I'd thought the Democrats inevitably faced only two viable options on the war in Iraq. Those were to pull the plug or shut up.
But last week they attempted to exercise a third. It was to keep spouting anti-war rhetoric, concede their unwillingness to pull the plug, leverage their grudging acquiescence and wait for the next anti-war opportunity.
They extracted similarly grudging White House concessions in other areas. They attached two extraneous provisions to last week's tenuous war funding compromise -- provisions that George W. Bush and congressional Republicans never would accept unless they were in a corner.
One was raising the federal minimum wage, which has stayed the same long enough for congressional pay to rise by more than $30,000. The other was providing additional billions in federal domestic spending, including for victims of Katrina.
Some say the Democrats are trading a few more American lives in Iraq for a little help for poor people at home. That's harsh. If you have no practical alternative other than to let Bush surge for a while longer until his own party turns on him -- by autumn, most figure -- then you may as well try to do a little good for people in the meantime.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi found a fourth option, for herself. It was to let a decisive number of her minions go along with this compromise providing continued war funding without a timetable or substantive benchmark. And it was, at the same time, to dissent on her own behalf. She asserted last week that she might not actually vote for war funding without timetables or benchmarks.
A Democratic House member had told me weeks before that Pelosi was the savviest politician he knew. I'm thinking he may be right -- if she can tacitly lead her followers toward an action that she officially washes her hands of personally.
Why couldn't Democrats simply pull the plug? They didn't have enough votes.
Some in their party saw things this way: The surge was already happening and the president was executing it under authority Democrats granted him. Democrats had no choice -- militarily or politically -- but to pay for what was taking place. Otherwise they'd be susceptible to charges of betraying brave troops or losing a war. But this surge almost certainly will be rendered a demonstrable failure within months, at which time the Democrats would have no choice again -- this time to pull the plug on a clear and epic failure attributable not remotely to them, but totally to the blunders of the other side.
To try to assuage the newly feisty and formidable left-wing base, Democrats already had passed a war funding measure tied to strict withdrawal timetables. But they knew in doing so that they were engaging in futility. When Bush vetoed it as promised, Democrats could come nowhere near the two-thirds needed to override the veto.
They thought they could fall back on "benchmarks," meaning standards the Iraqis would have to meet in improvements toward self-government and self-sufficiency. But Bush would have vetoed truly hand-tying benchmarks, buoyed by a newly contrived Republican spin that Democrats were trying to set "mandatory surrender dates."
All that was left, then, was for the Democrats to throw in a hollow "benchmark" that the president would be permitted by law to ignore, and get what they could on domestic policy for poor people. And to wait.
There is only one way for Congress to pull this plug. That's for Republicans to get closer to their re-election campaigns and confront polls showing two-thirds of their constituencies are convinced the war is a disastrous, hopeless proposition.
We already have the polls. All that's left is the turn of a few more calendar pages.
John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.