Most Democrats who've gotten into trouble with their constituents over their stance on Iraq—including Senator Maria Cantwell, in early 2006, and Senator Hillary Clinton today—have only their pro-war votes and their reluctance to take a strong position for withdrawal to blame. Both Clinton and Cantwell, under pressure from angry Democratic voters, wisely shinnied their way out of it: Cantwell by supporting Michigan Senator Carl Levin's withdrawal legislation in the summer of '06, and Clinton by voting "No" on the surge and "No" on the surveillance legislation this year.
Progressive U.S. Representative Brian Baird (D-3, Vancouver) has the exact opposite problem. After establishing a righteous antiwar voting record ("No" on the original 2002 authorization vote; "No" on reauthorizing the problematic Patriot Act; "No" on the surge; and "No" on surveillance), Baird came out last week toeing the Bush line.
He's now against withdrawal and wants to give Bush's surge more time. On a recent 14-day trip to Iraq, Baird saw that al Qaeda is being "taken down" in the al Anbar Province, met with the compelling General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, talked with U.S. soldiers who are seeing "real changes at long last," and spoke to Sunni sheiks who are fighting al Qaeda. Now, along with a handful of Democratic reps like Tim Mahoney (D-FL), he's convinced the war is starting to go our way, and that the goal of stabilizing Iraq and routing al Qaeda is attainable. He now wants to give the surge another six months, to give breathing room to the political process in Iraq.
Baird took this unpopular message to a packed Vancouver high-school auditorium on Monday night, August 27, during one of his regular town meetings. (He's done 220 so far.)
Baird said that the war was authorized through our democratic system, and that we now have "a moral responsibility... not to leave [the Iraqi people] at the mercy of people who cut off people's heads and bomb schools because girls go there.... Al Qaeda was not a problem in Iraq before the invasion. Iran was not a problem in Iraq before the invasion. I agree with that. I absolutely agree with that. But they are a problem now. They're a problem for Iraqis. The choice has become: Do we stay a little bit longer"—to which audience members shouted out a sharp round of "No!"—"because there is some chance that in so doing we will help Iraq have a more safe society and become more stable? If we withdraw now, I am confident it will be catastrophic."
The crowd inside Fort Vancouver High School—easily 500 people, with others turned away for lack of space—was hostile and loud: booing; shouting "Troops out now!"; and holding up signs saying things like, "Be a Man for the People" and "Only a Corrupt Congress Is for War-Making." Activists stood outside telling people to call Baird's office in the morning and ask for his resignation.
"How dare he," Zanne Joi, a middle-aged punk activist with a shaved head, declared as she unloaded signs from her graffiti-tagged truck in the school parking lot before the meeting. "What happened to him? In 2006 we gave [Congress] a mandate for peace. No excuses."
It wasn't only orthodox antiwar activists who groused. Retired couple Doris and Paul Holmes (Doris is active with Southwest Washington's 18th District Democrats) left the meeting in disgust. "He lied about the whole situation," Doris said. "He's toeing the Bush party line. I can't believe he's a Democrat."
Baird sat on the large wooden stage in front of red drapes and took questions and abuse for four hours as his staff politely held the microphone for the endless stream of people who lined up to blast their boss.
Most of the comments were emotional, sputtering, rambling—and off point.
The first speaker to take the microphone, for example, questioned Baird's reasoning about our moral obligation to the Iraqi people, asking, "What about the moral obligation to our own people? The moral obligation," he said, turning the discussion into an anti-Bush circus of orthodox sound bites, "is to impeach the president." The applause was raucous.
Some speakers did stick to the topic at hand. Jon Soltz, the charismatic, 30-year-old Iraq war vet who runs the political action committee VoteVets.org (which runs antiwar TV ads, including ads that opposed Senator Joe Lieberman in 2006) had flown in from New York for an event for Democratic congressional candidate Darcy Burner that morning in Bellevue and had driven down to confront Baird. Soltz took the mic and calmly told Baird he had been "fooled by a dog-and-pony show" after his brief visit to Iraq. Soltz, who served a year in Iraq in 2003, said Baird's drive-by analysis was insulting. Soltz told the audience that "Baird was providing cover for the president." Soltz, who boasted to reporters about his clean-cut appearance, has his act down. He started his speech quietly, asking all the vets in the auditorium to stand. And he ended by calling on the audience to "'sound off' for the congressman if you agree with me." The room erupted.
Joi, the activist I'd met in the parking lot, told Baird that the people in the room had "gone door to door for you." A woman sitting right behind Joi shouted out, "And we'll work against you now!"
This point had the most currency with the crowd. "He's our representative," Kim Farr, a 50-year-old Baird voter told me as he left the auditorium. "His job is to represent us. And he's simply not listening."
Nor were the protesters listening to Baird. Sanctimonious talk of impeachment (someone demanded to know if Baird would vote to impeach; Baird said there's been no impeachment trial); talk of an "illegal" and "immoral" war; and trite shouts about "oil profits" were emotional, dogmatic rejoinders to Baird, but not on point.
Baird's point—which he himself sidetracks by stupidly arguing that the surge is working—is this: We dismantled Iraq's government and have a moral responsibility to prevent the hobbled country from being taken over by intolerant religious zealots who behead people and oppress women.
Few in the crowd seemed interested in wrestling with that question. The "Out Now" groupthink was an attempt to bully Baird out of asking a legitimate question and starting a legitimate conversation. Given Baird's consistent voice of reason since the "war on terror" began (as he pointed out, he voted against the war when 80 percent of the country supported it), he has earned the credibility to challenge the Democratic orthodoxy.
The Democrats' "Out Now" mantra seems more like a political rallying trick than a sincere policy discussion. But judging from the noisy shout-down at Fort Vancouver High School, no one's really interested in a discussion. As Farr told me as he headed to his car: "Baird's trying to tell us what he thinks, and that's okay. He's showing his independence. But I don't want independence. I want representation."