Democrats' Year of Living Fecklessly
One year ago, the Democrats ended Republican control of Congress, stirring millions of Americans to hope that George W. Bush’s Iraq War and his assault on the U.S. Constitution finally would be stopped.
Twelve months later, many of those once-hopeful voters feel bitter disillusionment toward the national Democratic Party, which has surrendered in showdown after showdown with the weakened President, from continuing to write blank checks for the Iraq War to ceding more power to him for his surveillance operations.
The Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee couldn’t even put together enough of a united front to block Bush’s appointment of a new Attorney General who believes the President should possess nearly unlimited powers in wartime and who won’t say that the simulated drowning of waterboarding constitutes torture.
Though some voters have been surprised by the consistency of these Democratic cave-ins, the pattern actually started immediately after the surprising election results of Nov. 7, 2006, when Democrats won narrow majorities in the House and Senate.
Rather than escalate their political confrontation with Bush, the Democrats opted for a course of wishful thinking and empty gestures. Most importantly, the Democrats chose not only to keep impeachment off the table, but avoided any comprehensive investigation into controversial Bush policies.
There were no Fulbright-style hearings on the origins of the Iraq War; there were no broad challenges to the excessive secrecy that Bush clamped down around his constitutional violations in the “war on terror”; the best the Democrats could muster were scatter-shot hearings by Rep. Henry Waxman’s House Oversight Committee.
In short, the Democrats not only failed to mount a sustained challenge to Bush’s policies, they avoided any systematic hearings that would educate the American public about why Bush’s presidency has represented such an extraordinary threat to the Republic. They have acted as if the people simply should “get it” without any more information.
This Democratic tendency to de-value information – and a timidity toward real oversight – can be traced back to the 1980s when accommodating Democrats, such as Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, sought to finesse, rather than confront, abuses of power by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush during the Iran-Contra Affair and related scandals.
The pattern deepened in 1993 when Bill Clinton won the presidency and the Democrats still controlled Congress. At that point, they shelved investigations of Reagan-Bush crimes, including clandestine military support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, drug-trafficking by the Nicaraguan contra rebels, and still-secret dealings with Iran.
Clinton and the Democrats judged that the hard work of getting at the truth and exacting accountability was less important than wooing some moderate Republicans into hoped-for support of Clinton’s budget, health-care and other domestic priorities. [For details on this failed strategy, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Consumers, Not Citizens
By their actions in the early days of the Clinton administration, the national Democrats revealed that they viewed the American people more as consumers eager for services than citizens needing honest information to fulfill their duties in a democratic Republic.
Clinton also apparently thought that his magnanimous gesture, especially in letting former President George H.W. Bush off the hook, would win reciprocity from the Republicans. Instead, they took the Democratic scrapping of the Reagan-Bush investigations as a sign of weakness and unleashed the emerging right-wing media against Clinton.
Despite catastrophic political results – losing control of Congress in 1994 and the White House in 2000 – the national Democrats learned few lessons from the Clinton debacles. In 2002 and 2004, they reacted to Bush and his “war on terror” gingerly and suffered more defeats.
Finally, in 2006, heeding an increasingly angry “base,” the Democrats adopted a tougher stance toward Bush and were surprised by their own success. Yet, even as congressional Democrats were picking confetti out of their hair, they were reverting to their can’t-we-all-get-along approach.
On Nov. 8, the day after the election, Bush announced that he was replacing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with former CIA Director Robert Gates. The Democrats hailed the move, thinking that it signaled a new assertion of control by the “realists” from President George H.W. Bush’s administration.
After all, Gates had worked for the elder Bush and was a member of the Iraq Study Group, which was planning to urge a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq. A Newsweek cover illustrated this thesis with a large Poppy Bush in the foreground and a smaller Sonny Bush in the rear.
A conventional wisdom took shape, that Gates gave up his beloved presidency of Texas A&M to undertake the thankless job of walking junior Bush back from the brink.
At Consortiumnews.com, we published a series of contrarian stories about Gates, many drawing from CIA officers who had worked with Gates. They regarded him as the consummate bureaucratic “yes man” who operated with a burning ambition concealed beneath a mild-mannered persona.
In this view, Gates, one of the political casualties of the Iran-Contra Affair, had never gotten over his ouster from the center of Washington power. Not nearly as content with his life in “Aggie-land” as he led people to think, Gates saw his Pentagon appointment as possibly his last chance to return to the world stage.
The Democrats and the Washington press corps also got Rumsfeld’s firing wrong. The acerbic Defense Secretary wasn’t ousted because of his dead-ender support for the Iraq War, but rather he was removed when he urged Bush to start withdrawing troops.
This darker version of events began to emerge in late November 2006 when Bush told reporters in Amman, Jordan, that he had no interest in the gradual troop withdrawals favored by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
Bush vowed that American forces will “stay in Iraq to get the job done,” adding “this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever.”
Right-wing pundit Fred Barnes also heard from his administration sources that Gates wasn’t some behind-the-throne councilor sent by the elder Bush to whisper into the ear of his head-strong son. “Rarely has the press gotten a story so wrong,” Barnes wrote at the neoconservative Weekly Standard.
