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Just Say No…

By all accounts Barack Obama has his work cut out for him convincing Congressional Republicans – and some Democrats – that his proposed obama0404nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran is better than having no deal at all.

Republican skepticism about an Obama initiative certainly isn’t surprising, since the president has seen something approaching universal disdain for virtually anything he has proposed since 2009. That Republicans are inclined to oppose a deal with Iran shouldn’t be much of a surprise either. In the post-World War II era, conservative Republicans in Congress have rarely embraced any major deal- particularly including nuclear agreements – which any president has negotiated with a foreign government.

Republicans Have Long Said “No” to Foreign Deals…

Before they were the party of NO on all things Obama, the GOP was the party of NO on international agreements – everything from the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I to the Panama Canal Treaties during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Even when Ronald Reagan Mikhail-Gorbachev-Ronald-Reaganattempted a truly unprecedented deal in 1986 with Mikhail Gorbachev to actually eliminate vast numbers of nuclear weapons – the famous Reykjavik Summit – most conservative Republicans gave the idea thumbs down and were happy when it fell apart.

And, near the end of his presidency when Reagan pushed for a treaty limiting intermediate nuclear weapons, conservatives like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, Wyoming’s Malcolm Wallop and Idaho’s Jim McClure thought that Reagan, then and now the great hero of the conservative right, was plum crazy.

Much of the criticism of Reagan from the hard right in the late 1980’s sounds eerily like the current critique of Obama, which basically boils down to a belief that the administration is so eager for a deal with Iran it is willing to imperil U.S. and Israeli security. As Idaho’s McClure, among the most conservative GOP senators of his day, warned about the Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev in 1988, ”We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft – I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin,” but McClure was really thinking about Reagan and Gorbachev.

Howard Phillips, the hard right blowhard who chaired the Conservative Caucus at the time, charged that Reagan was ”fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Helms actually said Reagan’s jesse-helms-reagan_685352cnegotiations with Gorbachev put U.S. allies in harms way, just as Mario Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker say today Obama is putting Israel at risk. ”We’re talking about, perhaps, the survival of Europe,” Helms declared in 1988.

Walker, who was 20 years old when Helms’ was preaching apocalypse, told a radio interviewer last week that the Iranian deal “leaves not only problems for Israel, because they want to annihilate Israel, it leaves the problems in the sense that the Saudis, the Jordanians and others are gonna want to have access to their own nuclear weapons…” Never mind that the whole point of the Iranian effort is to prevent a nuclear arms race across the Middle East.

Date the GOP No Response to FDR and Yalta…

Historically, you can date the conservative Republican opposition to almost all presidential deal making to Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with Stalin at Yalta in 1945 where FDR’s critics, mostly Republicans, contended he sold out eastern Europe to the Reds. “The Yalta agreement may not have been the Roosevelt administration’s strongest possible bargain,” Jonathan Chait wrote recently in New York Magazine, “but the only real alternative would have entailed continuing the war against the Soviets after defeating Germany.”

By the time of the Yalta summit, Red Army troops had “liberated” or were in place to occupy Poland and much of central Europe, which Roosevelt knew the United States and Great Britain could do little to stop. The alternative to accommodation with Stalin at Yalta, as Chait says, was making war on Stalin’s army. Roosevelt’s true objective at Yalta was to keep Stalin in the fold to ensure Soviet cooperation with the establishment of the United Nations, but the “facts on the ground” in Europe provided a great storyline for generations of conservatives to lament the “sellout” to Uncle Joe.

That conservative narrative served to propel Joe McCarthy’s hunt for Communists in the U.S. State Department and cemented the GOP as the party always skeptical of any effort to negotiate with the Soviet Union (or anyone else). Many conservatives contended that “negotiations” equaled “appeasement” and would inevitably lead American presidents to mimic Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk dusted off that old chestnut last week when he said, “Neville Chamberlain got a better deal from Adolf Hitler,” than Obama did from the Iranians. The Iranian deal is certainly not perfect, but worse than a pact with Hitler?

Conservatives became so concerned about “executive action” on Brickerforeign policy in the early 1950’s that Ohio Republican Senator John Bricker proposed a constitutional amendment – the Bricker Amendment – that said in part: “Congress shall have power to regulate all executive and other agreements with any foreign power or international organization.” Dwight Eisenhower opposed Bricker’s effort certain that his control over foreign policy, and that of subsequent presidents, would be fatally compromised. When Bricker, who had been the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948 and was a pillar of Midwestern Republicanism, first proposed his amendment forty-five of forty-eight Senate Republicans supported the idea. Eisenhower had to use every trick in the presidential playbook, including working closely with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, to eventually defeat Bricker and other conservatives in his own party.

A logical extension of McCarthy’s position in the early 1950’s was Barry Goldwater’s opposition in the early 1960’s to President John Kennedy’s ultimately successful efforts to put in place a nuclear test ban treaty outlawing atmospheric or underwater nuclear tests.

