For the first time during 110th Congress, the Blue Dog Coalition — a 47-member grouping of self-described moderate and conservative Democrats — defied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership on a critical national security issue: Saturday night's vote on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), where 41 dissident Democrats, nearly all of them Blue Dogs, provided the margin of victory for President Bush on the issue of terrorist surveillance. Thanks to the Blue Dogs, the administration's commonsense proposal to clarify that FISA permits U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor telephone calls made by foreign terrorist suspects outside the United States without first obtaining a warrant was approved by a 227-183 margin.
The key question now is whether Mr. Bush's success on FISA might be an indicator of what is to come next month when Gen. David Petraeus delivers his much-awaited progress report on the situation in Iraq — specifically, whether a significant minority of Democrats could be persuaded to join with Republicans to give the troop "surge" in Iraq a chance to secure enduring, long-term gains: a process that will take months — and in all likelihood, years.
In contrast to the gloom and doom of recent years, there have been a series of hopeful signs in recent months. Those signs include a series of successes in Anbar province, where violence has dropped dramatically this year. And in a recent op-ed in the New York Times by Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, scholars at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, who visited Iraq last month, wrote that they were "surprised" by the successes they saw. "We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms." Even opponents of the war like Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Bob Casey, who just returned from Iraq, admitted yesterday that the American military has made significant progress there in recent months. But it remains to be seen whether this can be translated into votes on Capitol Hill.
On the FISA issue, for example, the Bush administration — and in particular, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell — had been trying since March to persuade Congress to pass legislation clarifying FISA to ensure that warrants would not be required to monitor terrorist phone calls. But the Democratic leadership did nothing. The political situation changed dramatically in recent weeks, after U.S. intelligence agencies reported increased "terrorist" chatter suggesting an attack on the United States could occur shortly. Mr. McConnell, who headed the National Security Agency during Bill Clinton's first term, could hardly be dismissed as a partisan hack, and he was coming to Capitol Hill again and again to plead with Congress to act before it left for its August recess. Faced with the nightmarish possibility that continued failure to act could facilitate a terrorist strike, the Blue Dogs concluded that Mrs. Pelosi's wrath was the least of their problems when it came to FISA.
But the political calculus on Iraq is very different. Many Democrats have concluded (nonsensically in our view) that Iraq is not really part of a larger war against Islamist terror. Last week, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, let the cat out of the bag, expressing concern that if Gen. Petraeus delivers a strongly positive report on Iraq next month, it could split the Democratic Caucus between antiwar leadership loyalists and the Blue Dogs who would support the Bush administration. Mr. Clyburn also was concerned that a positive report would give the military more time for progress in Iraq. Were that to occur, "then it would be a real problem for us," he said.
Look for the Democratic leadership to step up the political pressure on wavering Democrats. Moreover, left-wing blogs like the DailyKos, which operate as ideological enforcers and have become an integral part of the Democratic political coalition, will mobilize in order to keep in line any Democratic lawmakers who contemplate breaking with party leaders to give Gen. Petraeus and our troops a chance.