Reading the morning news is beginning to remind me of nothing so much as the old light bulb jokes – you know, the ones like (and this has always been my favorite, because it describes my mom, may she rest in peace), how many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, I'll sit in the dark.
What I'm referring to is the steady stream of bad news for the president from his own team on the war in Iraq. How many Republican senators will have to publicly condemn this war before the president gets the message? How many Republican candidates will have to distance themselves from the president before he realizes he's standing alone?
How low will the approval numbers have to go before he's willing to do something to end this war? How many brave American men and women will have to die before the dying stops?
On Monday night, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and much respected on both sides of the aisle, took to the floor of the Senate to make the case that the likelihood of the recent surge succeeding was "very limited," and that the president needed to begin the process of reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq, rather than continuing on the opposite course.
Speaking as a Republican leader, Lugar said: "We don't owe the president our unquestioning agreement." Sen. John Warner, a senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a highly regarded expert on military matters, praised Lugar for his "important and sincere contribution" to the debate about the war.
And on Tuesday, Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, also a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a letter he sent to the president asking him to put forward "a comprehensive plan for our country's gradual military disengagement" and saying that he was "concerned that we are running out of time."
Yes, I know, it's not the president's job to govern according to popularity polls. We elect the president to do what's right, which is not necessarily what most of us think is right, even if they happen to be senators from his own party. Whether you call that having "the courage of your convictions" or "thumbing your nose" at the people, press, and party leaders generally depends on whether you agree with him or not.
But there comes a point where presidential defiance of his own party's leaders, and would-be leaders, as well as the public as a whole — not to mention a growing legion of editorial writers, columnists, and usually sympathetic pundits — begins to smack of ignorant arrogance rather than enlightened leadership, turning the president into a loser and not a leader, and weakening the country in the process.
There comes a point where having the president and the vice president sitting alone in the dark isn't good for any of us, regardless of your personal stance.
The lesson of the Vietnam War, or at least the one I thought we learned, was that a war that lacks public support is doomed to failure, that it weakens rather than strengthens us as a nation.
That is so for numerous reasons. First, it undermines troop morale, no matter how many times both Democrats and Republicans compete to say they are "supporting the troops" and trip over themselves to avoid saying (as both McCain and Obama have, before "correcting” themselves) that lives have been, and are being, "wasted."
Second, it destroys public confidence in the basic institutions of government. Republicans may take temporary pleasure in the miserable approval numbers for Congress, just as some of my friends do in the plummeting ratings for Messrs. Bush and Cheney, but in the long run, a healthy democracy depends on public trust that government is working, not bipartisan disgust with everyone and everything.
The reason Congress' ratings are so low, in my book, is because on the No. 1 issue in the country — the war — the legislative branch is viewed as being no more effective in taking steps to end the war than the president is. That doesn't mean that Republicans stand to take back the Congress in the next election; it signals a plague on both our houses, a bipartisan failure that is to no one's advantage.
Third, it forces the military to rely more than it should on expensive mercenaries, or as we like to call them, "independent contractors," to meet obligations that cannot be publicly acknowledged, much less fulfilled. The increasing role of private security companies in the failed effort to maintain order in Iraq is a mostly invisible drain on the public treasury necessitated by the political and practical impossibility of fighting this war any other way.
Finally, it makes the end result almost inevitable. Need I spell it out? The enemy can read the same news reports I do. Do they take comfort in them? How could they not? That is not a reason for the critics to silence themselves, but for the president to pay attention. It is, after all, impossible to see when you sit in the dark.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.