Middle East, Russia, Trump, U.S. Senate

Blood on the Floor…

On April 6, 2017 President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on airfields in Syria in response to Syrian dictator Basher al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Idaho Senator Jim Risch immediately praised Trump’s action as “a game changer” that signaled a new American approach to the entire Middle East and would impress the international community. 

“The airstrikes of April 6 were a good first step,” Risch wrote the next day in piece in TIME, “but the United States must go further to push back against Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran. This will require a more comprehensive strategy toward Syria.” 

A buffer zone has been put in place in the wake of President Trump’s appeasement of Turkey’s invasion of Syria

Risch went on: “We also need to build and support a coalition that can effectively ensure the safety of Syrians at home and ensure neither Assad nor the Islamic State can destabilize the country. This would include working with our Turkish allies and Syrian opposition, and supporting Kurdish forces fighting on the ground against both the Islamic State and Assad’s forces.” 

The senator, now the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, assured us that the “Trump Administration has proven to the people of Syria, and the world, that the United States is once again willing to confront growing instability and inhumanity.” 

Of course, Risch could not have been more wrong as events of the last week gruesomely prove. In fact Risch has displayed a stunning combination of ignorance and arrogance over the last two and half years in his unconditional support for the administration’s persistently failing foreign policy. 

Not only has Risch been wrong about Syria, but also about Iran, North Korea, China and a dozen other places where the chaotic and feckless Trump foreign policy has produced one disaster after another, fracturing what is left of U.S. global leadership, strengthening Russia, creating the opening for a revived ISSI, weakening NATO and leaving America increasingly without dependable friends in the world. 

Idaho Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee

Perhaps never before in Idaho political history has one member of the state’s congressional delegation been in such a position of potential power and influence at such a perilous time and squandered it all in subservience to a failed president. It is simply a shocking display of political and moral misconduct.  

Risch has made much of his access to the president, regularly bragging about his phone calls, briefings and ability to influence Trump. As Risch told the Idaho Press’s Betsy Russell recently he intends to maintain influence with Trump by never uttering a public criticism. Well, if Risch’s logic is correct and he is only able to exert influence over U.S. foreign policy by not exercising independent leadership then he also owns the outcome of Trump’s disastrous policy. 

We should assume that Risch is in the group that David Sanger, the New York Times national security correspondent, wrote about this week. “Mr. Trump ignored months of warnings from his advisers about what calamities likely would ensue if he followed his instincts to pull back from Syria and abandon America’s longtime allies, the Kurds. He had no Plan B, other than to leave.”

Among the many Trumpian disasters arising from the precipitous decision to cut a run on the Kurds in Syria is the opportunity it affords Vladimir Putin to obtain what every Russian leader since Stalin has desired – a lead role in the Middle East

“Putin continues to get whatever he wants and generally doesn’t even have to do much,” said a NATO official quoted by the Washington Post. “He got to sit back and watch the Turks and the Americans unravel five years of success and not only did it not cost him anything, he didn’t even have to try to make it happen. Small wonder he’d interfere on Trump’s side in an election.”

And here is Martin Indyk, a two-time U.S. ambassador to Israel, writing this week in Foreign Policy: “The Trump administration likes to see itself as clear-eyed and tough-minded, a confronter of the hard truths others refuse to acknowledge. In fact, it understands so little about how the Middle East actually works that its bungling efforts have been a failure across the board. As so often in the past, the cynical locals are manipulating a clueless outsider, advancing their personal agendas at the naive Americans’ expense.” 

“So, Turkey and the Kurds have been fighting for hundreds of years,” Trump said this week. “We are out of there.” That may well turn out to be “the Trump Doctrine.” 

For days the junior senator from Idaho said exactly nothing beyond an innocuous, boilerplate statement of “serious concern” about Turkey’s invasion of Syria in the wake of U.S. troop departures. By week’s end he was promising to introduce “soon” legislation to sanction Turkey, but without acknowledgment that the president himself had made such legislation necessary. 

BBC image of Kurdish position being shelled by Turkey’s forces in Syria

Meanwhile, daily revelations about Ukraine continue, a scandal that one commentator reduced to its essence: “The president’s personal lawyer was paid by crooked businessmen from a foreign country, and then the president gave him authority over American policy toward that country. This is precisely what the founders meant by ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’” Risch has not answered a demand from Democratic members of his committee that he hold hearings on this debacle and he dodges questions about his views.

When Boise State Public Radio reporter Heath Druzin attempted last week to ask Risch about the appropriateness of an American president asking a foreign leader to gin up dirt on a political opponent, Risch refused to engage. “I’m not going there,” he said before walking away and then adding “Don’t do that again.” 

In a subsequent interview with KBOI Radio’s Nate Shelman, a venue where conservatives comfortably expect to be offered up softballs, Risch fell back on the oldest and most discredited line in American politics. Shelman asked Risch if pulling U.S. troops and green lighting Turkish attacks on the Kurds was correct. “I’m not in the position right now to criticize,” Risch said, “what I want to do is get behind our troops and get behind our commander, and where we are right now and get us to a better place.”

Trump has facilitated a wholesale disaster in Syria that will ripple and roll across the region for years. American credibility has never been lower or our security so abruptly and catastrophically threatened. 

But politically Jim Risch relies up on the same thing Donald Trump counts on – the credulity and partisanship of supporters, each man hoping they can get away with fomenting a catastrophe because, well, in the name of Trump they can do anything. 

Little wonder Risch wants to avoid answering legitimate questions about the president. He’s like a guy caught at the scene of a crime that wants you to believe he’s had nothing to do with all the blood on the floor.

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(Note: Since this piece was written a “cease fire” was agreed to by the Turkish government. Senator Risch applauded that move – without referring to the president – and said the situation remains “very fluid.” But as Eric Schmidt and David Sanger wrote in the Times: “The cease-fire agreement reached with Turkey by Vice President Mike Pence amounts to a near-total victory for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who gains territory, pays little in penalties and appears to have outmaneuvered President Trump.”)

Foreign Policy, U.S. Senate

The Surest Senator of All…

When he speaks about big issues Idaho Senator Jim Risch, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, likes to invoke his experience, the dozens of times he’s been on the ballot, his leadership of the Idaho State Senate and his early years as the Ada County prosecutor. One of Risch’s go-to lines is “I’ve been at this a long time.” 

In the increasingly rare interviews Risch grants or when he, also rarely, entertains questions from voters his setup often goes something like this: “I’ve been at this [politics] a long time, I’ve been through 34 elections, I was a prosecutor and [in the context of the Russia investigation] I know what evidence looks like.” 

Idaho Senator James E. Risch

All politicians display a certain level of confidence. It goes with the territory these days. The humble, self-effacing public servant is a relic of American political history, if indeed it has ever existed. But Risch has raised self-assurance to a new level, unlike anything Idaho has seen, well, ever and it’s gotten him into trouble. 

Risch’s first real controversy as chairman came over his initial handling of the Senate’s demand for information from the Trump Administration on the murder of Washington Postcolumnist Jamil Khashoggi. When senator’s demanded that the administration follow the law and report on who had ordered Khashoggi’s brutal murder, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – Risch calls him a close friend – essentially said: “Mind your own business.” 

Risch’s initial response was to fully back the Trump line. “We asked for the information. They sent it. And I put out a press release,” Risch told reporters. Then the proverbial organic matter hit the fan. Senate Republicans on Risch’s own committee demanded more and he did schedule a closed hearing earlier this week, but not before apparently misleading fellow Republicans on just how forthcoming the administration had been. All in all it was a stumbling, incoherent performance by a guy who has “been at this a long time.” 

You have to wonder why? 

