The GOP's current intra-party revolt against the Bush administration -- led by presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain and his supporters in the Senate -- is telling us quite a bit about the next two years.
Bush, overburdened with global responsibilities and deprived of maneuver room, has decided that his new strategy for the Nov. 7 mid-term Congressional elections will be to sell his old ideas more forcefully. If he succeeds and the GOP retains its control of both chambers of Congress, then he is virtually assured of completing his second term without facing hard questions about his administration's conduct.
That sounds like a win to some conservatives, but to Bush's critics within the GOP, it's a temporary -- and ultimately destructive -- victory. From their perspective, retaining the House and Senate on the President's terms only delays an inevitable accounting for the mistakes of the past four years. And that could turn 2008 -- a presidential year -- into a debacle for the Republican Party.
If you're McCain, standing on a stack of favorable polling results and gazing ahead at the Presidential horizon, getting that unpleasant accounting started in January just makes sense. So while some see this as nothing more complex than a principled stand, it also adds up to an aggressively smart political move. Like an early break-away in a critical stage of the Tour de France, McCain is out to win the 2008 nomination right now, a move that could fundamentally change a lot of assumptions within the political class.
Presidents in their final years often slump into lame duck status, but this week's defiance by McCain and three other members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee threatens to turn Bush into a potted plant. Not only is McCain positioning himself to run against Bush's record, his defiance is forcing Republican incumbents toward a tough choice: cast their lot with their party's leader-in-waiting, or support Bush and make ready to defend that decision to angry voters.
We're talking about the potential marginalization of a president by his own party. Here's former GOP Congressman Joe Scarborough to paint you a picture:
The United States is more divided than ever, our leaders are despised around the world, our fiscal situation is catastrophic and congressional approval ratings are the lowest ever. Since nothing sharpens the mind like a political hanging, Republican leaders in the Senate and House are finally considering doing what effete newspaper editorialists have suggested for years: throwing Bush overboard.
So if you were thinking that national security and civil liberties were the only things at stake in this fight over torture, secretive military trials and rules of legal procedure, think again. It's suddenly shaping up as a Republican referendum on the future of the Bush administration.
WHY HE FIGHTS
There's a logical precision to Bush's current offensive, and as we pull back the lens we can see its development unfolding in stages, all of it scheduled around the predictable media attention devoted to the 5th anniversary of 9/11.
In late August, Bush's retainers began preparations, framing our Islamic enemies (and potential enemies) as the fascists of 1939. Then, in his 9/11 speech, Bush cast his war against terrorism as "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century." This rhetorical combo, wedded to the nation's overhyped week of 9/11 remembrances and some carefully managed press opportunities, contributed to a bump in Bush's approval poll ratings, moving him back above 40 percent in some samples.
But political capital is fleeting, which is why Team Bush
immediately risked its recent gains in an elective showdown over
questionable-at-best (not to mention unpopular) legal powers. Like
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Little Round Top in 1863 and the German
army in the winter of 1944, Bush's situation cannot improve if he
stays on the defensive. He must attack to secure new advantages, and
last week's poll numbers were as good as any this White House is likely
Had Bush's strong-arm tactics pursuaded the four breakaway GOP senators to "stay the course," his dramatic lobbying trip to Capitol Hill on Thursday would have looked like a moment of inspired leadership. Instead, it emphasized his humiliation. Which makes one wonder: Why did they take the risk? Perhaps it was personal conviction (New York Times columnist David Brooks fawningly calls Bush "the most inner-directed man on the globe"), but I doubt it. Thursday's defeat had all the markings of an unexpected setback: Either his advisors miscalulated, or the political situation is even more desperate than it appears.
Bush compounded the error by responding poorly on Friday, flashing irritable and angry in a Rose Garden press conference, suggesting that the CIA would stop conducting interrogations of terror suspects and implying that the breakaway senators would be blamed for any future attacks. "So Congress has got a decision to make," he said. "You want to program to go forward or not? I strongly recommend that this program go forward in order for us to be able to protect America."
Only that's a false choice, and Americans are getting wise.
The White House's campaign for expanded powers ultimately fails because it is an emotional appeal that asserts facts not in evidence. Specifically, Bush is asking lawmakers to approve "military tribunals and and harsh interogations of terror suspects in order to shield U.S. personnel from being prosecuted for war crimes under the Geneva Conventions" (quote from an Associated Press account), Among the powers he covets: the ability to authorize an undefined "alternative set of procedures" in the detention and questioning of suspected enemies; the right to try the accused in military tribunals that don't rise to the level of a courts martial; and the ability to prosecute defendants without having to tell them what evidence is being used against them.
His reasoning as to why we must rewrite centuries of American legal tradition? The United States cannot protect its citizens without this expansion of federal power and rollback of civil liberties. But his claims about the effectiveness of the powers he desires boil down to little more than articles of faith, and rather than debate the actual points made by dissenters -- who are asking for honorable standards of legal procedure, not the absolute rollback of rules that acknowledge the challenges of fighting a stateless enemy -- Bush chooses to pretend that opponents of his will are coddlers of terrorists, men and women who cannot be trusted to protect our homeland.
In other words, this is a political maneuver, not a national security debate. George Packer described the irony in the Sept. 18 issue of The New Yorker:
Whether or not the public mood shifts to the President in time for the midterms, the recovery of his political skills will be of no help in the long struggle against radical Islam. In fact, it will be harmful. Everything about the (Sept. 6) speech that sparkled with tactical cleverness in terms of domestic politics contributed to an ongoing strategic disaster around the world. "The United States does not torture," the President said. "I have not authorized it and I will not authorize it." This was a lie, and most of the world knows it. The lie, and the reality that the phrase "an alternative set of procedures" is meant to conceal -- simulated drownings, sleep and sensory deprivation, induced hypothermia, beatings, and other forms of torture that are responsible for some of the dozens of detainee deaths considered to be homicides -- have done more to embolden America's enemies and estrange its friends than anything Osama bin Laden might say or do.
