THROUGH SIX tumultuous years in the White House, President Bush has demonstrated repeatedly that he responds to force, not argument. If he has the power to implement his ideas, he will, whether or not he has established a consensus for his course.
Think of Bush's initial decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein even after failing to win a second resolution from the United Nations explicitly authorizing the invasion. Or his move earlier this year to increase the American troop presence in Iraq despite opposition from the public, almost all congressional Democrats, a measurable minority of congressional Republicans, the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group and portions of the Pentagon. In each case, because Bush could move, he did move.
Bush does sometimes change direction, but almost always after opposing interests make it impossible for him to follow his first impulse. Despite initial resistance, Bush accepted the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill and the post-Enron corporate reforms because they had attracted decisive congressional majorities. He dropped the Supreme Court nomination of his White House counsel, Harriet E. Miers, when rebellious conservatives mobilized against her.
That backdrop is critical for understanding the escalating confrontation between Bush and the Democratic congressional majority over Iraq. An array of critics -- including this newspaper's editorial page -- have questioned whether the Democratic proposals to set a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops or establish performance benchmarks for the Iraqi government offer a realistic blueprint for ending American participation in the war.
That's an interesting academic discussion. But it obscures the real stakes in the continuing legislative struggle over the war, which will resume today when Senate Democrats attempt to force consideration of a binding resolution that seeks to remove most American combat troops from Iraq by March 2008. It is a mistake to judge these Democratic proposals as a potential compass for Bush. They are better understood as a two-by-four to catch the attention of a president who usually negotiates only when he's left with no other choice -- and he sometimes resists even then.
The specifics of the Democratic proposals are of secondary importance because, no matter how worthy or unworthy their ideas, there's virtually no chance congressional Democrats can compel Bush to accept them -- at least not anytime soon.
It's not clear Senate Democrats can gain majority support for the resolution they are offering today, and even if they do, they would need 60 votes to break a Republican filibuster and 67 to overcome an inevitable Bush veto. Right now, they are not within reach of either number.
In theory, Democrats might increase their leverage by refusing to provide more money for the war unless Bush endorses their plans for unwinding the mission; that's what House Democrats are suggesting by linking their withdrawal proposal to the supplemental spending bill Bush needs to fund the war through this fall. In practice, though, it is virtually impossible for the legislature to win such a confrontation with the executive. If Democrats tried to withhold funding until Bush accepted their conditions, inevitably he would accuse them of abandoning soldiers in harm's way. No Congress could withstand such pressure for long. Democrats talking tough now would do well to recall how badly the GOP majority hurt itself in 1995 when it denied funding for the ordinary domestic operations of government to pressure Bill Clinton to accept its budget plan.
So is the Democratic legislative challenge on Iraq doomed to futility? Not necessarily.
Senior Democrats have already signaled that they intend to force repeated votes on Bush's direction and possible alternatives in Iraq. "We should keep at it and at it and at it," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week.
Even if Bush and congressional Republicans can prevent the Democratic proposals from becoming binding law, the price could grow very high. The president will be increasingly isolated. Republican legislators will be stamped even more indelibly as the defenders of an unpopular war. The country will face months of incendiary but inconclusive partisan confrontation -- a sure recipe for frustration, alienation and widening division.
If Democrats can build support for alternative approaches -- and maintain political pressure on congressional Republicans vulnerable in 2008 -- they might eventually compel Bush to start negotiating a path forward in Iraq with broader support than his current direction. That's the real value of the Democratic proposals.
All of these congressional challenges, notes Dennis McDonough, a former senior Senate aide now at the liberal Center for American Progress, "are vehicles to encourage the president to consult with Congress and find some agreed-upon set of policies ... that can enjoy the support of the country."
For now, Bush probably can win the legislative skirmishes over Iraq. But a shrewder president would seek to preempt them by pursuing a new consensus on a war that is tearing apart two countries.