The Has-been

Panic Button

At last, House Republicans learn to run for their lives.

Friday, Jan. 20, 2006

About Face: All week long, the Republican Congress has been on a mad dash for salvation. Each of the three men jockeying to replace Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader claims to be the true reform candidate. Six months ago, John McCain’s colleagues rolled their eyes whenever he brought up reform at the caucus luncheon; now House and Senate Republicans alike have asked him to help write their lobby-reform proposals. Rep. Bob Ney’s golfing junket to Scotland turned out to serve an educational purpose after all.

Now that Democrats have made a big splash with their can-you-top-this reform package, a Washington Post editorial called “A Rush on Lobbying Reform” actually warns that “in their zeal to outbid each other, they will go too far.” The Post doesn’t elaborate, either because editors couldn’t honestly think of a reform that would go too far or because they’ve been in Washington long enough to know that should be the least of their worries.

Until we see the details, we won’t know whether Republicans in Congress have any stomach for real reform or are counting on their leaders to make sure this is only a face-saving exercise. Already, some members have sent smoke signals to be patient and let the reform urge fade.

But the true significance of the current Republican panic isn’t the unlikely hope that the GOP has somehow gotten religion on reform. This was a landmark week for another reason: For the first time in nearly a decade, House Republicans are more frightened of the American people than of Tom DeLay.

Coffee Talk: When the Founders designed the House of Representatives, their whole point was to make it responsive to the masses. They were so worried that the people’s House would run amok doing what the people wanted that they created the Senate as a saucer to cool the coffee, in Washington’s famous phrase to Jefferson.

Tom DeLay turned out to be no Tom Jefferson. He knew his House colleagues’ most immediate fear wasn’t big government, terrorist attack, or moral decline. Their biggest worry was the one Jefferson intended: losing their seats or losing their majority.

In a profession as volatile as politics, the natural instinct is to insulate oneself from the fickle moods of the electorate. That was DeLay’s mission from the start. His K Street Project gave Republicans a bottomless line of credit to finance their campaigns and a lucrative retirement system for members who lost or retired. He helped rewrite district lines in Texas and elsewhere to protect Republican incumbents and pad their majority.

As an instrument of party discipline, DeLay’s system worked wonders. No matter how unpopular a bill might be with the voters, he could always twist enough arms to get it passed.

Yet along the way, DeLay and his colleagues forgot the most important lesson Newt Gingrich had taught them in 1994: Accountability to the voters is a blessing, not a curse.

A decade ago, when Democrats held the White House and Republicans the Congress, both parties had to compete to deliver on their promises. In 1996, for example, Washington enjoyed one of its most productive years in recent memory—passing major legislation on welfare reform, the minimum wage, and health care—because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t afford to forget the interests of the voters they were supposed to be working for.

It’s easy to ridicule Congress for its historic tendency to do nothing for months on end and then hit the panic button when the voters catch on. Yet the trouble with the Republican Congress under DeLay was that it didn’t panic enough, and certainly never when the American people did.

One-party rule and the explosive growth of the influence industry have proved to be a deadly combination. For a few members, the comfort of a safe seat may now give way to hard time in a cold, dark cell. For most, a self-perpetuating majority came with a different price: the frustration of not having much to show for their time in Washington.

Five Down, Three To Go: With exactly three years left in the Bush presidency, Republicans still have to sort out the contradictions in big-government conservatism. Even without DeLay, they’re still susceptible to the siren song of K Street. But if they decide to let the American people whisper in their ear for a change, they won’t regret it.

Around this time last year, Tom DeLay was forcing Congress to try to save a brain-dead woman in Florida. This year, DeLay’s implosion may force his colleagues to hear what voters have wanted all along: to pull the plug on the brain-dead politics of Washington. … 11:28 A.M. (link)

Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2006

Bob Barr Goes to China: The first thing that struck me about Al Gore’s rousing speech in Washington on Monday was that he never got that kind of applause when I was writing his speeches. In my first week on the job in 1985, he teased me about a lame joke in my draft that had drawn blank stares from a trade association crowd. “It wasn’t meant as a joke—it was more of a smile,” I lamely protested. “Maybe that’s why nobody laughed,” he said pointedly. On Monday, Gore still wasn’t telling jokes, but the crowd at Constitution Hall was roaring its approval.

The second striking thing about the tone of Gore’s speech and its reception was how much George W. Bush has morphed in Democratic minds into Richard Nixon. Gore dropped hints about impeachable offenses and recalled that warrantless wiretapping was part of the second article of impeachment against Nixon. As vice president, Al Gore used to joke that if you close one eye and tilt your head, the seal of his office read “President of the United States.” On Monday, if you closed one ear and tilted your head, you could almost hear Peter Rodino.

If anyone has earned the right to despise both Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, it’s Al Gore. The Nixon White House ended his father’s proud career with a smear campaign in 1970. The Bushies made Gore out to be a serial liar in 2000 and in Florida claimed a victory they didn’t deserve with a ruthlessness Nixon would envy.

