by Representative Jim McGovern, Representative David Obey, and Representative Walter Jones that would have required President Obama to establish a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In his attack on Steele, Woodhouse seemed to be encouraging Republicans to enforce “party discipline” on Steele to support the war: “The likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham will be interested to hear that the Republican Party position is that we should walk away from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban without finishing the job.” Enforcing Republican Party discipline on Republicans to support the war in Afghanistan is not in the interest of the majority of Americans and the super-majority of Democrats who oppose the war. If a third, instead of 5 percent, of the Republicans in the House had supported the McGovern-Obey-Jones amendment, reflecting the third of Republicans in the country at large who do not support the war, the McGovern-Obey-Jones amendment requiring a timetable for withdrawal would have passed the House. With his attack on Steele, Woodhouse made it less likely that House Republicans will join House Democrats in trying to end the war sooner rather than later.

There is an extremely relevant recent precedent for this dynamic, which should give pause to every Democrat who wants to redirect resources from the Pentagon killing machine to creating and saving domestic jobs. In early October 2006, Republican Senator Bill Frist – then Majority Leader – while traveling in Afghanistan, said that Taliban fighters were too numerous and too popular to be defeated. “You need to bring them into a more transparent type of government,” Senator Frist said. Democrats accused Frist of trying to “cut and run” in Afghanistan, AP reported at the time. “Senator Frist now suggests that the best way forward in Afghanistan is to coddle the Taliban by welcoming Taliban members into a coalition government, as if 9/11 had never happened,” then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.

What was accomplished with this know-nothing partisan attack? Folks who might have thought Senator Frist’s statement was an opening for sanity instead ducked for cover. Four years, many American and Afghan dead, and many billions of U.S. tax dollars flushed down the toilet later, Frist’s statement is commonplace, disputed by no one who plausibly pretends to know anything, even U.S. government officials. As George Bernard Shaw might have noted, we’ve already conceded our willingness to make a deal with the Taliban. Now we’re just haggling about the price. What needless death and suffering for Americans and Afghans might we have avoided if Senator Frist’s obvious insight four years ago had not been shut down with a know-nothing partisan attack?

Imagine if Michael Steele were now caught on tape expressing his support for abortion rights and freedom from discrimination for gays and lesbians serving in the military. If Brad Woodhouse put out a statement denouncing Steele and demanding that Republicans compel Steele to adhere to Republican discipline, would Woodhouse not catch hell from Democratic supporters of abortion rights and the civil rights of gays and lesbians? If you care about issues, it’s not in your interest for someone to “police the boundaries” of the other side. Red rover, red rover. Let another Republican refusenik come over.

Woodhouse is entitled to his views, but as a spokesman of the Democratic National Committee, he is not entitled to take actions that run counter to the interests of the overwhelming majority of Democrats, if the DNC wishes to be perceived as institution that represents Democrats and is entitled to their support.

In saying that Steele was “betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan,” Woodhouse engaged in a tactic that Democrats have justly and bitterly complained about when Republicans used it against them. By engaging in this sort of attack, Woodhouse helps to foster a climate in which critics of this war or any other can be marginalized with attacks on their patriotism. This is unacceptable whether done by Republicans or Democrats. As E.J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post, Steele “had a right to offer his opinion without being accused of undermining our troops or ‘rooting for failure.'”

Brad Woodhouse and the DNC owe all of us an apology, but I would settle for a commitment not to engage in this sort of behavior in the future. Democratic activists who care about issues have choices about where to donate their dollars. If the DNC insists on continuing to advocate for the Afghanistan war, and against the interests of a super-majority of Democrats, that ought to have consequences.