A test ban treaty was, Goldwater said, “the opening wedge to goldwaterdisastrous negotiations with the enemy, which could result in our losing the war or becoming part of their [the Soviets] system.” In Senate debate Goldwater demanded proof of the Soviet’s “good faith” and argued, directly counter to Kennedy’s assertions, that a treaty would make the world more rather than less dangerous. The treaty was approved overwhelmingly and has remained a cornerstone of the entire idea of arms control.

Later in the 1960’s, and over the profound objections of conservatives, the U.S. approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) designed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons. Ironically, as Jonathan Chait notes, the NPT today provides “the legal basis for the international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes.” But the idea was denounced at the time with William Buckley’s National Review saying it was “immoral, foolish…and impractical,” a “nuclear Yalta” that threatened our friends and helped our enemies.

When Richard Nixon negotiated the SALT I agreement, interestingly an “executive agreement” and not a treaty, conservatives worried that the United States was being out foxed by the Kremlin and that Nixon’s focus on “détente” with the Soviet Union was simply playing into naïve Communist propaganda. Congressional neo-cons in both parties, including influential Washington state Democrat Henry Jackson, insisted that any future arms control deal with the Soviets be presented to the Senate for ratification.

Republican opposition to international agreements is deeply embedded in the party’s DNA, going back at least to the successful Republican efforts to derail Senate ratification of the agreement Woodrow Wilson negotiated in Paris in 1919 to involve the United States in the League of Nations, end the Great War and make the world “safe for democracy.”

The GOP’s DNA Dates to Woodrow Wilson…

The most effective and eloquent opponent of that agreement was BorahIdaho Republican Senator William E. Borah who, it was said, brought tears to the eyes of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge when he spoke against Wilson’s ideas on the floor of the United States Senate on November 19, 1919.

Addressing treaty supporters, but really talking to Wilson, Borah said, “Your treaty does not mean peace – far, very far, from it. If we are to judge the future by the past it means war.” About that much the Idahoan was correct.

Without U.S. participation and moral leadership the League of Nations was little more than a toothless tiger in the two decades before the world was again at war, the League unable to prevent the aggression that ultimately lead to World War II. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” to ponder what American leadership in a League of Nations in the 1920’s and 1930’s might have meant to the prevention of the war that William Borah correctly predicted, but arguably for the wrong reason.

Jaw, Jaw Better Than War, War…

Many Congressional Republicans have spent months – or even years – chastising Obama for failing to provide American leadership on the world stage, and for sure the president deserves a good deal of criticism for what at times has been a timid and uncertain foreign policy. But now that Obama has brought the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and Russia to the brink of a potentially historic deal with Iran, the conservative critique has turned back to a well-worn line: a naïve president is so eager to get a deal he’ll sell out the country’s and the world’s best interests to get it. Ted Cruz and other Republican critics may not know it, but they are dusting off their party’s very old attack lines. Barry Goldwater seems to be more the father of this kind of contemporary GOP thinking than the sainted Ronald Reagan.

No deal is perfect, and doubtless some down through the ages have been less than they might have been, but the history of the last 75 years shows that presidents of both parties have, an overwhelming percentage of the time, made careful, prudent deals with foreign adversaries that have stood the test of time. In that sweep of recent American history it has not been presidents – Republicans or Democrats – who have been wrong to pursue international agreements, but rather it is the political far right that has regularly ignored the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”


Death of a Consensus

inlFor at least the last 50 years there has existed a bipartisan consensus in Idaho regarding the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. The consensus held that Idaho political leaders from both parties – Jim McClure and Frank Church, Richard Stallings and Larry Craig – would do what it took to protect the federal investment and jobs at the sprawling site in the Arco desert west of Idaho Falls.

The consensus did not mean that the “site,” as locals call it, would ever be free from controversy. Then-Gov. John V. Evans, a Democrat, pressured the Department of Energy in the 1980’s to end the practice of injecting less-than-pristine process water into a well that eventually made its way into the vast Snake Plain Aquifer. DOE finally ended the practice and I still have a hefty paperweight on my desk that marked the public capping of that controversial well.

Former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, another Democrat, fought the DOE to a standstill in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s over its various waste handling processes and eventually won federal court guarantees about how Idaho’s share of the environmental legacy of the Cold War would be cleaned up and moved to move appropriate disposal sites. Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican, continued those efforts, which remain on-going to this day.

Yet even when controversy erupted over environmental issues the bipartisan consensus held. When it came time to present a united front in support of federal funding for research or environmental restoration at INL pragmatism always seemed to trump ideology. Andrus and McClure, a Democrat and a Republican, linked arms to support new initiatives at the site when both were in office. Stallings became a champion of INL funding during his time in Congress. Craig inherited McClure’s role as the Senate champion of DOE funding for Idaho.

It may be an overstatement to suggest that the long-time INL consensus has come to end with the current division in the Idaho delegation over support for the budget bill that recently passed Congress, but it seems pretty clear that political pragmatism no longer automatically trumps ideology when it comes to supporting INL funding.

Second District Congressman Mike Simpson, a long-time champion of the site, now chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and Water. It’s no secret that Simpson took over that important spot – he had chaired the subcommittee on Interior and related agencies – in order to have even more direct influence over INL funding. Just before the recent and bipartisan $1.1 trillion spending bill passed the House and then the Senate, Simpson was saying that he’d been able to reverse Obama Administration cuts in DOE spending in Idaho.

