WASHINGTON – To many anti-war Democrats, their leaders in Congress played chicken with President Bush and congressional Republicans over the war in Iraq and lost.
After a monthslong battle, Democrats last month ended up giving the president a supplemental spending bill to fund U.S. troops in Iraq through September without a timeline for withdrawal or consequences for Iraqi failures to meet benchmarks. The disappointment among Democratic supporters is evident.
A FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll released Thursday of 900 registered voters shows that Congress' job approval rating is just 29 percent with 55 percent disapproval. Approval by Democrats is 28 percent and by Republicans 33 percent.
That's a decline from a mid-May poll of the same size taken after the president vetoed the bill with a timeline. Approval then was at 32 percent overall and 41 percent of Democrats. And it's an even stepper drop from a mid-April poll that had Congress with a 35 percent overall approval and 43 percent backing by Democrats.
That follows an ABC/Washington Post poll released Monday that shows the overall job approval rating for congressional Democrats had dropped 10 points in six weeks — from a 54 percent majority in April to 44 percent now. Among those who strongly opposed the Iraq war, the results were more stark, from 69 percent approval in April to 54 percent now. However, the results — keyed to the Iraq war vote — don't offer any relief for Republicans that their approval rate is growing.
While 60 percent of House Democrats voted against the emergency funding measure — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi —- the perception is the leadership "caved in" to the president's second veto threat — he already vetoed one bill weeks earlier — and put a weaker, Bush-friendly bill up instead.
"I was shocked that the Democrats were so susceptible to this idiotic 'setting a timeline is the same as abandoning the troops' nonsense,'" said Dave Johnson, co-founder of SeeingtheForest.com, a liberal politics Web log, and a fellow at the Commonweal Institute in California. "The public can see through that and it really makes the Democrats look bad that so many fell for it — even those who voted against this are tarred by it."
"The Senate voted tonight to obstruct the will of millions of Americans who want to safely end the war," liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org said in a statement shortly after the Senate passed the bill 80 to 14. "Voters elected this Congress to lead the country out of the mess in Iraq."
Others say Democrats were forced to go along with the weaker legislation because they knew they couldn't find the votes to override a presidential veto if they passed another bill with a timeline. Democrats, particularly in competitive House districts, can't appear to be putting the troops at risk.
"They are protecting themselves for strategic, political reasons," said Juan Williams, a National Public Radio correspondent and FOX News contributor.
"It's clear that the party is working on two tracks and (the leadership) is trying to keep the party together," said Phillip Baruth, a novelist and professor at the University of Vermont and publisher of the VermontDailyBriefing.com Web log. "It's not more fractious than the Republican Party, but on the Democratic side, it's just less papered over."
Baruth said his own freshman congressman, Rep. Peter Welch, was elected in November on his anti-war stance. The voters in Vermont are so against the war, that many were mad at Welch for voting for the first bill that included the timeline because it didn’t completely cut off funding and order soldiers home immediately.
Congressional Democrats will get another stab at setting up restrictions in September when the regular annual funding bill comes up for renewal. At that time, Gen. David Petraeus, head of Multinational Forces in Iraq, is expected to give a report to Congress on the state of military operations there. Democrats, many of whom believe the current troop surge has little hope of working, think Petraeus will give them the leverage they need to pressure the president to begin a withdrawal.
Meanwhile, political activists and analysts are wondering how last month's vote to will harm the party's credibility as it moves closer to the 2008 elections. They agree that if Democrats don't show more "backbone" in the Iraq debate soon, the party base's political good will may disappear.
"The base of the party is big in presidential politics and well known for issuing forth siren calls and threats and such, and on the local level, they are even bigger and I think that is underappreciated," Baruth said, noting that Democratic anti-war primary and general election candidates who ended up ousting incumbents in the midterms relied on the support of the liberal blogosphere.
That blogosphere recently rallied around anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who announced on Memorial Day that she would be dropping out of the movement, in part out of disgust with the Democratic Party, which she said hasn't lived up to its promise of being a strong anti-war party.
"You have completely failed those who put you in power to change the direction our country is heading," she wrote in an open letter to the party. "We gave you a chance, you betrayed us."
A Delicate Dance
The majority of the Democratic candidates for president, particularly the frontrunners, have been careful to pronounce their angst over the war, and in the case of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, recently cast votes against the final Iraq spending bill, much to the appreciation of the base.
But in the House, where many new members from districts won because of the growing dissatisfaction with Iraq, some have had to engage in a more delicate dance of following through on pledges to help end the war, while making sure they don’t get tarred with hurting the troops in the field.
For Rep. Joe Sestak, Democratic freshman from a moderate district in Pennsylvania, it all comes down to principles.
"I voted for my principles. I did not cast a political vote," said Sestak, who retired as Navy vice admiral in 2005, in part to run for office and end the war in Iraq. He continues to support the timeline, but voted for the spending bill because, he said, he refuses to put the troops in the middle of a veto fight.
"I will never place the safety of our troops in a game of chicken between the president and the Congress," he told FOXNews.com.
Home last week during the Memorial Day break, Sestak said that while the majority of e-mails he's received have been negative regarding his vote, he's had a chance to explain his reasons to constituents personally.
"When I explained it to them, almost the vast majority understood," he said. "They either agreed with me, or said, 'That's reasonable.'"
The response to Sestak, who acknowledges that concern for the war "runs deep" in his suburban Philadelphia district, suggests that expectations for Congress may not be so easily defined.
"I'm glad they funded it. These people are soldiers," said Leigh Bechtle, 57, of Media, Pa. "It wasn’t going to pass with a timetable and you can't have them not funded."
Others were less satisfied. "I think somehow they should be held accountable for their pre-election promises," said Mike Higgins, 34, also of Media.
Baruth said a long, hot summer lies ahead, and when Democrats are put to the test again in September, "(they) are going to have to hang tough."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.