Barnes reported that the younger George Bush didn’t consult either his father or Iraq Study Group co-chairman James Baker about appointing Gates. Instead, Bush picked the ex-CIA chief after getting assurances from Gates that he was onboard with the neoconservative notion about “democracy promotion” in the Middle East.
"The President wanted ‘clarity’ on Gates’s views, especially on Iraq and the pursuit of democracy. He asked if Gates shared the goal of victory in Iraq and would be determined to pursue it aggressively as defense chief,” Barnes reported. [The Weekly Standard, Nov. 27, 2006]
Then, on Dec. 3, the New York Times disclosed that Rumsfeld had written a memo on Nov. 6 – one day before the congressional elections and the same day he submitted his resignation letter – calling for a “major adjustment” in Iraq War policy.
The options that Rumsfeld wanted to consider included “an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases from 55 now to 10 to 15 by April 2007 and to five by July 2007.”
Another Rumsfeld idea was to commit U.S. forces only to provinces and cities that request the assistance. “Unless they [the local Iraqi governments] cooperate fully, U.S. forces would leave their province,” Rumsfeld wrote.
Proposing a plan similar to one enunciated by Democratic Rep. John Murtha, Rumsfeld suggested that the generals “withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions – cities, patrolling, etc. – and move U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance.”
And in what could be read as an implicit criticism of Bush’s lofty rhetoric about transforming Iraq and the Middle East, Rumsfeld said the administration should “recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) – go minimalist.” [NYT, Dec. 3, 2006]
The Gates Walk
In other words, the Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee had plenty of evidence before Gates’s confirmation hearing on Dec. 5 to suspect that Gates was not the hoped-for harbinger of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq, but rather a new face for continuing an old policy.
At the hearing, the Democrats didn’t press Gates on whether he shared the neoconservative vision of violently remaking the Middle East, whether he endorsed the Military Commissions Act’s elimination of habeas corpus rights to fair trials, whether he supported warrantless eavesdropping by the Pentagon’s National Security Agency, whether he agreed with Bush’s claim of “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as a Commander in Chief who can override laws and the U.S. Constitution.
When Gates did stake out substantive positions, he almost invariably lined up with Bush’s “stay-until-victory” plan in Iraq. Though insisting that “all the options are on the table,” Gates rejected any timetable for military withdrawal as some Democrats recommended. He also echoed Bush’s argument that an American pullout would lead to a regional cataclysm.
Democrats couldn’t even get a commitment from Gates to turn over Pentagon documents for congressional oversight. Gates qualified his answer with phrases such as “to the limits of my authority” – suggesting that the Bush administration would continue resisting demands from Congress for sensitive papers about the war – and that Gates wouldn’t interfere.
Nevertheless, Sen. Hillary Clinton and other committee Democrats ignored the warning signs and hailed Gates’s “candor.” Without hearing from Rumsfeld about his memo or nailing down where Bush’s war policies were headed, the Democrats joined the committee’s 21-0 endorsement of the Gates nomination.
In January 2007, as the Democrats celebrated their new majorities, Bush continued to revamp his war council. He ousted Generals John Abizaid and George Casey who opposed escalating U.S. troop levels, and put in Iraq one of his favorites, Gen. David Petraeus, who was gung-ho about a “surge” of more than 20,000 U.S. troops.
At this point, the Democrats might have reevaluated their decision to keep impeachment off the table or at least they could have countered with full-scale hearings, like Sen. William Fulbright, D-Arkansas, conducted on the Vietnam War, or with investigative hearings like those for the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals.
Instead, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada spent weeks championing a symbolic resolution of disapproval against the “surge.” The Democratic strategy was to propose mildly worded resolutions and amendments with the hope that moderate Republicans would sign on.
However, a near-solid phalanx of Senate Republicans easily swatted away the “surge” resolution with filibusters.
The Democrats next tried to attach withdrawal timetables to Bush’s $100 billion war-funding supplemental. The Republicans let the bill go through but only so Bush could veto it. They then sustained the veto and chided the Democrats for “playing politics” and endangering the safety of U.S. troops in the field.
Before leaving for the Memorial Day recess, the Democratic leadership bowed to Bush’s demand for a spending bill with no strings attached.
Facing a furious Democratic “base,” congressional leaders revived promises that the days of Bush’s “blank checks” were over. But key Democrats, such as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Carl Levin of Michigan, made clear that when push came to shove, they would give way.
On June 21, Levin spelled out his thinking in a Washington Post op-ed entitled “Lincoln’s Example for Iraq.” Levin said he was modeling his Iraq War position on Abraham Lincoln’s stance on the Mexican War, launched by President James Polk in 1846 after a declaration of war by Congress.
“In his only term in Congress, Abraham Lincoln was an ardent opponent of the Mexican War,” Levin wrote. Yet, “when the question of funding for the troops fighting that war came, Lincoln voted their supplies without hesitation.”