“In fact,” Simpson said in a news release on January 14, “I have increased funding for INL’s nuclear research programs, ensured full funding for the Lab’s vital security force, and boosted funding by more than $20 million for the ongoing nuclear cleanup activities in Eastern Idaho. This bill not only stabilizes funding at INL after a couple of years of uncertainty, it sends a strong message that INL’s work as the DOE’s lead nuclear energy laboratory is critical to our nation’s energy security.”

It’s worth underscoring that part of the money Simpson helped secure – beyond what the administration had proposed – funds the on-going clean-up at INL; a critical effort that both Republican and Democratic governors in Idaho have supported.

That is the kind of budget work that would have once almost guaranteed a release from the entire Idaho delegation claiming credit for protecting jobs and investment in Idaho and getting the better of a hostile Democratic administration. Instead Simpson was blasted by his Republican primary challenger Bryan Smith for being the “left flank of the Idaho congressional delegation.” Smith pointed out that the three other members of the Idaho delegation – Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Congressman Raul Labrador – all opposed final passage of the budget legislation. Just for the record the budget legislation, a product of a spending framework hashed out by Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Paul Ryan, passed the Senate 72-26 and the House by an overwhelming margin of 359-67.

Crapo and Risch issued a joint statement explaining their NO votes. The statement stressed the big national debt and the need to bring it under control and made no mention that the NO votes also had the effect of rejected Simpson’s budget work on the Idaho National Laboratory.

There are lots of ways to look at this set of facts. A NO vote on a big budget bill, even one that had strong bipartisan support, forecloses another government shutdown and was certain to pass, is a politically safe vote in Idaho these days. It is often easier in politics to explain a NO vote than to justify a YES vote, particularly given the increasingly conservative nature of the Idaho GOP. If you want to apply a particularly cynical analysis to the facts you might conclude that the three NO voters in the Idaho delegation simply calculated that they would let Simpson take the heat for passing a trillion dollar budget knowing full well that the DOE spending that he had helped secure for Idaho would be included.

But there may be a larger and more important lesson.

As I’ve written before, Mike Simpson, by any measure, is a very conservative guy. Yet his pragmatic heavy lifting in his House committee to enhance the DOE budget to the benefit of thousands in Idaho – a position that once would have demanded a rousing show of support from interests as diverse as the Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – has, in the political environment of 2014, opened him to a charge of being a big spending liberal.

Simpson is no liberal. What he really is – and I mean this as a high compliment – is a throwback to those days when passing a budget that provided stability to a major Idaho institution was cause for celebration. Simpson is a legislator in the same way Jim McClure, Larry Craig and Richard Stallings once were. Each of them considered it re-election must that they campaign on the basis of how strongly they supported the INL. Pragmatism in those days trumped ideology. It may not any longer.

We’ll see in the weeks ahead whether a serious, pragmatic legislator looking out for the interests of his district and state and determined to actually help pass a budget that funds the government can withstand a challenge that calls into question the very essence of what it means to be a legislator. Those interests that have long supported the Idaho National Laboratory better hope that pragmatism wins.

Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budgetvote#storylink=cpy
Read more here: http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cd2-challenger-smith-slams-simpsons-budget-vote#storylink=c


article-2251995-169CB38F000005DC-298_634x640Wouldn’t you know. I’m just about to get into full Thanksgiving mode and word breaks from England, where they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, that my favorite celebrity chef – Nigella Lawson – is being accused of serial drug abuse. Cocaine, no less.

Nigella? Really?

Generally, I expect that the biggest news to break during this, my favorite holiday, is the by now completely-to-be-expected story of how some good ol’ boy down in say, Beaumont, Texas – Texas leads the nation in this you may not be surprised to know – has torched his car port when he plunked the still partially frozen Thanksgiving turkey in a pot of over hot oil. Boom.

I can hear the resulting conversation: “Boy, that sucker took off! Glad the Dodge wasn’t under the car port. Where’s Bubba?”

By the way, the Beaumont Fire Department held a training exercise this week to alert the Texas fryer brigade that hot oil, frozen turkeys and alcohol don’t mix. Throw in a little bad blood with a brother-in-law over the outcome of the Texas v. Texas A&M football game and we’re talking insurance claims. Almost makes me long for a seat at the Cheney family Thanksgiving.

But, seriously, I do love Thanksgiving. It is the most American of holidays and a holiday that has its origins in the right kind of thinking – giving thanks. I’ve also long thought that Thanksgiving was doggedly resisting becoming just another excuse to troop to the mall and rack up credit card debt, but I can apparently give up on being thankful for that.  The morning paper carries a K-Mart ad announcing that the store will be open at 5:00 am Thanksgiving day. Macy’s, WalMart and many other big box merchants have joined K-Mart in unceremoniously dumping the once sacred tradition of being closed on one day of the year where Americans really ought to stay home and enjoy each others, or at least conspire together not to burn down the car port.

