Actor Sean Penn summed up the new energy -- and the new focus -- of the anti-war movement Saturday, when he turned George Bush's own words against the president.
Just hours after the president had again reasserted his false claim to authority to pursue a war that is not wanted by the American people or the Congress, Penn told anti-war demonstrators gathered in Washington that Bush would be wise to review the Constitution.
"In a democracy," the actor told the cheering crowd, which organizers said numbered in the hundreds of thousands, "we are the deciders."
Saturday's anti-war demostrations, which filled the streets of cities from San Francisco to Washington, marked a return to form for an anti-war movement that had trouble building momentum during the three years that followed Bush's decision to launch a preemptive war against a country that posed no serious threat to the United States or its allies. During the period from 2OO3 to 2OO6, Bush's Republican Party had complete control of the machinery of government, and his allies were successful in assuring that Congress would not serve as any kind of check or balance on the presidency.
Though polls showed that most Americans thought Bush had been wrong to take the country to war, and that they disapproved of his handling of the conflict, demonstrations seemed fruitless because the president held all the cards. Many opponents of the war poured their energies into electoral politics, hoping to restore at least a measure of balance to the federal government by putting opposition Democrats in charge of at least one house of Congress. On November 7, the work paid off, with the election of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
So it was that one of the most popular signs at Saturday's rally in Washington read: "I Voted for Peace."
An equally popular sign, distributed by United for Peace and Justice, the group that played a central role in organizing the demonstrations, read: "Congress: Stand Up to Bush!"
Both signs were necessary messages on Saturday because, while there is no question that Americans voted November 7 for peace, there is still a great deal of uncertainty about whether the Congress that was elected will, in fact, tell the president that it is time to bring the troops home.
Some members of Congress do get it. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Lynn Woolsey, D-California, addressed the Washington rally, urging activists to lobby the House on behalf of comprehensive legislation she has sponsored to withdraw Congressional approval for the war and implement a rapid yet orderly withdrawal of U.S. soldiers and civilian contractors from Iraq. The second most senior member of the House, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, was there as well, telling the crowd that: "George Bush has a habit of firing military leaders who tell him the Iraq war is failing," said Conyers, who then looked out at the crowd and shouted: "He can't fire you."
"He can't fire us," added the House Judiciary Committee chair, referencing the Congress that he said should block funding for Bush's plans to maintain his war. "The founders of our country gave our Congress the power of the purse because they envisioned a scenario exactly like we find ourselves in today. Not only is it in our power, it is our obligation to stop Bush."
While Bush and Vice President Cheney continue to peddle the fantasy they have the power to wage war as they choose, Congressman Dennis Kucinich corrected the latest lie from the White House. "It is time for George Bush to understand that Congress is a coequal branch of government," the Ohio Democrat said. "Congress has the power to end this war."
Kucinich is right on both counts. But he might have added a footnote: There are still a lot of representatives and senators who do not fully accept the responsibility that goes with being members of a coequal branch of government. Until they are reminded of that fact by their constituents, a cautious approach to Constitutionally-mandated duties will prevent Congress from ending the war -- or even seriously curtailing it.
Sean Penn's message was, indeed, the appropriate one: Those who marched on Saturday can and should be the deciders in a democracy.
But in order to claim that title from a dubiously-selected president, the people will have to do more than march.
Only by delivering the message that was on their signs -- "Congress: Stand Up to Bush!" -- directly to their elected representatives will the people convince House and Senate majorities to act to end a war that should never have begun.
The lobbying starts Monday. It should not stop until the troops are home -- and until those who sent them into the quagmire are held fully to account.
While ending the war was the first priority for those who marched in Washington, San Francisco and dozens of other cities across the country Saturday, the demand for accountability was high on the agenda.
"This past November the American people sent a resounding signal to Washington, D.C., and the world. We want change. We want this war to end. And how did Bush respond? Twenty-one thousand, five hundred more will risk their lives for his misguided war," declared actor Tim Robbins, as he addressed the tens of thousands who had gathered on the National Mall. "Is impeachment still off the table? Let's get him out of office."
The crowd roared, "Impeach Bush! Impeach Bush. Impeach Bush!"