Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid kept the Senate in throughout the night and into Wednesday morning, debating a measure that would dramatically de-escalate the war in Iraq.
The tactic was immediately ripped as a terrible idea and hailed as a great one, and it may have been both.
Let's start with what was terrible. Having the men and women who make up the Senate miss a night's sleep is never a good idea. They are too old to keep such hours, and as a group they cannot muster the grace to hide it. That means Reid will pay a price in comity and cooperation for the strain of this round-the-clock session.
But Reid was taking a larger risk than that, the risk of seeming sophomoric. Pulling an all-nighter? What would be next for the Senate, a toga party? The jokes about slumber parties and panty raids were inevitable, and they came close to overshadowing the grave issue at hand.
But if much of the media attention was derisive, all of it served Reid's larger purpose — which was to foster media attention. In the previous week, the Senate slogged through days of debate on the defense authorization bill and weighty anti-war amendments came and went with little notice. Most of the country had no idea the Senate was even on the subject. Those whose news source is the liberal blogosphere may well have thought Congress had ignored the issue all year.
Now, thanks to TV shots of cots being rolled out and old movie clips of Jimmy Stewart in 1939, the country has some notion that its solons are indeed doing battle over the war.
From Reid's point of view, this serves two purposes. It acts to mollify antiwar activists who have been demanding an end to the war or an end to Congress as we know it. They will not actually get either any time soon, of course, but at least Reid has shown he's hearing the howls of frustration.
Truth is that many of the folks back home who voted Democrats into majorities in both chambers last November do not understand why these new majorities are so impotent on the war. Truth is that a resolute (some would say obdurate) president backed up by sufficient, loyal minorities in the House and Senate can pursue an unpopular war for as long as he is in office.
This is true because it takes 60 votes to cut off debate and vote on a meaningful policy issue in the Senate. Even if you can reach that lofty plateau, you need another seven votes to override a presidential veto. When President Bush vetoed a congressional rebellion on funds for Iraq this spring, Republicans were able to sustain the veto in both House and Senate. And if he were to veto another challenge to his Iraq policy this summer or fall, the Republican votes to sustain his veto would almost certainly be there again.
Even now, with all the news stories about senior Senate Republicans bailing out on Bush, the number who will actually vote against the president on the floor remains in single digits. The big breakthrough, the critical collapse of GOP support that has been predicted at several crucial points in the war, has yet to happen.
That is, of course, the other point Reid seeks to make with his overnight debate. He wants the country to notice that the White House has enablers in the Senate. And he wants people to take note of the names and the party affiliation of these enablers. Right now, there are 21 Republican senators who will be facing their homestate voters next year. Reid wants their votes for a withdrawal timetable, or he wants to hang their votes against it around their necks.
Of course, this aggressive strategy is the worst way to make friends and influence people in the Senate. If you really want to romance senators into voting your way, you don't start by forcing them up against the wall. Reid may well find his efforts causing the GOP to circle its wagons more closely than ever, and to become more protective of its president. That may well make it more difficult to bring the war to a swift conclusion.
But the fact is that many in the Senate have already despaired of a swift conclusion to this war. They now expect the September report of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to be inconclusive. They expect the president to press on into 2008. And they expect the real crunch to come when, sometime around March of next year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates tells the president there are no more troops available and qualified to rotate into Iraq. At that point, many now believe, meaningful reductions in U.S. troop strength will be unavoidable.
That is why this whole debate over Iraq has less to do with U.S. engagement there and more to do with positioning the parties for the disengagement that will begin next year.