Why has Risch worked so hard to shield the president from confronting the murder of a journalist, a murder the nation’s intelligence agencies have placed squarely at the feet of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? Why are fellow Republicans like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Chuck Grassley and Mitt Romney confronting the administration over reprehensible Saudi behavior, while Risch has been carrying Trump’s water on both shoulders? 

Remember that Trump has said of the Crown Prince, a pal of his son-in-law, that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” order the journalist’s murder.

During a contentious recent television interview, recorded while Risch was attending the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, the senator invoked his “I’ve been at this a long time” certainty with another wrinkle he likes to use – “I know more than you, but because it’s classified I couldn’t possibly comment.” 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, identified by U.S. intelligence agencies as the man responsible for ordering the death of Washington Post columnist Jamil Khashoggi

Asked by veteran journalist Tim Sebastian whether he agreed with Graham’s characterization that there “was zero chance” that bin Salam had not ordered Khashoggi’s murder, Risch spun into a linguistic tap dance, first refusing to answer whether he agreed with the South Carolina senator and then invoking secrecy.

“I’m on the Intelligence Committee,” Risch said, “Lindsey isn’t. I’ve looked at every scrap of evidence there is on [Khashoggi’s murder] and unfortunately because of my position on the Intelligence Committee I can’t sit here and reiterate that for you, and in that regard I can’t comment on that.” Risch then said he could comment on the 17 Saudi nationals sanctioned by the U.S. government, but apparently his opinion about the Crown Prince is classified. 

Again the question is why? Does Risch so value his access to the White House that he won’t summon moral outrage at the murder of a journalist whose body was dismembered with a bone saw and has still not been found? Why was he willing to launch his chairmanship by alienating fellow Republicans who must increasingly see him as an apologist for the heinous? Is Risch so concerned about a primary challenge from the far right that there is no “red line” of support for Trump that he will not cross? 

In the same period that the senator was covering for the president and the Saudi Crown Prince he was effectively dismissing concerns about Trump campaign involvement with Russia. “It is simply not there,” the former prosecutor explained of his reading of Trump-Russia collusion. That certainty comes even as we now know that Paul Manafort, the convicted former Trump campaign chairman, was meeting with Russian operatives and sharing polling information literally while Trump was securing the GOP nomination in 2016.

In the face of mounting evidence of ongoing Russian efforts to interfere with American elections Risch told the Boise Chamber of Commerce recently “Russia is the most overrated country on the face of the planet. They get so much ink here. They get so much attention here, simply because of Trump, of course. These guys are incredibly inept. They are a nuclear power, there is no question about it. They certainly have some juice, there is no question about it. These guys, they are all bluster.”

Put that comment in context and again ask yourself why? 

On July 27, 2016, then-candidate Trump looked straight into television cameras in Florida and said, “Russia, if you’re listening. I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” — messages Hillary Clinton was said to have deleted from a private email server.

“Actually, Russia was doing more than listening,” as the Associated Press reported last week. “It had been trying to help Republican Trump for months. That very day, hackers working with Russia’s military intelligence tried to break into email accounts associated with Clinton’s personal office. It was just one small part of a sophisticated election interference operation carried out by the Kremlin — and meticulously chronicled by special counsel Robert Mueller.” 

And ask yourself why wouldn’t the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee want to get to the bottom of that and so much more?  

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Borah, Church, Foreign Policy, Trump, U.S. Senate

The Risch Doctrine…

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch became chairman of the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee last week and as nearly his first act he bashed the two Idahoans who held that position in the past, William Borah and Frank Church.

In an interview with Idaho Press reporter Betsy Russell, Risch also said his “repertoire does not include sparring publicly with the president of the United States. For many, many different reasons, I think that’s counterproductive, and you won’t see me doing it.”

UNITED STATES – APRIL 8: Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, questions Secretary of State John Kerry, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In one interview, the new chairman offered a remarkable display of historical ignorance, senatorial obsequiousness, hubris and blind partisanship. Call it “the Risch Doctrine.”

Let’s take them one by one.

“William Borah was around at the time when it was very fashionable, and indeed you could get away with non-involvement in a great matter of international affairs,” Risch told Russell.

The senator is correct that Borah, who represented Idaho in the Senate for 33 years, was, to say the least, skeptical about an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. More correctly, Borah was a non-interventionist, an anti-imperialist and a politician who believed passionately that the Senate must exercise a significant role in developing the country’s foreign policy. He would have been the last to say he would avoid “sparring publicly” with a president. He did so repeatedly, including with presidents of his own Republican Party.

Borah’s determined opposition to the peace treaty after World War I was based in large part on Woodrow Wilson’s arrogance in insisting that the Senate rubber stamp his handy work, accepting his terms or no terms.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Risch says he has his disagreements with President Donald Trump, but you’d be hard to pressed to find even one, while his record is ripe with acquiescence to an administration whose foreign policy from Syria to North Korea and from NATO to Saudi Arabia feels more unhinged, more chaotic by the day.

While Borah elevated the Foreign Relations Committee to something approaching equal standing with Republican presidents such as Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, Risch is first and last a partisan, even to the point of going down the line with Trump, while many other Senate Republicans broke with him this week over sanctioning a Russian oligarch. With a Democrat in the White House, Risch was never reluctant to bash a foreign policy decision. His “sparring” was always in plain sight. Now, it’s all quiet on the Risch front.

Risch also could not refrain from repeating an old smear against Sen. Frank Church, effectively accusing Church of weakening the nation’s intelligence agencies.

“In my judgment,” Risch said, Church “did some things regarding our intelligence-gathering abilities and operations that would not serve us very well today. We need a robust intelligence operation.”

We have a robust intelligence operation, one that has frequently made serious mistakes that require constant vigilance from U.S. senators.

Risch should know this. He’s on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he has repeatedly excused Trump’s own disregard, indeed contempt, for intelligence agencies, including dismissal of an FBI director who was just a bit too independent for Trump’s taste. You have to wonder if the new chairman has read even a summary of Church’s still very relevant work.

What Church’s landmark investigation really did in the 1970s was to explain to the American people, as UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted told me this week, “what the CIA and FBI and other agencies had been doing in their name during the height of the Cold War.” As professor Olmsted, a scholar of American intelligence and its oversight noted, Church’s investigation “revealed many abuses and some crimes that had been committed, for example, by the CIA.”

One of those crimes was spying on American citizens. The National Security Agency actually conducted mail and phone surveillance on Church and Republican Sen. Howard Baker.

“Thanks to the Church Committee,” Olmsted wrote, “we now know that the CIA engaged mafia dons to stab, poison, shoot and blow up Fidel Castro; that it tried to poison Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste and that it hired goons to kidnap the general in Chile who was trying to uphold his country’s constitutional democracy and thus stood in the way of a U.S.-backed coup. (He was killed in the course of the kidnapping.) The committee also revealed the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, including the harassment of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Church didn’t weaken the intelligence community — he held it accountable. His work created the modern framework for congressional oversight, that is if Congress would use the power of oversight, and Church’s investigation led to the protections of the so-called FISA court that requires a judge to sign off on surveillance of a kind that the intelligence agencies once initiated on their own.

“This is a great time to be a Republican,” Risch told a partisan crowd at a Lincoln Day dinner in Shoshone last week. “You will not hear about this in the national media, but we have done a great job running this country.” Quite a line to utter while a quarter of the federal government remains shut down and while the president is operating with an “acting” chief of staff, Interior secretary, Office of Management and Budget director, attorney general, Defense secretary and has yet to even nominate ambassadors to a couple dozen countries.

Jim Risch, the committed partisan, has always been the kind of politician focused on his next election. He’s up in 2020 in what should be one of the safest seats in the country and he’s put all his chips on Trump.

But what if things are different in a few months or in a year? What if Robert Mueller’s investigation unspools a web of corruption that makes President Richard Nixon and Watergate look like a third-rate burglary? What if Risch has bet on the wrong guy?