I understand the nature of capitalism, just as Pope Francis does, and that the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve is a critical period for many retailers to make it or break it for the year, but 5:00 am on Thanksgiving? Will Thanksgiving now become just another shopping crazed day on the over indulgent road to the post-Christmas sales? Will Denny’s next be offering a turkey dinner to go that you can eat from the comfort of your shopping cart at Best Buy?

I’m sure the Jesuit pope wasn’t thinking specifically of America’s over-indulgent consumer culture (or was he) when he wrote in his latest Apostolic Exhortation, “We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.'”

Words to contemplate on the way to K-Mart in the pre-dawn hours.

Thanksgiving hold special memories for me – Mom’s deft touch with the turkey and gravy, my brother being home, a Detroit Lions game in the background, a special year when two college basketball players joined us for dinner and more recently friends, family, good cheer, too much pie and plenty of love with the leftovers. And, yes, I have a roasting pan overflowing with things to be thankful for this year.

Thanksgiving can’t possibly get better by making it the biggest shopping day of the year, but ultimately only we shoppers have the power to convince the big box guys that some things are too important to turn over to door busting specials. If we stay away, nap on the sofa, help mom with the dishes, play Scrabble with the nieces and nephews, watch an old movie or, heaven forbid, read a book, the guys at Shopko will conclude – it’s the nature of capitalism after all – that opening early on the day after Thanksgiving is still the way to go.

In the spirit of the season, by the way, I am officially suspending judgment on whether the British celeb chef Nigella was getting through what sounds like an awful ten year marriage to Charles Saatchi with the help of something a bit more exotic than turkey breast stuffed with Italian sausage and Marsala-steeped cranberries.

For her part Nigella says the drug abuse charge is nonsense and like all good celebrities she took to Twitter to thank her fans for standing by here. Many said they would bake something in a show of solidarity. That’s the spirit.

I’m standing by, too, and for two reasons. The drug charge is, after all, being made by an ex-husband who we last heard from with his hands around the chef’s throat and, after an exhaustive review of Nigella’s website, I didn’t find a single recipe for frying a turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving. Eat well, take a nap, go for a walk. There are other days to shop, really.


The Shutdown

0930-government-shutdown-most-important-ever_full_380The late Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill loved to remind colleagues  that “all politics is local,” and Tip’s truism is just about all you need to know about the true cause of the current stalemate in Washington, D.C. The handful of Republicans in the U.S. House aided, and abetted by a handful in the Senate, who have precipitated the first government shutdown in 19 years are playing almost exclusively to the conservative folks back home who have helped them along the GOP path to power.

The GOP faction that hates government and condemns any accommodation with the other side has little need to worry about how badly their tactics are playing with the vast majority of Americans, even among those coveted independents, because the shutdown caucus doesn’t care because they don’t have to care. As the Associated Press has noted: “Heavily gerrymandered districts make many House Democrats and Republicans virtual shoo-ins for re-election, insulating them from everything but the views in their slice of the country. That means some lawmakers can be greeted as heroes back home even if nationally the budget standoff comes to be viewed with scorn.”

“After every census and reapportionment, the blue districts get bluer and the red districts get redder,” said former Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, using the colorful terms for liberal and conservative districts. “It’s against their electoral interests,” he said, for lawmakers from such districts to move toward the center rather than feed “red meat” to their most ideological constituents.

LaTourette, an ally of Speaker John Boehner is correct, but there is also a false equivalence to his argument. The most ideological Republicans, and many of the voters who sent them to Washington, are driven by what conservative writer Rod Dreher calls a desire to tear down rather than a desire, as members of the loyal opposition, to suggest alternatives and develop a genuinely appealing policy agenda. Democrats, say what you will about their programs, aren’t into hostage negotiations and most buy into the party’s broad policy agenda.

“When I think of the Republican Party,” Dreher writes, “I don’t think of principled conservative legislators who are men and women of vision strategy. I think of ideologues who are prepared to wreck things to get their way. They have confused prudence — the queen of virtues, and the cardinal virtue of conservative politics — with weakness.”

Idaho is a case study in the politics of government by GOP primary voters. The state’s First District Congressman Raul Labrador is generally regarded as a leader of the House faction that has essentially taken control of the national Republican Party and forced Speaker Boehner to march in front of the cameras every day and condemn the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – and generally carry the scalding water of the Tea Party. Labrador, you’ll  remember, was one of the insurgents in the House who came within a few votes earlier this year of kicking Boehner from the Speaker’s Office to the back benches.

Idaho’s Second District Congressman Mike Simpson, a serious legislator, Boehner ally and a seasoned politician not generally given over to political stunts, has, like Boehner, had to go mostly along with the insurgents in order to steel himself against what appears to be an increasingly serious primary challenge; a challenge financed by the same folks who have staked the next Congressional election on bringing the country – again – to the edge of a financial cliff all in the interest of holding hostage President Obama’s health care legislation.

