Gene Lyons

Constantly seeking the lowest common denominator, TV news often reduces grave and complex public issues to personality conflicts among politicians. Hence, we're being told that congressional Democrats "blinked," or lost a "tawdry game of political chicken" with President Bush, as MSNBC's Keith Olbermann put it, by voting to fund the Iraq war through September with no mandatory timetables for U.S. withdrawal.

Righteous partisans on both sides find the "chicken" metaphor a happy one: Bush cultists because it casts him as the decisive hero of their dreams; antiwar activists because it enables them to exhibit their own moral superiority. Late-night comic monologues and liberal Internet message boards are filled with scathing denunciations of Democratic spinelessness.

But is it cowardly to change tactics? Before deciding, let's review the mythical rules of "chicken." Two cars hurtle toward one another head-on at great speed. The first driver to step on his brakes or turn aside loses. The winner, then, is somebody who's willing to die to prove his manliness. Heard the joke about the redneck's last words? "Hey, y'all, watch this!"

In the case of George W. Bush, it's other people's lives he's gambling with. So for now, he thinks he's a big winner. But exactly what prize has The Decider's stubborn intransigence earned him? Essentially something he and the GOP have always had: sole political responsibility for a looming catastrophe largely of their own creation.

See, there never was any chance the Democratic Congress could force the president to accept firm timetables for withdrawing from Iraq. They simply can't muster the two-thirds majority vote necessary to override a presidential veto. Discussing the issue without acknowledging that brute political fact is simply childish.

So what to do? Forcing Bush to veto an Iraq appropriations bill containing timetables for withdrawal made perfect political sense. Everybody got to put their marker down one time. If it were up to congressional Democrats, U.S. troops would begin pulling out of Iraq forthwith, a tactical retreat from one of the great strategic blunders in U.S. military history.

But it's not up to them. Meanwhile, orchestrating a series of purely symbolic showdowns between Congress and the White House over the next several months offered diminishing returns at best. Sure, Democrats could have passed the same appropriations bill another time or two while Bush jetted around to military bases whooping about "Defeatocrats" surrendering to the terrorists and stabbing our brave soldiers in the back.

Because TV thrives on dramatic, emotionally loaded conflict, the president and Darth Cheney would be getting plenty of airtime. Other issues like health care, global warming, the appalling scandal at the Justice Department would sink out of sight.

Writing in the Guardian, Michael Tomasky does the math: "The key number here is 61. That's the number of Democrats in the House of Representatives who represent districts that Bush carried in 2004 (by contrast, only eight Republicans represent districts that John Kerry won). Many of these 61 are scared to death that they could lose their seats in 2008, and with good reason."

So while it's all very well to speak of craven careerism, political cowardice and all that, it's also worthwhile remembering that Republicans need only 15 congressional seats to regain the majority. For the time being, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had every vote for mandatory Iraq timelines she was going to get.

So she did something highly unusual in the era of ideologically charged, post-Gingrich politics: She relaxed party discipline, allowed Democrats to vote their consciences (or re-election prospects) and let the majority rule. Under her GOP predecessor, Dennis Hastert, who permitted only bills favored by the majority of his own party to be voted on, these things couldn't have happened.

So no, it's not weird, unprecedented or incoherent for Pelosi herself and other prominent Democrats such as presidential hopefuls Sen. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to vote against a bill the Speaker allowed to pass. It's called bipartisanship, something most Americans say they want. Pelosi also forced Bush to swallow a minimum wage increase and billions more in Hurricane Katrina relief as the price of getting his way in Iraq.

For now, that is. Come September, when the White House's "surge" has had its chance, a few hundred more American soldiers have died and Bush needs to come back for yet another "supplemental" Iraq war appropriation, the politics are apt to be quite different.

Almost no matter what Gen. David Petraeus says in his promised report (and is anybody naive enough to think he'll admit failure?) the pressure will likely shift to moderate Republicans to abandon blind support for a failed policy.

Beyond politics, moreover, getting out of Iraq entails grave military and humanitarian issues few have yet contemplated. Things could get unimaginably worse. Given how this White House has bungled this war, it's downright terrifying to imagine their managing the now-inevitable retreat.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at genelyons2@sbcglobal.net.