He’s standing on the rolling deck of the USS Trump right now, raising nary a question about a president implicated in scandal from porno payoffs to Russian collusion. The super-partisan will never change, but his hubris may yet — and again — get the best of him.

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Borah, Idaho, Supreme Court, U.S. Senate

Kabuki Theater Confirmation…

        Note: I’m pleased to be writing a new weekly piece for the Friday editorial page of the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune. I’m looking forward to writing mostly about the state’s politics and history based on 40-plus years of being in and around campaigns, politicos, reporters and issues.

         The regular blog will appear here as well from time-to-time.

         I’ve long admired the Trib’s editorial page, an institution in Idaho that most of the state’s political junkies consider a “must read.” The page has long been the home of great editors and writers, including Bill Hall, Ladd Hamilton, Jim Fisher and Marty Trillhaase. I’ll hope to do my small bit to uphold that reputation.

        Thanks…here is the first piece. 

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Idaho’s two Republican U.S. senators will vote soon to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court helping secure a very conservative court for a generation or more. That Mike Crapo and Jim Risch would support a Republican president’s judicial nominee is no surprise. They have eagerly participated in efforts to turn judicial confirmations into just one more hyper-partisan exercise.

Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh

Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court likely means the court will become as conservative as any since the 1930s and despite claims that a partisan like Kavanaugh will respect precedent, his appointment could well usher in a raucous period where much long settled law – Roe v. Wade and campaign finance limits, for example – will be up for reconsideration. Where a consensus selection might have reversed the partisan taint now infesting the court a polarizing choice will only make the court more political.

Meanwhile, the notion of “advice and consent” has given way to debate over process and documents. Any pretense that the Senate might actually conduct a bipartisan review of a nominee’s fitness and beliefs now seems as quaint as the concept of judges being above politics.

Both Crapo and Risch expressed support for Kavanagh well in advance of any hearings. Crapo, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee that will assess Kavanaugh’s fitness, needed just one meeting to pronounce Donald Trump’s nominee a jurist of “fairness, judgment, and temperament.” Risch was at the White House for the announcement of Kavanaugh’s appointment and immediately said, presumably with a straight face, that the selection reflects “President Trump’s deep commitment to upholding our U.S. Constitution.”

Kavanaugh with Senator Mike Crapo

Other Republican senators, including members of the Judiciary Committee, have actually participated in mock hearings preparing Kavanaugh for his moment under the television lights. Confirmation of this type is a flagrant abandonment of the notion that a co-equal branch of government should actually conduct the type of inquiry required by our Constitution.

While it is true that high stakes judicial nominations have always involved political and partisan considerations – Democrats play the game, as well – Idaho senators in the past often exercised real independence, occasionally even against the wishes of presidents of their own party.

Idaho’s William Borah, never a get-along-go-along Republican, was a senior member of the Judiciary Committee in 1932 when he lobbied Republican President Herbert Hoover to appoint New Yorker Benjamin Cardozo to replace the distinguished jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hoover was reluctant, perhaps because Cardozo, like Holmes, had a reputation for judicial independence. Hoover also hesitated because New York was already represented on the high court. Borah rejected the geographic argument saying Cardozo was a respected national figure as important to Idaho as anywhere else. Borah also wasn’t pushing for a partisan, but for a deeply respected non-political judge. He may also have impressed upon Hoover that he would use all his substantial influence in the Senate to thwart any other nominee. Borah’s independence prevailed and scholars of the court now consider Cardozo one of the greatest justices.

Nevada Senator Pat McCarran and Idaho’s William Borah, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1930s.

There is actually a bit of a tradition of Idaho Republicans pushing back against Republican presidents and their court appointments and at times real bipartisanship has prevailed.

Borah, a remarkably independent senator, defied Hoover in 1930 and cast the deciding bipartisan vote against a Supreme Court nominee considered outside the mainstream.

Idaho Republican Senator Herman Welker bucked fellow Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 when he voted against the nomination of John M. Harlan. Welker was locked in a bitter fight with the administration at the time and may have employed his vote to express irritation with Eisenhower, but by today’s standards Welker’s move was a striking example of senatorial independence.

And in 1969 Republican Senator Len Jordan, a pretty conservative guy, joined Democrat Church to oppose Nixon’s nomination of Clement F. Haynesworth. Haynesworth was denied confirmation on a bipartisan basis when evidence surfaced of the judge’s conflicts of interest.

When the Senate confirmed Eisenhower nominee Potter Stewart in 1959 on a broadly bipartisan vote Idaho’s bipartisan delegation – Democrat Church and Republican Henry Dworshak – voted for Stewart.

Nixon nominees – Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell – received overwhelming bi-partisan support, including from Jordan and Church. Gerald Ford nominated only one Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens in 1975, and Church and Republican Jim McClure where part of a unanimous Senate. In the early 1990s Republicans Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne supported Bill Clinton nominees Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, but since then partisanship has reigned supreme and consensus candidates have disappeared.

Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee in 2016, who didn’t even get a meeting let alone a hearing.

Crapo and Risch opposed Barack Obama’s nominations of Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010 and both supported the unprecedented decision by the GOP controlled Senate in 2016 to not even hold hearings on Barack Obama’s nomination of a well-regarded moderate, Merrick Garland. Neither senator deigned to even meet with Garland. And after eliminating the filibuster on judicial nominees last year Crapo and Risch were part of the Republican majority powering through Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch.

Sadly confirmation hearings have become a kind of ritualized kabuki theater where all participants play a pre-determined role and where everyone knows the outcome before the opening gavel drops. That is not what the Founders envisioned. The current approach – obsequious deference by Republicans to any Republican nominee and an overwhelming emphasis on partisan consideration – debases the idea of “advice and consent” and will only further erode the independence of the Senate and the Court.

 

Mansfield, Supreme Court, Trump, U.S. Senate

The Decline of National Governance…

     “We need to restore the norms and traditions of the Senate and get past this unprecedented partisan filibuster.” 

Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell


One wonders what some of the great figures in U.S. Senate history would make of the events of the last several days. And what would they make of the hypocrisy?

Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio.

Think about Robert A. Taft, a Republican conservative of the old school, shaking his head in disbelief at senators in both parties again ignoring their political and moral responsibilities, while genuflecting in praise of Donald Trump’s arguably unconstitutional missile strike on a Syrian airbase. This is the same Senate that refused to authorize military action in 2013 after Barack Obama insisted that Congress debate and vote on launching a strike against yet another Middle Eastern nation.

Oh, the Hypocrisy…

To read the justifications for stiffing the president in 2013 and to compare those words to the cheerleading for Trump’s action now is to see (again) in the starkest terms the intellectual bankruptcy – not to mention the hypocrisy – of the modern Republican Party. And now they have pulled the United States Senate down to a new low.

Republican after Republican has rushed in front of the cameras to praise a president who could scarcely find Syria on a map last year and who most serious people know will be unable to fashion a coherent strategy in the wake of his hair trigger launch order. But, no matter. Donald Trump may be a fool, but he’s a Republican fool and we support our president – at least while he remains popular with the Tea Party base.

The ugly little truth is that Congress has systematically frittered away, at least since the early 1950s, its solemn responsibility to provide checks on a president in matters of foreign policy, especially a president’s power to launch a war. This has happened as

White House released photo of Syrian airbase hit by U.S. missiles

Republicans regularly pledge fidelity to a Constitution they simply ignore when it proves politically convenient to do so. Never mind that only Congress can declare war. Forget the hypocrisy of dismissing his predecessor as “feckless,” while offering a blank check to a guy who had to fire his National Security Advisor less than a month into office, who has dismissed the intelligence committee as “Nazi-like, and who can’t get organized enough to appoint key deputies all across the national security apparatus.

Never has the abdication of Congressional responsibility in the area of foreign affairs seemed more serious than now. Never have checks on a dangerous president been more in the national interest.

