Thursday, October 19, 2006

Curt Weldon's truth

Curt Weldon (R-PA) wants his race to be run on the merits of his service to his constituents and to the country. The Congressman from Delaware County, Pennsylvania, is being railroaded from the seat he has held for almost twenty years. The problem is that he cannot tell who is leading the charge, or if it is just a bipartisan gang-bang.

Weldon is an old-school politician. Weaned as a pup from his days as the Mayor of Marcus Hook in John McNichol’s Delaware County Republican machine, Weldon built a political base beginning with the support of volunteer firefighters to win a seat on County Council. When Bob Edgar––the Democratic minister-turned-politician who won the historically Republican 7th Congressional seat as part of the 1974 post-Watergate deluge and held it for six terms––decided to leave Congress, Weldon stepped in and won the seat with McNichol’s blessing. That was twenty years ago.

Like Weldon, Delaware County is old school. For more than a century, the County has been a Republican stronghold. But shifting demographics have led to changes in Pennsylvania politics, and its traditional urban vs. rural tensions have given way to divisions between the Democratic east and the Republican west. These changes are reflected in the governor’s race where the incumbent Democratic Governor and former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell is facing the Republican and Pittsburgh Steelers legend Lynn Swann. For Weldon, Rendell’s enormous popularity in the Philadelphia suburbs––he won Delaware County 2-1 in his first race for Governor––illustrate the ebbing of Republican control in its long-time bastion and the erosion of Weldon's traditional base.

As Weldon faced the media this week, he was struggling to grasp what led to the FBI investigation coming to light just three weeks before Election Day. His public response was to lash out at his Democratic challenger, Joe Sestak, a well-spoken Admiral with thirty years of service in the Navy. The race is a dead heat, but even so, attacking Sestak directly is not easy for Weldon, who if reelected is in line to become the Chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee. He is not vitriolic by nature and holds those who serve in the armed forces in high esteem.

But inside, Weldon must suspect that the FBI investigation and the timing of the leak come from a different source. Despite his prominence on the Armed Services Committee, Weldon has been a vocal critic of the Defense Intelligence establishment, and led investigations into the controversy surrounding the classified Able Danger military intelligence program. Able Danger, Weldon argues, proved the complicity of the government in enabling the 9/11 attacks by hiding evidence of the plot as it was unfolding. He was bi-partisan in his attacks, and unrelenting in his accusations.

Weldon believes that the public never grasped the significance of Able Danger. He followed the facts where they led and refused to give the Bush administration a pass. The administration responded to his assault by working the media to spread the notion that Weldon was a “whack job” and successfully undermined the credibility of the story. As a result, Able Danger became just became one more 9/11 conspiracy theory.

For Weldon, the pay-back for his disloyalty to the administration came this week. Somewhere, deep in Republican Washington, whether in the offices of Karl Rove at the White House, Ken Mehlman at the RNC or Donald Rumsfeld at Defense, calls were made. Even if his defeat means the loss of the House, for Rove et al Weldon had gone rogue and they would make him pay. Kim Jong Il may get away with embarrassing the administration, but not some out-of-control, volunteer firefighter from a working class family in Marcus Hook.

So here Weldon is, with three weeks left until Election Day, fighting for his political life. He is forced to stand outside in a strip mall and defend himself against the charges leveled by the FBI that He used his influence to help his daughter.

He used his influence to help his daughter? He stands in front of Kinkos and declares his innocence. There is no truth to the charge. He pleads. Funny isn’t it, these charges coming out three weeks before an election?

He has to attack the Sestak campaign, because it is what he is expected to say. He has to decry his innocence because in this new world of political correctness, faced with reporters who see taking him down as their own ticket to the big time, it is what he is expected to say.

He can’t stand there and tell the truth––that he is being railroaded by his own party because he is an honest man from Marcus Hook whose only crime is that he has been telling the truth. He can’t stand there and tell the truth because in this caustic political age and faced with the shifting politics of suburban Philadelphia, he cannot win without the voter profile database in Ken Mehlman’s computer, and Karl Rove’s micro-targeted, get-out-the-vote effort that is the key to Republican hopes on November 7th.

But as a politician of the old school, and as a father, what Curt Weldon most regrets is that he can’t stand in front of the cameras, and all those reporters with their pads and self-righteous questions, and say what he really wants to say: Did I use my influence to help my daughter? Hell yes. Hell yes I did. And I’d do it again. What father worth his salt wouldn’t?

Curt Weldon would stand there and say, in the words of Chicago Mayor Daley when accused during an election campaign of steering an insurance contract to his son If a father can’t help his son, what is America coming to?