But here is the political irony: the stakes of what is unfolding in Washington may be enormously high for national Republicans, for the economy, for the hundreds of thousands of government workers furloughed and for millions of Americans who are just beginning to feel the effects of a government that has ceased to function in any way that is normal, but there is little or no political consequence for Republicans like Labrador who are electorally secure in their ultra-safe districts. The Republicans who might face the wrath of voters next year are those GOP members like Simpson who haven’t slavishly steeped in the Tea Party’s hot broth of disdain, bordering on hatred for Obama and all that he stands for.

All politics is local and if your district is red enough you can take comfort in marching lock step off a cliff with the folks back home who dislike and distrust Obama so much that the Internet is alive with the rumor that somehow, someway the foreign-born, Muslim socialist in the White House will find a way to circumvent the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution and engineer a third term for himself. There is even a website devoted to Obama 2016. The amendment limiting a president to two terms was proposed, by the way, in the wake of Franklin Roosevelt’s four terms as president and was ratified in 1951, but no matter. The fear and loathing on the far right of the GOP is such that no conspiracy is too outrageous for Tea Party adherents not to worry.

As the New York Times notes today, “Republican elders worry that the tactics of [Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz and his allies in the House are reinforcing the party’s image as obstructionist, and benefiting Mr. Obama at a time when his standing with the public is sliding. A New York Times/CBS poll last week found that 49 percent of Americans disapprove of the president’s job performance.

“The story people see now is President Obama sinking like a rock for months, and the only thing holding him up are the Republicans,” lamented Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi who previously led the Republican National Committee. “We have to get to the best resolution we can under the Obama administration, and then focus on some other things.”

Good advice, not likely to be taken.

With the government shutdown and their demands about Obamacare, “Republicans are setting a precedent which, if followed, would make America ungovernable,” notes the Economist in an editorial. “Voters have seen fit to give their party control of one arm of government—the House of Representatives—while handing the Democrats the White House and the Senate. If a party with such a modest electoral mandate threatens to shut down government unless the other side repeals a law it does not like, apparently settled legislation will always be vulnerable to repeal by the minority. Washington will be permanently paralysed and America condemned to chronic uncertainty.

“It gets worse. Later this month the federal government will reach its legal borrowing limit, known as the ‘debt ceiling.’ Unless Congress raises that ceiling, Uncle Sam will soon be unable to pay all his bills. In other words, unless the two parties can work together, America will have to choose which of its obligations not to honour. It could slash spending so deeply that it causes a recession. Or it could default on its debts, which would be even worse, and unimaginably more harmful than a mere government shutdown. No one in Washington is that crazy, surely?”

We’ll see.

Return to 1940

19410200_Senator_Robert_Taft_R-OH_Against_Lend_Lease-TAFTRobert Taft, the Ohio senator and son of a GOP president, was often called “Mr. Republican” in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He was continually on everyone’s list as a presidential candidate from the late 1930’s to the early 1950’s, but Taft never received the nomination in large part because he represented the Midwestern, isolationist wing of the GOP in the intra-party fight for supremacy that was eventually won in 1952 by Dwight Eisenhower and the eastern establishment, internationalist wing of the party.

The modern Republican Party is edging toward the same kind of foreign policy split – the John McCain interventionists vs. the Rand Paul isolationists – that for a generation helped kill Taft’s chances, and his party’s chances, of capturing the White House. While much of the focus in the next ten days will be on the important question of whether President Obama can stitch together the necessary votes in the House and Senate – Democrats have their own non-interventionists to contend with – to authorize military action against Syria, the other political fight is over the foreign policy heart and soul of the GOP.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens here’s some of what those in the new Taft wing of the GOP are saying:

“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States.” Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.).

“I believe the situation in Syria is not an imminent threat to American national security and, therefore, I do not support military intervention. Before taking action, the president should first come present his plan to Congress outlining the approach, cost, objectives and timeline, and get authorization from Congress for his proposal.” Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah).

“When the United States is not under attack, the American people, through our elected representatives, must decide whether we go to war.” Rep. Justin Amash (R., Mich.)

Taft’s reputation for personal integrity and senatorial probity – he served as Majority Leader for a short time before his untimely death in 1953 – has guaranteed that he is remembered as one of the Congressional greats of the 20th Century. Still, as Stephen’s writes in the Journal, Taft has also suffered the same fate at the hand of history as almost all of the last century’s isolationists have. They are condemned for what Stephens calls their almost unfailingly bad judgment about foreign affairs. Taft opposed Franklin Roosevelt on Lend-Lease in 1941. He argued against the creation of NATO, which has become an enduring feature of the post-war doctrine of collective security. Taft, always the man of principle, even opposed the Nuremberg trials that sought to bring to the bar of justice the top Nazi leadership of World War II. He considered the legal proceedings, organized and managed by the victors in the war, illegal under existing international law.

In every major showdown in his three-time quest for the presidency, Taft lost to an internationalist oriented Republican: Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas E. Dewey in 1944 and Eisenhower in 1952. When given his chance in the White House, and with the help of one-time Taft ally Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Eisenhower re-shaped the modern Republican Party for the rest of the century as the party most devoted to national security and most trusted to push back against Soviet-era Communism. That image lasted, more or less, from Ike to the second Bush, whose historic miscalculations in Iraq have helped create the kind of party soul searching for the GOP that Democrats struggled with in the post-Vietnam era.