In a nutshell senators, and I don’t confine this critique exclusively to Republicans, want to praise a one-off missile strike as amounting to tough action, but still provide themselves, for purely political reasons, plausible deniability that they had anything to do with the decision. Make no mistake we have opened a new war in Syria and not a war directed at the stated enemy – ISIS. The target of the missile strike was the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. We didn’t destroy ISIS aircraft with 59 missiles. It was the Syrian air force we were after and perhaps for very sound reasons. If so, Congress must get involved.

If, and almost certainly when, things take a turn for the worse with increasing American involvement in Syria the sunshine patriots in Congress won’t have to justify a difficult vote. That is their real aim. Their hands will be clean if not their conscience. It is a shameless posture and it is not what the Constitution demands, but it works – at least for the moment – to tighten the grip on power of the Senate majority leader and the man in the White House that he further enables.

Mitch McConnell is the perfect leader for the modern Senate. In the same week he is able to protect his caucus from having to make a tough vote on Syria and he manages the Senate rules to placate the 40 percent of Americans who want the Supreme Court to revisit everything from the New Deal to Roe v. Wade.

The Senate Changes…Forever

Imagine the reaction of Mike Mansfield of Montana, perhaps the greatest majority leader in Senate history, to the Senate changing its rules merely to put a very, very conservative judge on the Supreme Court. And the majority set about changing the rules after refusing for nearly a year to even consider the nomination of a moderate jurist, a judge appointed by a president of the opposing party.

The Senate as a political institution, while never close to perfect, has frequently in our history transcended the petty partisanship of the moment in order to provide genuine leadership that reflected the broad public interest. Not any more.

One day historians will look back on this period and find fault, I suspect, with small-minded leadership in both political parties, but they will reserve their greatest contempt for the Senator from Kentucky.

The Atlantic’s James Fallows, hardly a blind partisan, but a long-term and nuanced observer of American politics, recently did his own Twitter summation of what I’ll call the Reign of the Partisan. Fallows said we would look back on the current time and mark the “decline in national governance” to Mitch McConnell’s actions beginning in 2006.

While in the minority then McConnell “routinized the filibuster in [an] unprecedented way.” It is a modern myth that the filibuster, the need for a super majority of 60 senators to cut off debate and bring an issue to a vote, has always and routinely been invoked in the Senate. It hasn’t. McConnell made the filibuster routine.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Now in one of the rawest displays of partisan political power in the history of the Senate McConnell engineered a change of the filibuster rules in order to push through Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick. And, of course, the action was taken in the wake of McConnell unilaterally refusing to consider any Court nominee from Obama.

I know, I know, Democrats earlier changed filibuster rules for other judicial positions and a guy named Chuck Schumer has used the filibuster on judicial nominees for purely partisan reasons. As lamentable as that action was when Democrats did it McConnell’s action now is of an entirely different degree of seriousness and partisanship. Invoking the so called “nuclear option” will change the Senate permanently and for the worse – and yes it can get worse – will deepen tribal partisanship and has finally settled the question of whether the Supreme Court has become just another partisan branch of the government. It has.

U.S. Senate chamber

Yet changing the Senate rules is hardly all that McConnell hath wrought. After Obama’s election in 2008 McConnell said his own “measure of success,” as Jim Fallows says, “would be denying [Obama] a second term.” From day one he was all about obstruction by any means in order to thwart the Obama presidency. The idea of compromise, any notion of working together on national priorities was cast to the winds in favor of raw partisanship and a GOP majority.

[McConnell, we now know, was also the main hold out in Congress that prevented an earlier and stronger pre-election response to Russian interference in the presidential election. You have to ask why he was reluctant to send a strong signal about all that, but I think you know the answer.]

I listened closely to the arguments advanced by both sides in the run up to the change in Senate rules that paved the way for Judge Neil Gorsuch to slip comfortably into Antonin Scalia’s old seat on the high court. I came away stunned by the shallowness of the logic on both sides. What neither side could say, but what is demonstrably true is that there is simply no middle ground left in American – or Senate – politics. Partisanship rules on absolutely everything. If our guy does it that’s fine. If the other guy does it, well that’s an outrage.

The filibuster, or more correctly the idea of “unlimited debate,” exists for two basic reasons: to protect the rights of the minority and to force compromise and political accommodation on contentious issues. Was the practice abused before McConnell weaponized it? Of course it was, but until relatively recently the idea of seeking some degree of political consensus on something as serious as going to war or giving lifetime tenure to a Supreme Court judge wasn’t as unthinkable as it has now become. If you are looking for someone to blame for this disgusting toxicity you can start with Mitch McConnell.

As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank put it: “By rights, McConnell’s tombstone should say that he presided over the end of the Senate. And I’d add a second line: ‘He broke America.’ No man has done more in recent years to undermine the functioning of U.S. government. His has been the epitome of unprincipled leadership, the triumph of tactics in service of short-term power.”

Trump and McConnell: The Clueless and the Cynical

The cynicism of McConnell and his commitment to raw power is actually most clearly on display in his response to Donald Trump as president. McConnell is not stupid and he is certainly smarter than the current occupant of the White House. McConnell knows Trump is an arrogant fool, not a conservative and clueless on anything like real policy. But Trump is also, to use the old Communist putdown, “a useful idiot,” a means to an end for the Senate leader.

McConnell enables and encourages a man he knows to be unfit because Trump means power, particularly to remake the Court. And, of course, McConnell’s wife is in the Cabinet in a useful position at the Transportation Department where, should there be a big infrastructure bill in the future, the money will flow. McConnell is deeply cynical, but he knows an opportunity when he sees it. He’s going to make the most the Trump presidency for as long as it lasts.

Ironically, McConnell’s final wrecking of the Senate as a functioning institution fits perfectly with the near complete destruction of the old conservative Republican Party that Trump has engineered. This point was well made by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz in a recent piece in Rolling Stone. That article dissected Trump’s obvious and extreme case of narcissistic personality disorder, but also touched on the political crisis that McConnell and Trump have created and now preside over.

“It’s a sign, actually, of how severely we need functioning parties,” Wilentz said. “Because when they work, they are in fact a check on the emergence of this kind of character [Trump]. You can’t get where Trump is now in a functioning party system. It took this particular political crisis, which was a political crisis, to produce a president who has this trait. Normally, we can weed them out.”

Mitch McConnell has consistently played to the worst instincts of the Republican base. He’s never missed a chance to deepen the partisan divide. His strategy is all about the next election, never about the next generation. McConnell – and Trump for that matter – are the perfect characters to stand at center stage while national governance disappears faster than factory jobs in the Rust Belt.

Bob Taft and Mike Mansfield would not recognize the place we inhabit or the Senate Mitch McConnell has made. In fact one suspects they would be appalled. But no matter. McConnell is winning even if the country isn’t.

2016 Election, American Presidents, Baseball, Baucus, Foreign Policy, Iran, John Kennedy, Johnson, Middle East, Obama, Politics, Pope Francis, Truman, U.S. Senate, Visions, World Cup

Deal or No Deal…

There was bipartisan understanding that when the Iranians indicated a readiness to talk the U.S. would lead the negotiations to test Iran’s seriousness. – Statement supporting the Iranian nuclear agreement signed by sixty bipartisan foreign policy and national security leaders.

– – – – –

Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran has been visceral. Most Republicans disliked the idea even before negotiations commenced in earnest. They hated the deal when the preliminary details emerged months ago. Now they detest the final agreement.

U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.
U.S. and Iranian negotiators earlier this year.

Much of the opposition is purely partisan, some is based on historic rightwing Republican opposition to any foreign policy agreement, a good deal is based on both a concern about the deal’s impact on Israel and a desire to curry favor with the Israeli-American lobby, and some is based  – a minor consideration one suspects – on the belief that a better deal could be had if only there were better negotiators.