But Gore isn’t the only one with Nixon on his mind. Here’s how the executive director of the ACLU explained his group’s suit against the administration yesterday: “The current surveillance of Americans is a chilling assertion of presidential power that has not been seen since the days of Richard Nixon.”

That ‘70s Show: Dick Cheney deserves a Golden Globe for best director of a period piece. On his watch, the Bush White House has done a masterful job of recreating the 1970s: from rogue intelligence-gathering, energy shocks, and widespread corruption to war protests and fears about Big Brother.

Cheney certainly isn’t playing to the crowd. Parents want to relive the ‘50s; liberals want to relive the ‘60s; conservatives want to relive the ‘80s; Has-Beens want to relive the ‘90s—but nobody wants to relive the ‘70s.

Yet even the opposition goes along. The nonfiction book atop the New York Times best-seller list is Our Endangered Values by Jimmy Carter. Carter is simply reprising the most successful role of his career: campaigning against the Nixonian excesses of Washington.

At every stop on the campaign trail in 1992, Al Gore would ask, “What time is it?” The answer then was, “It’s time for them to go.” The answer now is, “1974.”

Executive Privilege: I was a teenage Nixon hater. But I can’t help wishing Democrats could shed our Nixon reflex. Nixon and his followers committed a host of sins against democracy: Watergate, “Peace is at hand,” the racist Southern strategy, and the first wedge issue, law and order. But perhaps the greatest harm Nixon did Democrats was to make our party lose faith in the presidency. We’re still getting over it.

“Nixon’s destiny was to carry the logic of the imperial presidency to the point of no return,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in The Imperial Presidency, his 1973 treatise on the abuse of presidential power. The Nixon White House broke laws, kept secrets, obstructed justice, and trampled civil liberties. Most leaders wrestle with the tradeoff between the ends and the means. For Nixon, the ends and means were the same: his administration abused power simply to hold onto power. And for four years, he not only got away with it, but was rewarded with a 49-state victory.

The anguish of George W. Bush’s re-election still pales in comparison to the liberal crisis of faith over watching a crook win the biggest Republican landslide in history. With nowhere else to turn, Democrats learned to love Congress, a branch of government liberals had largely despised well into the 1960s. Democrats also began to depend on the Supreme Court to check the White House, a dependence that would come back to haunt us as we discovered how losing one would eventually cost us the other.

In the 1970s, Democrats passed a number of laws to rein in the executive branch, from campaign finance to CIA and FBI reforms to the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act that Bush skirted in the current flap over domestic spying. Even with Carter in the White House, Democrats were more comfortable with the role of congressional oversight than with presidential leadership. Our heroes were referees and whistle-blowers like Sam Ervin, John Dean, Judge Sirica, and Woodward and Bernstein, not rogues and swashbucklers in the great American tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

That was an understandable and necessary reaction to a constitutional crisis that had shaken public confidence in government to its core. But it had unfortunate side effects. Before Nixon came along, Democrats had controlled the White House for 28 of the previous 36 years. After Nixon, many Democrats came to wonder whether the presidency was worth having.

Despite landslide defeats in 1980, 1984, and 1988—or perhaps because of them—Democrats in Washington became far more concerned with holding onto Congress than with taking back the White House. As the first Democratic president to win re-election since FDR, Bill Clinton tried his best to transform Democrats into a presidential party. But to this day, most Democrats think of themselves first as the party that used to control Congress.

It’s a paradox: The party with grand ambitions for government is suspicious of the office that could best achieve them, while the party broadly opposed to the use of government power wants to get its hands on as much of it as possible.

For that, we can blame Richard Nixon. By following in Nixon’s footsteps, Bush seems determined to make Democrats hate the presidency for another generation. That would be a terrible shame. Under FDR, the Democratic Party virtually invented the sweeping, modern presidency. The success of Democratic presidents like Truman and Clinton was their determination to tame a rotten Congress, not submit to one.

I share Gore’s opinion of the current administration and Congress. “The Congress we have today is structurally unrecognizable compared to the one in which my father served,” he says. “The legislative branch of government, as a whole, under its current leadership now operates as if it were entirely subservient to the Executive branch.”

But in my view, that’s not a constitutional crisis—it’s an argument for a new Congress. Gore worries that “we have for decades been witnessing the slow and steady accumulation of presidential power.” But checks and balances don’t have to be a zero-sum game. It is possible to have energy in the executive and energy in the legislative. Indeed, given the obstacles to progress in today’s sclerotic political environment, we may need both branches to push the envelope before we can get anything done.

Now More than Ever: We could get by without a strong, assertive presidency in the ‘70s, but we desperately need one today. As Gore recognizes, we won’t win the war on terror with congressional hearings. To win it, we need commanders in chief with panache and integrity, who can inspire confidence at home and abroad, win the respect of our allies, and instill fear in our foes.

On the home front, it will take an unapologetically powerful leader to break Washington from its transactional rut. At the same time, we need a vigorous Congress with a sense of urgency that can hold the executive branch accountable not only for the rule of law but for results.