A vote on Syria in the Congress will be a clear cut test of strength for the neo-isolationists in the modern Republican Party, many of whom have close connections to the Tea Party faction. Still the leaders of the new Taft wing, like Kentucky Sen. Paul, have demonstrated they are not one issues wonders when it comes to foreign policy. Paul filibustered over drone policy, has spoken out against NSA intelligence gathering and frets over foreign aid. And the polls show these skeptics are in sync with the many Americans who are sick of open ended commitments in the Middle East and the kind of “trust us, we’ve got this figured out” foreign policy of the second Bush Administration. I suspect the appeal of the neo-isolationists extends as well to younger voters, many of whom have not known an America that wasn’t regularly sending brave young men and women to fight and die in wars that seem not only to lack an end, but also an understandable and clearly defined purpose.

Bob Taft – Mr. Republican – fought and lost many of these same battles more than half a century ago and since the victors usually write the history Taft stands condemns along with many others in his party for being on the wrong side of the history of the 20th Century.

The great debate in the Congress over the next few days is fundamentally important for many reasons, not least that it is required by the Constitution, but it may also define for a generation how the party that once embraced and then rejected isolation thinks about foreign policy. If Sen. Paul can be cast as a latter day Bob Taft on matters of foreign policy; a questioner of the value and scope of America’s role in the world, who will be this generation’s Wendell Willkie or Dwight Eisenhower?

Any GOP pretender for the White House will need to calculate these issues with great precision. Gov. Chris Christie, who has yet to declare this position but seems more likely to fit in the internationalist wing of the party, must have his world atlas open to the Middle East, but those maps are likely sitting right next to the latest polls showing the increasing isolation of the party’s base; the people who will determine who gets the next shot at presiding in the White House Situation Room. During today’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on Syrian action Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another 2016 contender, voted NO reinforcing the notion that a new generation of Republicans seem willing to bring to full flower an approach to foreign policy that died about the same time as Bob Taft.

What an irony that the robust, nation building, regime change foreign policy of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, the very definition of GOP orthodoxy in the post-September 11 world, has been so quickly consigned to the dust bin of Republican policy.

Who this time will be on the right – and wrong – side of history?

[Note that Idaho Sen. James Risch joined with Paul and Rubio in voting NO on the Syrian resolution in the Foreign Relations Committee.]


Congress Investigates

You could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the only thing Congress really seems to do these days is launch investigation after investigation of the Executive Branch. The chief House investigator, California Republican Darrell Issa, is a southern California multi-millionaire and a tough partisan who made his fortunate in the car alarm business. His voice – “Step away from the car” – was once more famous than his power to issue a subpoena. Not anymore.

Darrell Issa is the latest of a long, long line of Congressional investigators, politicians who have frequently overplayed their powerful hands. Occasionally and thankfully throughout our history a few investigators have brought real credit to the important role of the Congressional investigation, a Washington institution with a long and checkered past.

The chairman of the Republican National Committee gleefully suggested the other day that Issa will have a busy summer.  “I’ve got a good feeling that Darrell Issa is going to be having quite a summer in reviewing what’s been going on here in the White House as far as this scandal is concerned,” said Reince Priebus and he was only referring to the Congressional review of the IRS scandal. Since Priebus spoke Issa has issued additional subpoenas for more White House records on Benghazi. All signs indicate he has hardly begun.

A Brief History of the Congressional Investigation

What is widely acknowledged to have been the first Congressional investigation took place during the presidency of George Washington in 1792 and centered on an inquiry into a disastrous military expedition led by Major General Arthur St. Clair against native tribes in the then-Northwest Territories. St. Clair lost more than half of his 1,400 man command – a defeat substantially greater than Custer’s at the Little Big Horn – and Congress, trying to understand what happened and why, eventually requested documents and records pertaining to the expedition from Secretary of War Henry Knox. After some days of consideration, Washington ordered Knox, as well as Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, to turn over the documents to Congress.

Feeling its way into the virgin territory of a Congressional investigation of the Executive branch, Congress, much as it still does, moved in fits and starts over the next year. Witnesses were called, reports examined, politics reared its unruly head and eventually in 1793 nothing much happened. General St. Clair was more-or-less vindicated, but he felt his good name had still been damaged badly. It is true that St. Clair, a significant Revolutionary War figure, has largely been forgotten, one of the earliest examples perhaps of the power of Congress to ruin a reputation. In an essay on this very first Congressional investigation, George C. Chalou notes that General St. Clair “emerged neither victor nor victim.” It was not a particularly auspicious beginning.

Every president, including the greatest ones like Jackson and Lincoln, have had to navigate the politics and public relations of the Congressional investigation. The great historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has written that Jackson complained in 1820, while subject of a Congressional investigation, that “he was deprived of the privilege of confronting his accusers, and of interrogating and cross-examining witnesses summoned for his conviction.”