I wrote back in April about the traditional Republican skepticism about foreign policy agreements that dates back to the Treaty of Versailles, but the current visceral NO seems in an altogether new category of opposition.

Placed in the wide context of presidential deal making in the post-war period, the almost total Republican opposition to a deal, which is designed to prevent, or at the very least substantially delay, Iranian development of a nuclear weapons, is a distinct outlier. It is difficult to find an historic parallel to the level of partisan disdain for a major foreign policy initiative of any president, Republican or Democrat. It amounts to the emergence of a new political generation of what Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson once called “the primitives.”

Return of “the primitives…”

It took the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy more than eight years to negotiate a test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Kennedy doggedly pursued the negotiations – Great Britain was also a party to the talks – and finally signed the treaty in August 1963. A few weeks later the Senate ratified the agreement by the strongly bipartisan margin of 81-19 with fifty-six Democrats and twenty-five Republicans constituting the majority.

John Kennedy signs test ban treaty flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.
John Kennedy signs the limited test ban treaty in 1963 flanked by Senators Fulbright and Dirksen and, of course, LBJ.

The treaty came about in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, hardly a moment in 20th Century history when trust in the Russians was at a high point. The same could be said for Richard Nixon’s effort to craft the first strategic arms limitation treaty or Ronald Reagan’s later efforts to strike a grand disarmament bargain with the Soviets that Reagan hoped would eliminate nuclear weapons.

Jimmy Carter’s effort to sign and ratify the Panama Canal treaties in the late 1970’s arguably contributed to his defeat in 1980, as well as the defeat of several Senate liberals – Idaho’s Frank Church, for example – who courageously supported the effort to ensure stability around the vital canal by relinquishing control to the Panamanians. Senators from both parties supported the treaties or they never would have been ratified.

In each of these cases there was substantial political opposition to presidential action, but it is nearly impossible when looking closely at this history not to conclude that each of the “deals” were beneficial to long-term U.S. security. An underlying assumption in each of these historic agreements is that presidents of both parties act, if not always perfectly, always with desire to produce an outcome that is in the nation’s – and the world’s – best interest. Few reasonable people would suggest, given the intervening history, that Eisenhower or Kennedy, Nixon or Carter or set out to make a deal that was not ultimately in the country’s best interest or that would imperil a long-time ally.

Yet, that is precisely what Republican critics of President Obama’s agreement with Iran are saying. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, called it “an absolute disgrace that this president has sacrificed the security and stability” of Israel in order to reach a deal. “This is a betrayal that history will never forget,” Franks added. Franks is the same guy who introduced a resolution authorizing war with Iran back in 2013.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.
Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk went even farther. “This agreement condemns the next generation to cleaning up a nuclear war in the Persian Gulf,” Kirk said. “It condemns our Israeli allies to further conflict with Iran.” Kirk continued: “This is the greatest appeasement since Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler.” The senator predicted that Israel would now have to “take military action against Iran.”

Idaho Senator James Risch, a Republican and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades – it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain.” Risch accused the president and Secretary of State John Kerry of going back on commitments to Congress and said, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, said “This is the most dangerous, irresponsible step I have ever seen in the history of watching the Mideast. Barack Obama, John Kerry, have been dangerously naïve.” Graham admitted on national television that he had not read the agreement, which was announced just an hour before the South Carolina senator pronounced his judgment.

OK…What’s Your Suggestion…

When you sift through the various denunciations of the Iran deal you find a remarkable degree of consistence in the criticism: abandonment of Israel, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, assurance that Iran would be locked into an absolutely certain path to attain nuclear weapons. What is also remarkably consistent is that among all the words used to denounce the deal are very few that actually address the details contained in the 150-plus page document. As a result, Republicans come dangerously close to suggesting that Obama and Kerry have consciously sold out Israel, made an already explosive Middle East more so and weakened U.S. national security all in the name of just naively making a deal.

There are legitimate questions about the best way to contain Iran in any quest for the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Would continuing sanctions against Iran without international inspections of Iranian facilities be better as an approach that what Obama suggests, which allows for detailed oversight that is backed by our allies the British, French and Germans, as well as Putin’s Russia? That would be a real debate over effectiveness, a principled discussion over means and ends.

There are two men in Washington to watch closely as this “debate” reaches the end game. One is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has lately railed against the agreement, but remains a thoughtful, fair-minded voice on foreign policy deals. The other is Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, one of the key members of the U.S. team that worked out the deal with Iran who all seem to agree actually knows something about the subject of nuclear weapons development.

In a recent NPR interview, Moniz offered a full-throated defense of the agreement. “I think we should realize that basically forever, with this agreement, Iran will be, in some sense, farther away from a nuclear weapon than they would be without it,” Moniz said. “Now, clearly in the early years, in the first decade, first 15 years, we have lots of very, very explicit constraints on the program that roll back current activities. Whether it’s in enrichment, whether it’s in the stockpile of enriched uranium that they hold, whether it’s in R&D, all of these are going to be rolled back, complemented by much, much stronger transparency measures than we have today.”

The Whole World is Watching…

While Congressional Republicans work to overturn the administration’s Iran deal – Mario Rubio has pledged, for example, to undo the deal on his first day in office – much of the rest of the world has moved on. The most impressive leader on the current world stage, Pope Francis, has endorsed the deal and will speak to Congress just days before the vote. Germany’s Angela Merkel, a politician who displays more grit and gumption than the entire United States Senate, strongly backs the deal. Great Britain has re-opened its long shuttled embassy in Tehran and French officials have spoken of a “new era” in its relations with Iran.

iranmapRejecting the deal will serve only to strengthen the hand of the Iranian hardliners and the other hardliner who is party to the agreement, Vladimir Putin of Russia. Do Congressional Republicans, or for that matter Democrats like Chuck Schumer who oppose the deal, think for a minute that Putin will not find a way to fill the void that will be left if the Iranian agreement collapses in the huff of American domestic politics?

Perhaps the Europeans recognize what some American politicians fail to grasp. A fifteen year, highly monitored deal to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is about as good as it gets in the modern Middle East. The critics who wonder what happens after fifteen years are missing the fact that the interval provides a window for young and more worldly Iranians to assert themselves as the country tiptoes back into the world community.

The pragmatic bottom line question is simply this: can the U.S. and the rest of the western world continue a policy of isolation for a country of 80 million people, more than 40 percent of whom are under 24 years of age? Obama’s agreement isn’t perfect, but this deal gives the west leverage to influence and indeed control the Iranian nuclear threat for a not insignificant number of years into the future.

Without a deal our leverage consists of two blunt instruments: continued sanctions that further alienate a whole new generation of Iranians and a pre-emptive military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some folks casually invoke the “bomb, bomb Iran” option, but cooler heads know it would very likely mean a general war in a region where the United States’ ability to turn its military might into political change has been a dismal failure.

Ironically, as the administration has now started saying, Iranian failure to live up to the terms of the nuclear deal would actually create the context and rationale for taking military action to end the threat of a nuclear Iran. The international community will never support unilateral U.S. military action, but could be made to support air strikes, for example, if the Iranians cheat on the agreement.

The president, I believe, will ultimately prevail on the Iran deal and we’ll quickly return full attention to the political circus running up to another election. Still, it is worth considering the question Obama has persistently asked the critics of his diplomacy: What is your option? The answer is mostly crickets, but it is still a good question.

 

American Presidents, Andrus, Baseball, Baucus, Egan, FDR, Idaho Politics, Judiciary, Obama, Politics, U.S. Senate, Vice Presidents

Advise and Consent…

Years ago I enjoyed a delightful series of conversations with John Corlett, a true old-school newspaper reporter in Idaho who could recall political anecdotes with the sharpness that a gambler brings to counting cards in a Las Vegas casino. John’s career spanned a good part of the last century, from Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency to Ronald Reagan’s. He covered political conventions, wrote about statesmen and scalawags and he relished sharing his storehouse of memories every bit as much as I enjoyed hearing those memories.

