There's a first-class political fight looming. The repercussions of it will be very broad. It will decide major questions of national strategy, critical allocations of authority and, almost certainly, the immediate fate of the existing political parties. In the circumstances, a great deal hangs on getting things right.
A recent poll hints at deep divisions. Nine percent of Americans are unambiguous: They want us out of Iraq. They do not want to send another dollar there, and they want the troops home forthwith.
Well, that group of voters may be articulate, but they are a very small minority, much smaller than the 29 percent who are willing to back the effort in Iraq without imposing any conditions at all on presidential authority. So that at the extremes, the vote is 3-to-1 for President Bush.
Seeking something in between are 58 percent, twice the permissive segment. What they want is to set time limits and, one supposes, corresponding expenditure limits. An American replying to a pollster might find himself wanting to continue the struggle, but wanting also a perspective on that commitment that would need to be expressed either by trimming presidential power or by limiting the sum of money allocated to the enterprise.
The pressing shortage of money for the military requires that there should be subdivisions. An appropriation to maintain a military cadre and to finance continuing refinements of our weapons will not be thought, by a congressman who is uncommitted, to be tantamount to a vote for more of the same in Iraq. But it will all but defy the resources of legislative artisans to make clean distinctions that are able to cohabit (a) with the Constitution of the United States and (b) with pacifist passions that seek, even retroactively, dissociation from the Iraq war.
So, the president will veto that bill.
Then we'll have the great confrontation. Can the Reid faction come up with the two-thirds vote necessary to override the veto? Sixty-seven senators and 290 representatives?
Current thinking doubts this. If things got so bad in Iraq as to enjoin two-thirds of the legislature to dismember the Constitution, removing the supremacy over the military from the executive, we'd have reached a point at which impeachment would be seriously considered.
It would not be difficult, if congressional tempers rose that fiercely in opposition to Iraq, to reword opposition from particularities of presidential conduct (Iraq) to generic delinquencies (official misconduct). Some members of Congress, faced with the alternatives, would rather proceed to argue that the president has violated his oath of office, than to argue that he made wrong decisions in a particular theater of operations.
Imagine that you are a Republican legislator anticipating a run for re-election next year. Your prospective opponent is arguing hard and noisily to conclude the Iraq operation. He is taking the lead from Senator Reid: Go for a bill with a timetable.
Impeachment is an ugly word in American history. Impeachment was voted in 1998 against President Clinton, but for the concrete offenses of lying to a federal grand jury and obstructing justice. And when the articles of impeachment went to the Senate, the vote fell far short of the two-thirds necessary to convict.
It is not inconceivable that the power brokers in Washington in the present case would pause over the alternative of impeachment, but there are no means in this situation merely to settle for the satisfaction of having impeached. The question of Iraq would continue, as also the question of the right of presidents to prescribe strategy.
Ugly challenges, but it's an ugly dilemma, and the question at the deep end is: Can democratic government handle this thing smoothly, and live again?