Lincoln’s every executive decision and his strategy as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War were poured over and second guessed by The Joint Select Committee on the Conduct of the Present War, an all-powerful Congressional committee dominated by Radical Republicans often a odds with Lincoln. Historian Elizabeth Joan Doyle has written about the notorious committee and its imperious chairman Sen. Benjamin Wade of Ohio. “So flagrant were the abuses of the civil rights of the objects of the committee’s wrath (selective vendettas were carried on against a number of military officers) that one can only conclude that in the mid-nineteenth century most of the Republican majority in Congress agreed with Wade and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens that, in wartime, there could be neither a Constitution nor a Bill of Rights.” Ironically most of the members of the Civil War-era Committee on the Conduct of the War were lawyers.

The Congressional investigation, often marked by raw partisanship and fueled by ambitious political players, had fallen into such disrepute in the early 20th Century that the great columnist Walter Lippmann wrote of “that legalized atrocity, the Congressional investigation, in which congressmen, starved of their legitimate food for thought, go on a wild and feverish manhunt, and do not stop at cannibalism.”

Montana Sen. Thomas J. Walsh substantially rehabilitated the image of the Congressional investigation in 1922 with his calm, through and ultimately brilliant investigation into the Teapot Dome scandal. Teapot Dome, along with Watergate in the Nixon-era, is now generally considered to have established the gold standard for one branch of government investigating another. Walsh’s findings sent a Cabinet member, Interior Secretary Albert Fall, to jail and his handling of the investigation was so widely praised, after the fact, that the New York Sun said that the Montana senator was nothing less than a “Statue of Civic Virtue.”

In 1924, Walsh’s Montana colleague Burton K. Wheeler led a headline grabbing investigation that forced Warren Harding’s attorney general, Harry Daugherty, to resign and exposed widespread corruption in the Justice Department. (Daugherty has recently gotten a new lease on life, if you can call it that, as a shady character is the popular television series Boardwalk Empire.) Hard to believe now but both Senate investigations were widely condemned at the time, even by the New York Times, as nothing more than Congressional “poking into political garbage cans.”

One reason the Walsh and Wheeler probes were so powerful, and ultimately so effective, was the completely bi-partisan nature of the investigations. Republicans had the majority in the Senate in the 1920’s, but Democrats Walsh and Wheeler, both lawyers trained at assembling evidence and questioning witnesses, were given authority by GOP chairmen to run the high profile investigations. Imagine such a thing today. I can’t, it’s impossible. Wheeler’s investigation also ultimately played a key role in an important Supreme Court decision of lasting significance – McGrain v. Daugherty – that validated the power of the Congress to compel testimony as a critical component of its Constitutional responsibility to legislate.

Few today would defend the fairness or bi-partisanship of investigations in the 1940’s and 1950’s by the House Un-American Activities Committee or Joseph McCarthy’s reputation ruining, made-for-TV events that eventually claimed the Wisconsin senator as a victim of his own excess. By the same token Harry Truman’s exemplary investigation of the defense industry in the 1940’s shines as a beacon for the way Congress should, but doesn’t always, exercise its awesome responsibility to check and balance the executive.

Here’s what Truman said in 1944. “The power to investigate is one of the most important powers of Congress. The manner in which that power is exercised will largely determine the position and the prestige of the Congress in the future.” Truman was correct. The power to investigate is essential to our system and it can be used for many purposes, to illuminate and legislate or to damage and destroy.

Here’s hoping Darrell Issa has read his history. He might consider just what kind of investigator he wants to be – a Ben Wade or a Harry Truman, conducting a”wild and feverish manhunt” or a sober investigator remembered as a “statue of civic virtue?”

The power and prestige of the Congress are on the line as Mr. Issa heads into his busy summer.


The Year the Johnson’s Integrated Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday; the most American of celebrations dating back, officially at least, to Lincoln and the dark days of the Civil War. It has always meant connection for me – with family, friends, traditions and a profound sense that some of us, the lucky ones, truly are blessed with much to be genuinely thankful for.

I have enduring memories, no doubt ripened over time, of Thanksgivings past. There was the year my Aunt Vera couldn’t quite get the turkey cooked, while my mother – she who knew how to roast a bird – quietly steamed, and not just the brussels sprouts, either. Mom was like I expect many women of her generation, a great cook of basic good things. No lumps in her mashed potatoes – ever. The gravy, she insisted, must be cooked – slowly. Pumpkin pie filling was eased into a crust made by hand. The dressing never came from a box. Mom wouldn’t have known a tortellini from a duck breast, but she knew how to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. My father, never much of a hand in the kitchen, would marvel as we set down to the feast that Mom, with little more preparation than a  high school home ec course under her apron, could make it all come out just right and perfectly timed. No undercooked birds in the Johnson household. And she loved the compliments and, yes, fished for them. “Is the turkey moist enough?” she would ask just to be re-assured that the old bird was indeed just right.

“How about some more of everything?” she would suggest and often we would pass the platters again. She was the Empress of Thanksgiving, completely in command of her kitchen/dining room empire.

Poor Aunt Vera. Mom cut her no slack and I don’t believe we ever had Thanksgiving at her house again.