Judge Chase Clark
Judge Chase Clark

One of many stories I remember involved former Idaho Governor and U.S. District Judge Chase Clark, the father-in-law of Senator Frank Church. Clark was part of a genuine Idaho political dynasty that featured two governors and a congressman who later became a U.S. Senator. Church married into the dynasty when he wed Bethine, the politically astute daughter of Chase Clark. The Clarks were mostly Democrats, but for bipartisan flavor the family also includes the remarkable Nancy Clark Reynolds, the Congressman’s daughter, and a Ronald Reagan confidante and D.C. power player.

Chase Clark ran for re-election as Idaho governor in 1942 and narrowly lost a re-match election with former Governor C.A. Bottolfson, the man Clark defeated in 1940. But 1942 was a Republican year, the country was at war, Roosevelt was in the second year of his third term and voters everywhere seemed to hanker for change. Corlett remembered that Democrat Clark considered his re-election chances to be less than stellar under those circumstances; so much so that Clark seems to have taken steps to create for himself a soft landing should the election turn out badly from his point of view.

As returns trickled in on election night 1942 it soon became clear that the governor’s race in Idaho would be a cliffhanger. Bottolfson eventually won by 434 votes out of more than 144,000 cast.

The Governor Who Wanted to Lose…

Late on election night as Corlett monitored the vote counting and tried to determine who was winning the very tight contest his phone rang. Governor Clark was on the other end of the line. “John,” he said, “it’s time for you to call the election for Bottolfson.”

Corlett could hardly believe what he was hearing. The incumbent Democrat was effectively conceding the election and doing so hours before it would become clear who the real winner might be. The curious phone call only made sense a few weeks later when Roosevelt announced Clark’s appointment to fill a vacancy on the federal bench in Idaho. A little over a month after leaving office in January 1943, Clark was nominated for the judgeship. He was confirmed by the Senate fifteen days later and served on the federal bench until his death in 1966.

Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt

Corlett was convinced that Clark had made a deal with Roosevelt before the election in 1942, a deal to have the president appoint him to the court should he lose, and John believed Clark actually wanted to lose, maybe even planned to lose. For Corlett, Clark’s election night telephone call concession was a political smoking gun. The governor wanted to be a federal judge a good deal more than he wanted to be a governor.

The life tenure of a federal judicial position (assuming good behavior) is just one attractive aspect of the job. The pay isn’t shabby, the working conditions are typically first rate and the retirement benefits quite nice thank you. As they say, “it’s indoor work with no heavy lifting,” unless you consider hours of sitting, listening, reading and writing strenuous. Done correctly, however, the job really should be demanding. It requires a certain temperament and a scholarly demeanor, experience, perspective, learning in the law and an abiding sense of fairness. It helps, as well, to be a real person with an ego in check, someone who is not overly impressed when everyone refers to you as “your honor.”

Idaho’s Next Judge…

I remembered the old John Corlett tale recently as I read the news of the unfolding and very secret process being managed by Idaho’s two Republican United States senators to fill the vacant judgeship on the federal district court in Idaho. As the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell first reported, Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have been quietly – very quietly – interviewing prospective candidates for the federal court position, but, as Russell also reported, two of the most obvious women candidates have not been interviewed, at least not yet.

The senators subsequently released a short statement to the effect that the confidential process was in everyone’s best interest and that men as well as women would be considered. Russell also reported that the current process is a dramatic departure from that used the last time Idaho had a federal court vacancy. In 1995, with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne created a nine-member bipartisan panel made up of five Democrats and four Republicans. The partisan split was in deference to fact that Democrat Clinton would make the appointment. That process ultimately produced three stellar candidates, including current federal District Judge Lynn Winmill, who was nominated and confirmed and continues to serve with great distinction.

Judge Edward Lodge
Judge Edward Lodge

Crapo and Risch could have adopted a similar approach when respected Judge Edward Lodge announced his decision to move to “senior status” in September of last year. That they did not, and that only in the last few days has there been any news about the judicial position, might indicate that the senators aren’t really much focused on producing a candidate that will be both acceptable to them and to the person who under the Constitution actually makes the appointment, Barack Obama.

While its clear under the Constitution that the president “shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint” federal judges, it is an unwritten fact of life in the United States Senate that no nominee gets approved by the Senate unless the senators of the state involved green light the appointment. This is particularly true when the Senate is controlled, as it now is, by one party while the other party holds the White House.

This political reality cries out, if indeed Idaho’s senators really want to see a judicial appointment while Barack Obama is still in office, for something like the bipartisan approach Craig and Kempthorne employed twenty years ago. It is entirely conceivable that the process now being used will produce a candidate that will turn out to be unacceptable to the White House and that may be what the senators truly desire. In the hardball of Senate politics the Idaho Republicans may have decided, as an Arizona Congressman actually said recently, that Obama should have not more appointments approved – period.

Idaho’s senators may have simply made the political calculation that they will “run out the clock,” while betting that a Republican wins the White House in 2016. Under this scenario Crapo and Risch will have teed up the candidate they want for early consideration by President Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or someone else.

With no more than seventy working days remaining on this year’s Senate calendar and with the Senate surely going into paralysis mode next year with a presidential election looming time will soon dictate whether an Idaho appointment is even possible. Even if Crapo and Risch were to produce a candidate relatively soon the White House and FBI vetting process could take months and extend into next year’s presidential morass. For the two senators this approach could neatly, if unfairly, place the blame for failing to fill the vacancy on the president’s desk.

The statement from Crapo and Risch last week made much of the need for an “entirely confidential” process. But it’s worth asking why? At least two widely mentioned, not particularly political and eminently qualified female candidates – U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson and federal Magistrate Candy Dale – have publicly acknowledge their interest in the appointment. Idaho, of course, is unique in that the state has never had a woman federal district judge. One suspects it is the senators insisting on the confidentially, since applying to become a federal judge, even if you are not selected, is hardly something most Idaho lawyers would hide under a bushel. Merely applying puts one in rare company.

One can certainly understand senatorial prerogatives and the Constitution wisely provides for “advice and consent” from the Senate, but a vacant federal judgeship that comes around maybe once in a generation really doesn’t belong exclusively to two U.S. senators or even to a president. The important job belongs to Idaho and given the nature of Idaho and national politics shouts out for a high degree of transparency.

Advise and Consent…Not So Much…

As this process stumbles forward the White House might consider these political facts:

Attorney General Loretta Lynch
Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Idaho’s two senators recently voted against the confirmation of a highly qualified African-American woman to become the first ever attorney general. They based their votes on the fact that Loretta Lynch, a seasoned federal prosecutor, merely said that she agreed with her boss, the president, on his immigration actions; actions admittedly controversial, but also currently under judicial review. Such conservative Senate stalwarts as Mitch McConnell, Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake voted to confirm Lynch as attorney general, but not Crapo and Risch.

Additionally, from health care to Iran, Idaho’s senators have opposed virtually all of Obama’s policy actions. They regularly lambast the administration for everything from underfunding the Idaho National Laboratory to over regulating Main Street businesses. Obama’s budgets, they have said repeatedly, are awful, his foreign policy a disaster and the president regularly engages in extra-constitutional behavior. Little wonder then that Idaho’s senators, as reliably opposed to anything the White House proposes as any two senators in the nation, have shown so little interest in actually working with the president on the rare Idaho judicial appointment.

What Would FDR Do…

As the old story about Judge Clark in the 1940’s proves, being appointed a federal judge is a highly desirable job. Franklin Roosevelt placed the just defeated Chase Clark on the federal bench in 1942 without, near as I can tell, much if any involvement by Idaho’s two senators at the time.

