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Boneless Wonders

Meet the spineless members of Congress.

Jan 22, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 18 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"I remember when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum's Circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the program which I most desired to see was the one described as 'The Boneless Wonder.' My parents judged that the spectacle would be too demoralizing and revolting for my youthful eye, and I have waited 50 years to see The Boneless Wonder--sitting on the Treasury Bench."

--Winston Churchill, January 28, 1931,

in the House of Commons, referring to Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald

Today, Boneless Wonders sit on the benches of both parties in Congress. More are to be found on the Democratic side of the aisle than the Republican. But the herd of Boneless Wonders these days is a bipartisan one. Let's see if we can describe their thinking.

Say you're an average congressman. How do you react to President Bush's Iraq speech? You suspect, deep down, that he's probably doing more or less what he needs to do. We can't just click our heels and get out of Iraq--the consequences would be disastrous. And the current strategy isn't working. You have said so yourself. Last fall you called for replacing Rumsfeld. You've complained that there weren't enough troops. What's more, you've heard good things about General David Petraeus from colleagues with military expertise. So now Bush has fired Rumsfeld, put Petraeus in command, and sent in more troops. Maybe this new approach deserves a chance to work?

But, hey . . . look at those polls! And those op-ed pages! You didn't come to Washington to support an unpopular president conducting an unpopular war. And the Bush administration is doing a crummy job of explaining this change in strategy. The path ahead in any case is going to be tough, and the new strategy might fail. Besides which, being for "escalation" sure doesn't sound good. Wasn't that a problem in Vietnam?

So you work on your talking points: You understand the president has a tough set of choices. You've got doubts about the path he's chosen. You've got lots of questions. But perhaps we should give it a chance . . .

But wait--that doesn't sound like leadership. That doesn't look decisive. And, if you're a Democrat--you didn't put in all that effort getting elected just so you could get a lot of grief from your own activists. If you're a Republican from a Democratic-leaning state--you didn't put in all those hours getting elected just so you could alienate the swing voters you need. So why not take the next step? Condemn the president's approach! There. That's a position.

But you're not just a talking head. You're a legislator. You need to vote. But on what? How about voting to disapprove of the president's "escalation"? Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have come up with a nonbinding resolution opposing a troop increase. That's the ticket.

After all, you're not cutting off funds. You're not embracing any alternative policy. (God knows what it would be.) As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday, "I'm not the president. It is the president's obligation to set the policy."

What's your obligation? Certainly not to take responsibility for proposing a real alternative to the president's policy. No way.

Thus, the Boneless Wonders. There are honorable exceptions, and not just among those who support the war. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) reminded his colleagues last week that "Congress is a co-equal branch of government." He continued: "We have an urgent responsibility here. Congress under Article I, Section 8, has the war-making power. Congress appropriates funds for the war. Congress does not dispense with its obligation to the American people simply by opposing a troop surge in Iraq. It is simply not credible to maintain that one opposes the war, yet continues to fund it. If you oppose the war, then don't vote to fund it." Logical. But naive and quixotic, in the eyes of the Boneless Wonders.

So the Boneless Wonders will push a nonbinding resolution to, as Joe Biden put it, "demonstrate to the president he's on his own." Sure, the resolution will weaken the president's hand abroad--but that's not their problem. It will lessen the chances of success in Iraq--but that's above their pay grade. It will dispirit friends and embolden enemies--but maybe there won't be much attention paid overseas to some non-binding congressional resolution. It will send the message to the soldiers fighting in Iraq that help is not on the way--that there are no reinforcements. That's unfortunate. But, hey--they volunteered.

And how about Sen. Obama on the Today show? "We're not going to babysit a civil war." To serious people that sounds juvenile. To most of his colleagues, it's a good soundbite.

It's a demoralizing and revolting spectacle.

--William Kristol