By the middle 1960’s, we had moved far from family to the isolated outpost of Rock Springs, Wyoming. (Of the many places I’ve lived, Rock Springs is the only town that consistently draws a knowing chuckle. Let’s just say that Rock Springs will never be confused with, say, Sun Valley, Idaho or Bozeman, Montana. Think west Texas with about as much charm.)

I was in junior high school in Rock Springs, the new kid in town with little by way of friends and with even less of the social skills that make some teenagers instantly popular with their crowd. Friends were yet to be made and Thanksgiving break that year was just an extra long weekend. What I did possess was a Gail Goodrich autographed model basketball and an abiding love of the game I was trying – slow of foot and short of stature – to master. Thanksgiving wasn’t on my mind, basketball was. We weren’t going to travel to be with family, so I figured, weather permitting and with little else to do, I’d shoot a few hoops in a school playground after the turkey had been served.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, Dad brought home news that he’d been asked by a friend at the local community college whether the Johnson’s might be willing to put an extra leaf in the dining room table and roast a slightly larger turkey in order to host two young men from the Western Wyoming Community College basketball squad. Mom, never one to shy from cooking for two or twenty, immediately said yes. I didn’t know what to think. Welcoming total strangers to the Thanksgiving table was something we just didn’t do. I’m sure Mom prepared the turkey just as well as she always did. Knowing her she wanted to impress the college boys with the breast meat moist, the drumsticks savory, the mashed potatoes creamy and the gravy rich and hot. The pies were delicious, I’m sure. Frankly I don’t remember. What I do remember were the two big guys, really big guys, who showed up for dinner that Thanksgiving in windy Rock Springs.

Bill Davis was, as I recall, a rather skinny, 6 foot 8 inch post man with slick and quick moves around the basket. Donald Russell was a brawny, but quick 6 foot 2 inch shooting guard who bore a remarkable resemblance to his more famous older brother, Cazzie, the great University of Michigan and National Basketball Association star. (These memories of the long-ago Wyoming Thanksgiving came rushing back when I read recently the happy news that the great Cazzie Russell had been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He deserves to be there. In jogging my memory of Russell and his brother, I stumbled across a piece written about Russell about this time. He was a great basketball player and a good man.)

These basketball playing, turkey eating, very big young men towered over my Dad who was all of 5 foot 6. I remember Mom apologizing that the long legs didn’t fit very well under our modest dining room table. I was in awe. College basketball players at our Thanksgiving table. I don’t recall being smart enough or confident enough to ask them the questions or try to make the conversation that I now wish I might have experienced. I was focused on basketball and the novelty of these two guys at our table. I now wonder what two, rather quiet, even bashful, young African-American men must have thought of our very traditional, Nebraska-inspired menu and ritual? Did they humor us because they had been told to have Thanksgiving dinner with total strangers? They must have missed home and family and we must have been a poor and unfamiliar substitute. They ate well with their long legs under Mom’s table, but was it good food without genuine comfort? What did they really think of us? What did they think of Rock Springs? What did they think of the awkward kid?

I’m going to guess, this part of memory is truly fleeting, that the year the Johnson’s integrated Thanksgiving was 1966. Black Power had entered the national vocabulary in 1966. A half million Americans were in Vietnam. Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India, Star Trek premiered and A Man for All Seasons hit the big screen. Bill Davis and Don Russell came to your house on an important day and, in some small but profoundly important way, I grew up over Thanksgiving dinner. No one would say that Mom and Dad were pacesetters when it came to race relations, but the fact that my conservative, buttoned down father brought those two guys to our dinner table and Mom fed them the best things she could make has left an enduring mark on my heart. It was a truly memorable Thanksgiving.

Bill Davis went on to a pretty decent college career at the University of Arizona and was drafted in the 12th round by the NBA Phoenix Suns in 1968. Don Russell played a little ball for the Wyoming Cowboys, I believe. I watched both young men play several games that season for the local community college and followed them by reading the box scores in the Daily Rocket Miner. I’d had dinner with them, after all. Bill and Don seemed like friends after that Thanksgiving.

Many things in our household to be thankful for in 2011, including the memory of Thanksgivings past, including one particularly memorable dinner for five in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1966.


Happy Thanksgiving

lincolnLincoln’s Decree of Thanksgiving in 1863

It is well to remember that as troubled as our economy is at this traditional season of Thanksgiving, there have been darker times.

During the awful year of 1863, with a vast and bloody civil war raging across the nation, Abraham Lincoln caused the nation to pause and celebrate its bounty and blessings.

Andy Malcolm at his Los Angeles Times blog dusts off that eloquent proclamation today along with President Obama’s Thanksgiving decree.

Enjoy reading them with a profound prayer of Thanksgiving and a hopeful wish for better times – soon – for all the world.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving

Lincoln President Lincoln’s Proclamation

Secretary of State William Seward drafted Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 establishing the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving and praise “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

Seward’s prose was not nearly as poetic as Lincoln’s, but the fact that the president and his chief advisers could look to the Almighty and give thanks in the middle of an awful civil war is most assuredly a testament to their ultimate faith in the grand experiment called The United States of America.

The full Lincoln proclamation is here.

A happy and blessed Thanksgiving. And, thanks for visiting The Johnson Post.