Senator D. Worth Clark
Senator D. Worth Clark

In fact it’s very likely that Roosevelt could have cared less about the opinion of Senator D. Worth Clark, Chase’s nephew and Nancy Clark Reynold’s father, since Worth Clark was an outspoken opponent of FDR’s foreign policy. Coming as it did from a member of his own party, Roosevelt bitterly resented Clark’s harsh isolationist critique and let it be known that he did.

Senator John W. Thomas, a Republican, who was appointed to replace William Borah when he died in 1940, was, with the exception of foreign policy, philosophically far removed from the man he replaced. Roosevelt both liked and respected Borah even though the two men clashed on many things and had Borah, a long-time member of the Judiciary Committee, lived he certainly would have had a say in filling the Idaho judgeship. With a war to run it’s not hard to speculate that the opinions of Clark and Thomas counted for next to nothing in Roosevelt’s White House. While the Senate did “advise and consent” on Judge Clark, it can safely be said that Idaho’s two senators had very little to say about his appointment.

Perhaps in the current case Mr. Obama ought to engage in some of that dictatorial activity he is so often accused of and go ahead and appoint one of the highly qualified and non-political women candidates to the federal bench. Let Idaho’s senators explain why a sitting U.S. attorney already confirmed by the Senate, or a federal magistrate vetted by her peers, or any number of other qualified women aren’t acceptable. The way things look today President Obama has nothing too lose as the clock winds down on his term and he confronts a judicial selection in Idaho vetted and suggested by two senators who can hardly mention his name without a sneer.

Barack Obama might enjoy, just as Franklin Roosevelt often did, seeing some of his greatest opponents in the Senate squirm just a little. At the very least, Mr. Obama could go down in history as the first president who tried to appoint the first women to the federal bench in Idaho.

 

Baseball, Baucus, Carter, Famous Americans, Kennan, Nebraska, Politics, U.S. Senate

The Senator from McCook

I took a political pilgrimage last week to an out-of-the-way little town in my native state.

I’ve taken similar trips in the past to Mount Vernon and Hyde Park, to Independence, Missouri and once to Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, which every four years casts the first-in-the-nation votes for president.McCook My pilgrimage to tiny, remote McCook, Nebraska in Red Willow County, hard by the Republican River and a short drive north of the Kansas border was as meaningful as any I have ever taken.

McCook is the hometown of one of the greatest political figures of the 20th Century, a man – a senator, a statesman, an ideal politician that most Americans have long forgotten, or worse, never heard of. I went to McCook to see George William Norris’ town, his home and to remember why he deserves to be considered among a very small handful of the greatest of American politicians.

McCook is where Norris first got elected as a local judge and where Norris - MIcfriends continued to call him “Judge” long after he had become one of the most influential senators in American history. Judge Norris went to the United States Congress for five terms early in the 20th Century and eventually in 1912 to the U.S. Senate for five more terms.

Norris retired to McCook – it was decidedly not his idea – in 1943 after losing a re-election that, at age 81, he might well have been advised to avoid. But unlike most politicians who lose and are forgotten, Norris’ reputation should only have risen after 1942, but that is not the way things work in the brutal, forgetful world of American politics. George Norris is mostly forgotten these days even in his hometown and sadly, almost completely forgotten in the “what have you done for me today” world of contemporary political importance.

Still, any member of the current Congress would kill for the Norris record of real accomplishment.

George Norris at site of Norris Dam.
George Norris at site of Norris Dam.

Twice Norris passed legislation to create public ownership of the hydropower resources in the Tennessee River valley only to see Republican presidents – leaders of his own party – kill the idea. When Franklin Roosevelt came to power in 1933, Norris’ vision of a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) finally had a champion in the White House and the money was appropriated to construct Norris Dam and bring electricity to a vast swath of the American South. George Norris was the father of TVA and in many ways the father of public power in the American West.

When FDR ran for president in 1932, four percent of Nebraska’s farms had electricity. By the time his Nebraska constituents ignored Norris’ accomplishments and sent him into retirement in 1942 that number had increased to more than forty percent. George Norris was the father of the Rural Electric Administration – the REA – which he considered his most important accomplishment.

During his long career George Norris opposed U.S. entry into World War I, convinced it was a war forced on the country by greedy capitalists. Vilified for what many considered his “unpatriotic” stand, Norris came home to Nebraska, stood before the voters and said simply: “I have come home to tell you the truth.” Undoubtedly, many of his constituents still opposed his position, but his straightforward explanation of his action marked him as a man of great integrity and courage.

Norris conceived of the “unicameral,” single house, non-partisan legislature in Nebraska and campaigned across the state to ensure that the idea was approved at the ballot box by Nebraskans in 1934. Nebraska is still the only state in the country with the unique unicameral legislature. Norris argued for the idea as being more democratic than a system that allowed lawmakers to hide behind the “actions of the other house” and that gave special interests more avenues to influence legislation. It has been a noble experiment that others states might well consider.

In an earlier era when Wall Street and big bankers also dominated American politics, Norris took on the interests of greed and bigness and prevailed. He created a massive chart – the Norris spider – to illustrate to the Senate the vast web of financial interests that controlled everything from electricity to railroads, from oil wells to credit. Long before there was an Elizabeth Warren there was a George Norris.

Norris broke with his own party time and again on matters of principle and pragmatism most famously when he lead the 1910 revolt against the dictatorial rule of Republican House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon. Norris rounded up the bi-partisan votes to strip Cannon of the ability to use the Rules Committee as his own personal tool to control the House of Representatives. Norris also broke GOP ranks in 1928 and again in 1932 to endorse Democratic presidential candidates. When Norris determined that Roosevelt deserved a second term in 1936, he ran for re-election in Nebraska as an independent and won.

When Norris lost his bid for a sixth senate term in 1942 to a Republican non-entity by the name of Kenneth Wherry, a former undertaker, he did something that no politician does any more – he went home to McCook to the house he and his wife had owned for Norris - Homedecades. He died in that house in 1944 never completely reconciled to having been turned out of office by his Nebraska neighbors.

The Norris house is preserved today as a Nebraska historical landmark complete with most of the furnishings that graced the modest two-story frame structure when the great man lived there. His books are in the bookcases. His plaque of appreciation from the TVA is prominently displayed. His 1937 Buick still sits in the garage. I think we may have been the only visitors of the day when we showed up last Friday afternoon.

In 1956 when a young Senator John F. Kennedy – with the help of his Nebraskan-born aide Theodore Sorensen – wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning Profiles in Courage, he included a chapter on George Norris, emphasizing Norris’ independence and willingness to fight for unpopular causes.

YOUNG-JFKA year later the U.S. Senate created a special committee – Kennedy was named chairman – to recommend five “great” former senators who would be recognized for their accomplishments. Kennedy’s committee labored for months to define senatorial “greatness” and eventually enlisted the help of 160 historians to advise them. The historians produced a list of 65 candidates. Kennedy joked that picking five senators from such a long list of worthies made choosing new members of the Baseball Hall of Fame look easy by comparison.

The scholar’s top choice was Norris. It wasn’t even close. The Nebraskan came in ahead of Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, which you might think would have settled the matter. But members of the Kennedy committee had agreed among themselves that their recommendations must be unanimous. New Hampshire Republican Styles Bridges, who had served with Norris and didn’t appreciate his political independence as much as the group of historians did, black balled his consideration. Nebraska’s two Republican senators at the time also rebelled at any honor for Norris and as a result he was left off the list of all-time Senate greats.

[The list, by the way, included Webster, Calhoun, Clay, Robert Taft and Robert La Follette, Sr. In 2004, Senators Arthur Vandenberg and Robert Wagner were similarly recognized.]Norris - Time

Settling political scores is, of course, something politicians do, but the petty slight of George Norris, a product of small-town, rural Nebraska, who left a huge mark on American life, is a long ago error that should be corrected. Regardless of our personal politics, we should celebrate greatness in our political leaders. Lord knows there is little enough of it these days.