Bush's claims about the effectiveness of this "alternative set of procedures" lie at the heart of much of our current national turmoil. To many well-intentioned conservatives, the narrative of Bush's struggle is the story of a plain-spoken, principled man who works hard to protect his people from real enemies, while acknowledging real differences between good and evil, and making real choices between what works in reality and what only works in some Ivory Tower theory. In other words, to many Americans, Bush's struggle is an awful lot like their own, only writ larger.
To these Americans, the phrase "The Constitution is not a suicide pact" speaks a "common-sense" truth. They see Western Civilization threatened by an intractible foe, and they're willing to fight as long and as hard and nasty as it takes to win. Even though they often demonize those of us who question the administration, we shouldn't scoff at such people, ever. They're great to have beside you when your back is against the wall.
The problem is, their stubborn belief in the power of resoluteness
is blinding them to some unhappy truths. With the exception of a few
inevitable radicals, we're not calling for a choice between stopping the terrorists
or inviting them to tea. Rather, we're challenging the all-or-nothing rhetoric that says habeas corpus is a radical liberal idea. And
increasingly, Americans are beginning to understand that checks and
balances not only protect our liberties, they also tend to discourage
the spread of stupidity and laziness under the guise of ideology.
Democrats clearly have partisan interests in the framing of these issues, but the popular conservative claim that dissent over these questions is unprincipled partisanship just doesn't explain what we're seeing today. Consider this: On Sept. 6th, while Bush was defending his "alternative set of procedures" as a vital counterpart of anti-terrorism intelligence work, his own military was publishing a new manual that defined torture as not only morally wrong, but ineffective. Here's Packer again:
The manual spells out which interrogation techniques will be forbidden. "Interrogators may not force a detainee to be naked, perform sexual acts or pose in a sexual manner," (Lt. Gen. "Jeff") Kimmons said, in exactly the specific language that the President refuses to use. "They cannot beat or electrically shock or burn them or inflict other forms of physical pain, any form of physical pain. They may not use water boarding."
Anybody here want to argue against any of that? Or call Kimmons, the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, "effete," avoiding his points by questioning his manhood? No? Then back to the article:
When the General was asked whether he thought it was a mistake not to classify the list of permitted techniques, he showed that some members of the government and the military have learned from the mistakes of the past few years: the need for transparency, for working with allies, he said, is greater than the need for secrecy. And when a reporter asked whether some of the now-forbidden forms of torture might have been useful in gaining information, General Kimmons directly contradicted what his Commander-in-Chief was saying at the White House:
No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practice. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that. And, moreover, any piece of intelligence which is obtained under duress, through the use of abusive techniques, would be of questionable credibility, and additionally it would do more harm than good when it inevitably became known that abusive practices were used. And we can't afford to go there. Some of our most significant successes on the battlefield have been -- in fact, I would say all of them, almost categorically all of them, have accrued from expert interrogators using mixtures of authorized humane interrogation practices, in clever ways that you would hope Americans would use them, to push the envelope within the bookends of legal, moral and ethical, now as further refined by this field manual. So we don't need abusive practices in there.
From an outside perspective, it almost takes on the shape of a military revolt. Republican senators McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham are all former military officers. Kimmons is an active-duty three-star. Of the 11 Iraq War vets running for Congress this year, 10 are Democrats who are critical of the administration's conduct of the war. And all of this takes place against a backdrop in which professional soldiers are straining against the incompetent direction of our forces under the government's current crop of civilian leaders. Read this exchange between talk show host Hugh Hewitt and Fiasco author Thomas E. Ricks carefully:
TR: I am a big fan of civilian leadership, as you know from my first book.
HH: Yup, yup.
TR: And it is key. I mean, when people say to me "why didn't these guys just tell the Bush administration no," I'd say because it would have been immoral, illegal and wrong. When civilians give you the order, you salute smartly. The problem was, you used the word professional, and that's a key word here. The military felt that their best professional advice was being ignored. And here were guys who had spent their careers rebuilding the Army after Vietnam. And suddenly, they saw the mistakes of Vietnam being repeated, and it terrified and worried them.
HH: Thomas Ricks, where are those people, other than the couple...Tony Zinni, obviously, but he wasn't in at this time. He was out. Where is...you quote Maddis, Myers, Pace, Franks, Sanchez. Where is a senior leader of the Iraq war period, in saying what you say?
TR: They're saying it to me constantly.
HH: Off the record?
TR: They can't have their names attached, because that would be seen as an act of professional insubordination.
HH: But telling you that for not for attribution is an act of professional insubordination as well. It's undermining the civilian leadership that is supposed to be the touchstone of the American military.
TR: And here, actually, I agree with you. You're touching on a key theme in my second book, A Soldier's Duty, which is what do you do when your duty to your subordinates you feel is at odds with your duty to your superiors, when you think the interests of your soldiers are not being served by your superiors. Do you take care of your soldiers? Is that your primary duty? Or do you salute smartly and execute your orders? And I'll tell you, it eats out the guts of a lot of these officers.
Conservatives desperately want to make the debate about terrorism
and war a choice between guts and cowardice, between tough-minded
defenders of freedom and craven appeasers. When will they recognize
that the real debate is over competence, not ideology? Between what
works and what sounds good? When will the people who have defended the
President recognize that their honorable intentions have been
squandered? And how will they feel when they make that connection?
McCain is gambling these disaffected Red Staters will start
making the switch sooner rather than later. Democrats, if they want to
stay competitive in 2008, had better start figuring out -- right now --
what they're going to do if he's right.