But the senator’s historical parallel to Lincoln wasn’t correct. Lincoln wasn’t even in Congress when the war with Mexico was declared on May 13, 1846. Lincoln took his seat in the House of Representatives on Dec. 6, 1847.
By then, the war was already won. The decisive battle of Chapultepec was fought almost three months earlier, on Sept. 12, 1847, and American forces entered Mexico City on Sept. 14.
Though there was a delay in negotiating a final peace treaty due to Mexico’s political chaos, the war was effectively over. So, Lincoln’s readiness to supply the troops was not a vote for continuing an indefinite war with Mexico; it was simply to send supplies while a final peace treaty was negotiated.
The peace treaty was signed in the village of Guadalupe Hidalgo, near Mexico City, on Feb. 2, 1848, formally ending a conflict that had lasted less than two years. By contrast, the Iraq War has dragged on for more than four years with no end in sight.
In other words, Levin was historically misguided when he supposed that Congressman Lincoln would have given President Polk a blank check for war if that Commander in Chief sought a bloody, indefinite occupation of the Mexican countryside.
Levin’s own end-the-war strategy relied on winning over enough Republican moderates to someday overcome a Bush veto. But the idea that a large bloc of Republicans would join Democrats to achieve a 67-vote super-majority on a war-funding bill was far-fetched.
Yet, as daunting as that hurdle was, Democratic leaders fended off growing rank-and-file demands for impeachment hearings targeting Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney by arguing that the votes simply weren’t there for removing Bush and Cheney.
Many in the Democratic “base” countered that the votes also weren’t there for symbolic resolutions and amendments watered down to lure Republican "moderates." At least, impeachment hearings would focus the nation on the crimes of the Bush-Cheney administration, rank-and-file Democrats said.
The Democratic leadership got blindsided again just before the August recess when the administration said it needed a technical fix of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to deal with cases when two foreign terror suspects were communicating abroad but their conversation was routed through a U.S. switching point.
As Democrats tried to address that technical glitch, the Republicans ambushed them with a much more sweeping revision of the FISA law, granting Bush broad powers to wiretap almost anyone as long as one party was believed to be outside the United States.
Up against the August recess and facing “soft on terror” charges, Democrats folded again, letting the Protect America Act of 2007 pass. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Gets a Spying Blank Check.”]
Stunned by public outrage over this surrender – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office reported getting more than 200,000 angry e-mails – the Democratic leaders vowed to modify the law once they returned from the August recess.
But so far, the main revision appears to be an expansion of the amnesty provision for telecommunications companies that turned over their clients’ records to the Bush administration without a court warrant.
On Sept. 19, a final blow was dealt to the Democratic strategy of trying to woo Republican votes in favor of restrictive Iraq War amendments. Sen. John Warner, R-Virginia, had promised to support a bill by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, to guarantee longer home leave for combat troops.
However, Defense Secretary Gates intervened and persuaded Warner to reverse his position. With Warner’s help, Republicans blocked Webb’s bill on a procedural vote. Neoconservative Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut hailed the outcome as proof that “Congress will not intervene in the foreseeable future” on Iraq.
Emboldened by the repeated Democratic cave-ins on Iraq, Lieberman and pro-Bush Republicans even got the Senate to go on record urging the President to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards an international terrorist organization.
Despite a warning from Webb that the move could be a prelude to a wider Middle East war, leading Democrats – including Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid and Carl Levin – joined 73 other senators in approving the sense-of-the-Senate resolution on Sept. 26.
But the humiliations have kept on coming. The New York Times revealed on Oct. 4 that the Bush administration only pretended to repudiate earlier legal opinions approving Bush’s right to abuse and torture detainees. Secret memos from 2005, which reaffirmed that right, were kept from Congress.
“When the Justice Department publicly declared torture ‘abhorrent’ in a legal opinion in December 2004, the Bush administration appeared to have abandoned its assertion of nearly unlimited presidential authority to order brutal interrogations,” the Times reported.
“But soon after Alberto R. Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.
“The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.” [NYT, Oct. 4, 2007]
Though apparently fooled again on that one, the Democrats finally felt they were making progress when Bush appointed retired federal Judge Michael Mukasey to replace Gonzales as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer.
Though a hard-liner favoring broad presidential powers, Mukasey treated the Senate Judiciary Committee with respect missing from Gonzales.
But Mukasey refused to call waterboarding of terror suspects torture. If he had made that concession, Bush and other administration officials might have been opened to legal jeopardy for violating anti-torture statutes.
When Mukasey held firm in refusing to answer, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and some other committee Democrats announced their opposition. But two Democratic senators, Charles Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, joined with Republicans on Nov. 6 to clear Mukasey’s nomination, effectively assuring his confirmation.
Again, rank-and-file Democrats were left fuming over the spinelessness of the congressional Democrats. But this angry Democratic “base” is not alone in its disgust. After a full year of futility in countering Bush’s war policies, the Democratic Congress has sunk to near record lows in public approval.
With one year left before Election 2008, national Democrats can only hope that anger at Bush and his party will cause voters to overlook the Democrats’ own year of living fecklessly.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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