That is what he wanted to say to the voters of Delaware County, to his friends and neighbors who have known him all his life, to the people of Marcus Hook who gave him his start, to families across the County who elected him to Council to bring jobs to their row-house neighborhoods and who then sent him to Washington to be their voice in a city corrupted by the Bushes from Yale and the Rumsfelds from Princeton––none of whom would be where they are today without the influence of their fathers. He would stand proudly before them and say, Damn right. I did what I could to help Karen. And for twenty years I have done everything I could to help each of you. That is what he wanted to say. It was the truth. And for those from the old school in Delaware County, those are they words they would want to hear.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Doctrine undone

Five years and twenty-seven days. From birth to death, the life span of a Doctrine.

The Bush Doctrine was born on September 11, 2001 and died on October 8, 2006. Rest in Peace.

History will judge the damage that was done to our nation in the intervening years through our determined unilateralism, our righteous castigation of any nation not heeling to our lead, and our arrogation unto ourselves of the right to interpret international law.

Perhaps, as Dick Cheney suggests, history will judge he and the President as visionaries, who unique among the leaders of the western nations understood the threats of our time and stood their ground. Or perhaps this will be judged as an era when America’s most cherished principles were not lived out in our politics, and when the American people failed the American purpose.

The irony of the Bush Doctrine, however, is not that it sidestepped democratic principles even as it claimed to build democracy in the world, but rather that for all of its unapologetic assertion of military power––of the using America’s might to rid the world of the terrorist scourge––it was a strategic failure. If the televised images New Orleans after Katrina pulled back the curtain and exposed the domestic failures and indifference of the administration, North Korea’s dramatic entry into the elite club of nuclear nations gave the lie to all of the muscular rhetoric that has characterized the Administration’s foreign policy.

Since its designation as a Charter Member of the Axis of Evil, North Korea has sat in the cross-hairs of American strategic rhetoric. The President, commander-in-chief of a massive military machine and possessed of a proven willingness to pull the trigger, set forth his strategic doctrine in no uncertain terms: It was unacceptable for North Korea to continue with its nuclear program and it would be intolerable for North Korea to become a nuclear power.

For his part, faced with the prospect of becoming the next Axis power to be crushed in the name of the Bush Doctrine, Kim Jong Il pushed his nuclear program forward. Then, last week––undoubtedly emboldened the President’s diminished political support and seeing the American military straining at the combined demands of the wars already on its plate––Kim pushed all of his chips into the center of the table and called the President’s bluff.

Surely, it was a moment for which the administration had prepared. Surely, after years of beating the drums of regime change, they understood that developing a nuclear capacity was the sole deterrent to American power for regimes under threat. Surely, after years of forswearing direct negotiations with North Korea as a high-stakes strategy to force concessions, the Bush administration had a Plan B in mind in the event that Kim declined to blink.

Surely not, as it turned out. Within one week of the nuclear detonation, the Bush Doctrine unraveled before the world. Faced with a real weapon of mass destruction, held by an unstable regime starved for cash and with a proven willingness to proliferate, there were no calls for a new coalition of the willing. The Secretary of State did not travel to the capitals of power in Paris, London, Berlin or Moscow, or to the front-line capitals in Seoul, Tokyo or Peking as Plan B was put in place. There was no Plan B. Instead, President Bush stood before the world and did what those Democratic leaders his supporters so despise might do: he took the military option off the table and hailed United Nations sanctions as the appropriate response to North Korea’s formal arrival as a nuclear power.

Within one week, the unacceptable was accepted, and the intolerable became tolerated. Within one week the Bush Doctrine of forward defense, preemptive war and aggressive unilateralism was replaced with what can at best be described as a new commitment to Containment, the oldest of doctrines of the nuclear world. One week and one bomb later, the President’s once-strident Neoconservatism gave way. Now, the President praised the United Nations and the value of collective action. He lauded the importance of tough diplomacy. He eschewed suggestions of a military response. And he embraced sanctions.

After all of the threats, after all of the posturing, after all of the swaggering cowboy rhetoric, the question was called, and the American response was…. Sanctions.

The rhetorical urges that were part and parcel of the Bush Doctrine die hard, however. Two days after the North Korean test, Condi Rice was at it again. Visibly angry as she stood before the gathered media, Rice conceded that the United States did not intend to attack North Korea, but insisted that they now faced “international condemnation and international sanctions unlike anything that they have faced before.” She then turned her verbal rapier toward Russia and China, insisting on what they must now do in the face of North Korea’s intransigence.

But Rice was flailing. The days of unilateralism are over, but her rhetoric has not yet adjusted to the new reality. The reality is what it has always been. Russian and China, like North Korea––and every other state for that matter––will pursue the path that they believe serves their own self-interest. The sooner she stops talking and starts listening, the sooner a new strategic doctrine can emerge that might enable American leadership to once again have meaning in the world.