My pilgrimage to McCook convinced me all over again that while true political greatness is indeed a rare thing, George W. Norris had it. It was a moving and very special experience to step back into his world and know that such men once sat in the United States Senate.

 

2014 Election, American Presidents, Baucus, Borah, Britain, Churchill, Congress, Coolidge, Foreign Policy, Iran, John Kennedy, Labor Day, McClure, Nixon, Obama, Reagan, Thatcher, U.S. Senate

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.”

 

Baseball, Baucus, Politics, U.S. Senate

Harry Reid’s Senate Legacy

Having lost the majority after the 2014 election, suffering a gruesome injury that nearly cost him sight in one eye, and facing gty_harry_reid_press_conference_glasses_jc_150224_16x9_992another bruising re-election campaign in Nevada, it’s not a huge surprise that 75-year old Senator Harry Reid, a fixture in Senate leadership for more than a decade, decided that he will hang it up when his term ends next year.

As a young man Reid was a decent boxer and throwing punches with wild abandon is an appropriate metaphor for Reid’s pugnacious tenure as a Senate leader. Reid has been an unapologetic boxerpartisan. He has made it his personal cause to expose the Koch brothers influence on American politics and Reid accused Mitt Romney, with no real evidence, of paying no taxes during the last presidential campaign. That attack line alone messed up a week of Romney’s campaign.

Reid is also something of a political contradiction. A practicing Mormon, Reid has been a huge champion of Nevada’s glittering gaming industry. His LDS faith certainly didn’t keep him from savaging fellow Mormon Romney in a fashion that made Barack Obama’s attack lines seem tame by comparison. Reid has also championed the mining industry inside a political party where digging things up is considered bad form. All politics is local, after all, and gambling and mining make Nevada go and as for Reid’s brand of politics – once a brawler, always a brawler.

Charisma challenged, not an eloquent speaker, never one to frequent the Sunday morning green rooms that are the natural habitat of Washington’s gasbags, Reid is in many ways a throwback, an often parochial senator from Nevada who will also leave a substantial mark on American political history. His fighting instincts, as well as the political times, made Reid one of the most partisan Senate leaders in a long, long time and he certainly deserves a big dose of responsibility for the toxic levels of American political discourse. Reid has both lamented and contributed to the new norm – the politics of obstruction.

Still, love him or hate him – and there are many in both camps – Reid will, I believe, figure prominently in Senate history both for his longevity in leadership and, love it or hate it, for at least five things that might not have happened without him.

The Power of Harry…

First, without Reid’s statewide political organization it is questionable that Obama would have carried Nevada in 2008 and 2012. Look at the Nevada map. It is mostly red, but Reid’s political influence rests heavy in the state’s population200px-Nevada_presidential_election_results_2012.svg centers – Las Vegas and Reno. These cities and their suburbs are where Reid has won his elections in Nevada and where Obama won, as well. In the currency of electoral politics, Harry Reid delivered Nevada for the Democratic presidential candidate – twice.

Without Reid serving as “master of the Senate” in 2009, it’s hard to believe Obama could have rounded up enough votes to pass the controversial $787 billion stimulus legislation – remember it took three Republican votes. Not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus bill, but somehow Reid crafted a degree of bi-partisanship to ensure that the legislation reached Obama’s desk.

Reid’s fingerprints are all over passage of the even more controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA). Without Harry Reid it’s unlikely that the sweeping health insurance reform legislation would have happened, since passage required that he hold every single Democratic vote in the Senate. The legislation may eventually be considered along side Social Security as a great legislative triumph or it may be shot down by the Supreme Court. Either way Harry Reid was a principle architect and that legislation alone likely cost him his job as majority leader.

Reid will also be remembered for finally taking the historic step to end the Senate filibuster, alg-reid-sotomayor-jpginvoking the “nuclear option,” regarding most presidential appointments, particularly including federal judges. As a result, Obama has very quietly reduced the backlog of vacancies on the federal bench, including filling empty seats on the influential federal circuit court for the District of Columbia. That court, considered second only to the Supreme Court in importance, has shifted under Obama from being dominated by the appointees of Republican presidents to one with a majority of judges selected by Democrats. Reid certainly also gets some of the credit for ensuring that two more women were confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Just Say No to Yucca Mountain…

MOUNTAIN YUCCA NUCLEAR WASTE FACILITY NEVADA DESERT WEST DUMP GOVERNMENT FUEL SPENT TUNNELFinally, when tallying Reid’s legacy it’s impossible not to note his singular role in putting sand in the gears of national nuclear waste policy. Reid has fiercely opposed the long-time federal government plan to develop a high-level nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain north of Las Vegas. His unrelenting opposition helped convince the Obama Administration to quit work on the project, leaving the nation without any plan to dispose of the vast amounts of nuclear waste that remain scattered around the country.

A Limited Number of Great Leaders…

I would argue that since the post was formally established in the 1920’s there have been very few truly great and effective Senate leaders. Any list of “masters of the Senate” must, of course, include Lyndon Johnson whose bigger-than-life style and mastery of the personal politics of the institution in the 1950’s have never been matched.

Montana’s Mike Mansfield, still the longest serving majority leader, would be on any list of greats and for reasons opposite those that put Johnson is on the list. Where Lyndon bullied, blustered and begged senators to his will, Mansfield was the quite behind the scenes conciliator. Johnson would assault his colleagues with the full on “Johnson treatment.” A flurry of words would lbj1accompany Lyndon’s hands tugging on the lapels of a suspect’s suit, while he leaned in and physically overpowered another of his victims. As the photo makes clear he even used “the treatment” on a young John Kennedy and a stunned Scoop Jackson.

Mansfield, in contrast, puffed on his pipe, listened and tried to work things out. More often than not he succeeded, so much so that upon his death one of the Senate’s most erasable partisans, Alaska’s Ted Stevens, told me that Democrat Mansfield was the best leader the Senate had ever seen.

Considering the often ugly and almost completely unproductive Senate we see today we can fondly remember Republican leaders like Bob Dole and Howard Baker, partisans with an ability to make a deal. In the 1930’s Franklin Roosevelt depended on Joe Robinson of Arkansas to get most of his New Deal through the Senate and Robinson, always a loyal Democrat also revered by his Republican colleagues, obliged. Oregon’s Charles McNary, never in the majority, was thoughtful, cool and respected by his Senate colleagues. In many ways McNary was a model senatorial leader, particularly one having to operate in the minority.

1101640710_400The “wizard of ooze,” Republican Everett Dirksen of Illinois, critical to passage of historic civil rights legislation in the 1960’s, and Democrat Robert Byrd, passionate in his love of the Senate as an institution, clearly rank in the top tier of Senate leaders. But beyond that short list the pickings are pretty thin, which is why the frequently controversial Harry Reid – love him or hate him – and his accomplishments – love them or hate them – will likely ensure that he finds a place of permanent importance in the history of successful leaders of the United States Senate.

Harry Reid has been a political fighter with all the charm of an ill-tempered bull dog. His partisanship clearly contributed to the current do-nothing U.S. Senate where he has been the perfect foil to the equally charmless and partisan Mitch McConnell. Reid could put his foot in it Joe Biden-style, once calling New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand “the hottest senator” and candidate Obama “light skinned.” When asked about regrets he might harbor in his fight with the Brothers Koch, Reid simply said: “Romney didn’t win did he?”

In the age of poll tested, bland candidates who measure every word and fret over every action, political junkies are going to miss the old boxer from Searchlight, Nevada. He took a few punches, landed a few himself, and never committed the unpardonable political sin of being dull. Fighters rarely are.