FLASHBACK: When Democrats tried to defund Iraq war

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Brendan Bordelon Contributor
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Democrats took to the airwaves to belittle the “defund Obamacare” movement over the weekend, though some of them have defunding experience themselves.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Republicans who backed defunding “the weird caucus.” NBC’s David Gregory grilled Cruz on his 21-hour “defund Obamacare” speech, telling the senator, “I’m focused on results. Where have you moved anything?”

A similar question could be asked about the Democrats’ abortive attempt to defund the Iraq War in 2007.

After the Republicans’ disastrous showing in the 2006 midterm elections, Democratic majorities swept into Congress intent on ending the war. Some lawmakers, goaded on by antiwar activists, believed the best way to achieve this would be to use the House’s “power of the purse” to pull funding for ongoing combat operations.

Democrats like Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio pushed to strip war funding from the beginning. “If you oppose the war, then don’t vote to fund it,” he said in January 2007. But with the exception of Kucinich and a few other diehards, most Democrats avoided such talk, fearing it would look as though they were abandoning soldiers already overseas.

Then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer denied accusations by congressional Republicans that a bill opposing the surge was the first step to defunding troops in the field. “This is categorically false,” he said in February 2007. “While the new majority will explore other opportunities to affect Iraq policy, our commitment to our men and women in harm’s way in unwavering.”

Ironically, Harry Reid was the one Democratic leader to briefly support defunding the war. Despite calling the “defund Obamacare” movement “irresponsible and futile” and labeling Republicans in support of defunding Obamacare “anarchists” who need to “get a life,” in April 2007 Reid introduced a similar bill aimed at ending funding for the Iraq War within a year.

That bill went nowhere, but the majority leader’s accompanying comment that the Iraq War was already “lost” haunted him for years afterward.

Like Republican leadership in 2013, high-ranking Democrats feared the consequences of “irresponsibly” defunding a policy already in place. The political danger was actually even more acute; unlike Obamacare, the Iraq War had already been “implemented,” and tens of thousands of troops required congressional funding for body armor, ammunition and other equipment to help keep them alive.

In another parallel to 2013, rank-and-file Democrats faced an intense backlash in 2007 from a base who wanted an end to the war at any cost. “If they don’t defund the war, maybe it’s time to defund the Democrats,” a poster on the ultra-liberal Daily Kos wrote in December of that year.

The sentiment is similar to those voiced by many conservatives, who last Wednesday flooded the offices of Republican leaders with furious phone calls after Ted Cruz’s marathon speech. Democrats ultimately lost few votes from their failure to defund the war, a fact that should prove comforting to GOP leadership.

Despite over a year of wrangling on the margins, in the end the Democratic push to defund the Iraq War was an abject failure. In fact, during the same time period the Bush administration managed to send tens of thousands more troops to Iraq, the “surge” that many believe turned the tide in the war.

In contrast, the full House voted to strip the law’s funding on Sept. 20, and last week’s Senate fight showed that powerful voices within the Republican Party are willing to take up the “futile” cause. By that measure, the defund Obamacare campaign has already proven more successful than the Democrats’ push to defund the war.

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