What we are left with is worse than just a failed strategic doctrine, for today the world is a far more dangerous place. Just as the credibility and capacity of America’s military as a deterrent force in the world has been degraded by the war in Iraq, America’s credibility and capacity to lead in the world has been diminished by five years of hectoring and self-righteous leadership. Iran, on the one hand, looms as a far greater threat than North Korea to our strategic interests, and they well understand that the bankruptcy of the Bush Doctrine leaves them with far greater latitude to pursue their own nuclear and regional ambitions. Al Qaeda and the Sunni Jihadists, on the other, continue to benefit from the images televised across the Islamic world of American troops at war in a Muslim land.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world, beginning with our allies and extending to those such as Russia and China, whose support is critical to our political and economic future, must be waiting with great interest and anticipation to see how our national leadership responds in what may be an historic opportunity. Will we embrace the opportunity to reach out and rebuild our alliances? Will we show some of the humility in the world that Candidate George Bush suggested six long years ago? Will we return to our isolationist tendencies and withdraw from the world? Or will our President push ahead, his rhetoric intact, his spirit undaunted, but as an emperor unclothed before the world?

Unfortunately, this President has not proven to have great insight into when things are not going well, and deplores admissions of failure. But there is hope. Jim Baker has begun to assert himself into the national scene, and in the weeks following the November election we may yet see the elders of the Bush clan finally wake up, before the New World Order that the President’s father proclaimed not so very long ago is completely undone by the messianic and misguided ambitions of his son.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Take a bow for the new revolution

It will be no surprise if the current era of Republican dominance in Washington, D.C. falls on the predations of Mark Foley and the failures of Republican leaders to respond appropriately or in time. After all, nothing falls the righteous like hypocrisy, nothing hits the news cycle like sex and nothing deepens the wound like a good cover-up.

In a moment when the President has become the very embodiment of steadfastness, House Republicans have shown no such spine. With the warrior caste of Gingrich and DeLay banished for lesser crimes, the current leaders sprinted for the exit even as the House burned around them, stopping only to implore Speaker Hastert to sacrifice himself that they might be saved.

The Foley fiasco––the first Instant Messenger-enabled political scandal––has achieved the White House objective of changing the subject, but in an unforeseen direction and with unimaginable force. For an electorate riven between anger over an unpopular war and the liminal anxieties of living in a Jihadist’s world, the turmoil in the House can tip the scales.

And for good reason.

The political turmoil and rancor that defines this political season has reached a fever pitch in part because the problems lack definition, much less simple solutions: The war in Iraq, the Jihadist threat, inter-religious tensions, the decline of American economic and political leadership, declining real incomes, growing debt, a declining dollar, volatile energy markets, a nuclear North Korea, an emboldened Iran, looming war between Russia and her near-abroad nascent-states…

But the Foley fiasco is different. People understand sex and power. Not sex in the prurient sense, but sex as a human motivation and power as the brass ring of the political class.

And that is the essence of the Republican denouement. The current cycle of Republican dominance began with a Contract with America that promised fiscal responsibility and political accountability, solidified its base through the assertion of family values in the wake of the Clinton impeachment, and achieved complete control over the government with the inauguration of George W. Bush, who had campaigned on a platform of fiscal conservatism and tax cuts at home, and humility in the world. In short, Republicans promised a government more limited in scope, a political class more limited in ambition, and a national interest defined by values, at home and abroad.

Twelve years since the contract with America, and six years since the consolidation of power in Republican hands, these central arguments are a distant memory. Our fiscal house lies as burnt embers at our feet, notions of humility in the world have been replaced with a muscular unilateralism, and fear has become the tool of maintaining the power of the new, dominant political order.

The Foley fiasco has provided the electorate with a means for understanding their fundamental discontent. Across the electorate, people are disgusted by the conduct and by the hypocrisy. They have long experience with cover-ups, they fiercely defend their children, and most of all they deplore politicians who value keeping power over proper conduct and decency.

Even as the usual array of partisans––from Sean Hannity to Katherine Harris to the Family Research Council––have sought to deflect blame for the affair to Democrats, homosexuals or George Soros, the public reaction has deepened. The Foley fiasco has now entered the realm of metaphor, reminding the electorate that democracy demands the vigilance of the governed, and that any party, whatever they promise, whether in fire-side chats or contracts on the Capitol steps, ultimately becomes corrupted by power and tenure alone.

Ultimately, as the Who suggested in their anthem from a prior era, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” each new revolution comes to its moment of reckoning, as people look at their leaders and cry in disgust:

“Meet the new Boss,
Same as the old Boss.”

As George Bush and Karl Rove look down the road at the train wreck that looms, more than ever they need to change the subject. “If the election were held today…” they would be facing the worst possible outcome. Republican control of Congress would be rejected not through a referendum on the war in Iraq, not through the conduct of the war on terror, and not even as a referendum on the handling of Mark Foley’s reprehensible contact, but rather as a fundamental statement that it is time for a change.

However, even in the face of this possible outcome, they must pause and smile, if only for a moment. For on the Democratic side, there is no Gingrich, no Robespierre, and apparently not even a Clinton, prepared to feel the pain of the electorate, and become the face and the voice of a new political order.