Al Gore is right that like Nixon, Bush acts like an imperial president. But the best way to curb the imperial presidency isn’t for Congress to tie the next president’s hands. It’s for Americans to elect a new president and Congress who will go all-out to earn the public’s trust. … 2:03 P.M. (link)

Friday, Jan. 13, 2006

CAP and Gown: For the past few days, Sam Alito must have been kicking himself for ever adding the Concerned Alumni of Princeton to his job application. He never meant to hang out with a bunch of conservative, grumpy old men at college. He just wanted to do that on the Supreme Court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has wrapped up its investigation of Princeton, unless Sen. Lindsey Graham carries out his threat to get to the bottom of which eating clubs Woodrow Wilson, Donald Rumsfeld, and Bill Frist joined in college. What should concern the Senate most about Alito’s Princeton’s ties is not that he was a card-carrying member of CAP, but that in the mid-1980s he thought it would help to claim to be one.

Senate Democrats are right to doubt Alito’s professed shock to learn that CAP harbored ill will toward women and minorities. Whether or not he was ever a “concerned alum,” Alito has long been an active, interested one. His name appears regularly in the alumni notes for the Class of ‘72. He goes back for reunions every five years and drives up for the Harvard game. He chaired an alumni careers committee even after he became a federal judge.

Moreover, CAP wasn’t a secret society—it wore its reactionary nostalgia on its sleeve. No Princeton student or alumnus could get through the 1970s without receiving the group’s mailings or reading members’ angry letters in the Alumni Weekly.

This Old Man: What set CAP apart wasn’t simply its conservatism—compared to other Ivies, Princeton was never a hotbed of liberalism—but that it was conservatism for crotchety old men.

By the time I came to Princeton in the late ‘70s, no one under the age of 50 had any interest in the issues CAP droned on about, like the folly of co-education. For students, liberal and conservative alike, the biggest complaint was that the place wasn’t co-educated enough. We envied other colleges that had moved much more quickly toward the normalcy of having equal numbers of men and women on campus.

As a nerd who steered clear of eating clubs—the book on me as well—Alito had even less connection to CAP’s old-world order. After traditionalists lost the battle over co-education, they fought their last stand at the clubs. Alito preferred the company of ambitious pre-laws at the Woodrow Wilson School.

Nor was CAP a rallying point for conservative young Turks. It was more like a political retirement home for alums who had hoped that after all the money they’d given and P-rades they’d walked, Old Nassau could be their Alamo against the ‘60s.

One of CAP’s founders, William Rusher, said as much in an online Q&A this week with the magazine he used to publish, National Review. Asked if he was still “concerned about Princeton,” Rusher said:

I will always remember fondly the Princeton I knew, and regret what has happened to it. My old NR colleague Jim Burnham, who was a graduate of the Class of 1933 (or about then), once told me that Princeton had become “just another liberal joint,” and I’m afraid it’s true.

CAP’s real complaint was with growing old. Rusher might as well be Burt Lancaster in the movie Atlantic City, standing on the boardwalk and saying, “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”

Prospect Street: So, what was Sam Alito thinking, at the tender age of 35, when he listed a fogeys-only group like CAP as his most impressive conservative affiliation?

It’s possible that Alito’s conservatism was prematurely gray. Michael Kinsley once described Al Gore in his 30s as an old person’s idea of a young person. At Princeton, the serious, no-nonsense Alito must have seemed like a young person’s idea of an old person. Alito has admitted that he picked up his conservatism from reading William Buckley and National Review. When Alito warmed to National Review in the mid-1960s, intellectual conservatism was an unabashedly elitist phenomenon. In those days, many of Buckley’s conservative rants were often simply wittier, more urbane expressions of the CAP lament, aimed at Yale’s decline rather than Princeton’s.

The other major influence on Alito’s early political thought, his father, was another diehard traditionalist. He didn’t allow women who worked for him to wear pants to work, a stand that CAP members would have cheered from their rockers.

But 20 years ago, Sam Alito wasn’t wrinkled enough to think that way. More likely, CAP was just the handiest conservative résumé-padding he could find on short notice. As he acknowledged in his testimony, “What I was trying to outline were the things that were relevant to obtaining a political position.”

Alito insisted that if he had known what the group stood for, “I would never be a member of an organization that took those views.” But on issues from affirmative action to Bob Jones University, the Reagan administration took stands all the time that sounded like CAP—and Alito was eager to be a member.

When Alito took stock of the Reagan Justice Department, he must have drawn the same conclusion as his bright, ambitious rival, John Roberts: You’d never get in trouble with Ed Meese for standing too far to the right.

Now Alito is counting on the fact that the penalty for impersonating a doddering old reactionary is lighter than for actually being one—and that the statute of limitations, like CAP itself, has expired. In the decades to come, he can join Justices Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, and Kennedy in forming a new group of grumps who want to turn back the clock. Call it the Concerned Alumni of Reagan.  11:10 A.M. (link)