A Comment on Political Commentary: Getting Off “Automatic Pilot”


TWN is on a transatlantic flight right now trying to deal with the fact that sleep is impossible for this writer on these planes.
I have been giving some thought to the battle over John Bolton’s nomination as Ambassador to the United Nations — and the implications for other political battles ahead. I’d rather not name the person I was speaking to about this the other day, but let it suffice that he served until not too long ago as chief of staff to an important Republican foreign policy official.
I had posed the question to him of why so many in the Bolton battle had miscalculated.
Lincoln Chafee miscalculated in thinking that Bolton would remain an obscure personality and that this was an easy vote to give the White House. Chuck Hagel — who wants to be President — didn’t realize that his inaction on Bolton would trivialize him and move him to the periphery of bolder risk-takers. Bill Frist never invested in Bolton at the beginning of the process and then over-invested when others were shorting Bolton’s stock and driving it into the ground.
Senators Durbin, Leahy, and Biden all made comments early in the battle that could easily be perceived as conceding defeat on Bolton before the battle was even near over. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson did the same, and when confronted stated that he praised what those opposing Bolton had done but that he stood by his words. In a note written to TWN, Governor Richardson — tongue in cheek — suggested to this writer “stop biting your friends.”
When the media had been focused on potential defections of Hagel and Chafee, TWN pointed out that Senators Lisa Murkowski, Lamar Alexander, and George Voinovich were the most likely dark horse candidates to defect from the White House stranglehold on Republican support for Bolton. Murkowski gave a brilliant, heartfelt statement regarding Bolton — and came within an eyelash of opposing him in Committee. She worked harder than most realize in reading all of the commentary and interviews on Bolton but because of political pressure from the White House stood by the President’s choice. But I respect her for the very hard work she put into this effort and credit her for supporting George Voinovich’s principled call for a delay in the Bolton vote.
Few saw Voinovich’s rebellion coming, but the signs were somewhat obvious. For anyone who knows Voinovich, Bolton offends most of the sensibilities he proclaims are important in public and private life. During the battle after the first Voinovich-instigated delay on the Bolton vote, the State Department starting spinning the story that Voinovich was saying privately that he was with the White House. This became so convincing that the pro-Bolton, rabidly anti-United Nations organization Move America Forward stopped running anti-Voinovich ads in Ohio so as to hopefully keep him in the pro-Bolton camp.
Karl Rove and Dick Cheney miscalculated most, thinking that they could cram John Bolton down the throat of the Senate — as disagreeable a nominee as he was for this position. They figured Bolton was a close, blindly loyal ally who deserved a top spot in America’s foreign policy portfolio. He was obscure to most Americans and being appointed to a position that the body politic rarely noticed.
But the Bolton choice was so wrong-headed that it became possible to turn John Bolton into somewhat of a household name. Jon Stewart lampoons him. He has been featured in Doonesbury and countless political cartoons. But it is his performance as a lousy campaigner and ineffective negotiator against WMD proliferation that is a key reason for his rejection thus far.
But back to my friend who used to run a major Republican Senate operation in the Senate. He said that the President nearly always “gets his way.” He said, “When the President of the United States really, really wants something, he usually gets it.”
He is absolutely right, and that is one of the fundamental reasons why so many miscalculated. They went with the odds of victory for the White House rather than a rational micro-assessment and calculation of who was winning at each point in the Bolton battle and what the various incentives of the players were.
I’m intrigued by this because as a person both reporting on the Bolton battle and also as an activist of the sorts in the effort, I focused entirely on daily calculations of political positions, policy ramifications of contested issues like document requests, and the weight of various players in the game. Although those opposing Bolton have become a somewhat amazing, formidable force now, four months ago, few of us knew where this would go.
We did not know about the outrageous workplace behavior towards Melody Townsel, or the degree of intel cherry-picking and stove-piping that occurred under his watch, or the brutal treatment of intel analysts Christian Westermann, Rexon Ryu, and others. We didn’t know that he had been blocked from critical negotiations on Iran’s and Libya’s WMD programs, or had been responsible for promulgating the Niger/Uranium story at State after the other intelligence agencies had roundly dismissed it. We didn’t know that he had regularly sought to undermine Richard Armitage and Colin Powell in fragile diplomatic efforts.
We knew none of this. And frankly, this is just the digested version of the troubling content about which we knew little. TWN had had a few encounters with Mr. Bolton and hia staff that made it clear how inappropriate his candidacy was to serve as America’s Ambassador to the U.N.
And given the fact that I do see myself as a centrist, somewhat of an “ethical realist” in American foreign policy issues, I try hard to praise the Bush administration for anything that it might get right, so as to coax out any semblance of an “enlightened” personality out of the range of so many competing personalities in the administration. After Bush’s trip to Europe in early 2005, I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he would get to work uniting America’s friends and dividing our enemies, rather than what had been occurring in dividing our friends and uniting our enemies. I thought he might begin to repair the punctured mystique of American power in the world.
But the Bolton nomination was an absolute outrage to those of us in the middle who wanted to give Bush a chance — and after all, Kerry had failed to seal the deal. Kerry lost. Bush won. We had to work with what we had, and this writer tried.
There is much about the Bush administration that I can embrace. I think that some of the choices in key foreign policy, treasury, and trade positions make a lot of sense — but there is still a profound lack of strategy in this administration and unwillingness to accept that fact that priorities must be set, that small battles must be lost tactically to win the major ones.
Bolton was a terribly wrong choice. But what is fascinating about the last four months is how difficult it has been to get all sides of this battle to get off “automatic pilot” and to realize that there is a different calculus operating on whether he would be confirmed or not.
Finally, the press has rid itself of the gratuitous line that laced most AP and other stories and editorials that “John Bolton, despite this (respective) setback, is still likely to be confirmed.” Now, most stories are arguing that he will get a recess appointment, but they thought that was coming this past week. Wrong again.
He may get nominated in August by recess appointment, but the leming-like willingness to run whatever White House messaging dictates is very disappointing and alarming.
The fact is that the Bolton nomination process is full of moving wheels and pieces. If the White House gave Senators Biden and Dodd what they wanted, there would be a vote in the Senate on Bolton within a few days. That’s not likely to happen — so that road appears permanently closed. Bolton’s nomination faces permanent limbo if the White House fails to deal.
Otherwise, the White House has two choices: withdraw or make a recess appointment.
Now, Karl Rove has his own distractions given the degree to which his name and comments seem to proliferate through Matt Cooper’s notes on the Valerie Plame outing.
And Supreme Court battles are going to be intense these next few weeks with all Senators playing to his or her base. Bolton is small time (well, maybe not small time…just proportionately not as big time) compared to replacing a Chief Justice (which seems harder than rumor but not fully official) and swing-vote Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
One credible editor of a significant Washington publication wrote to me today suggesting that he disagrees with my and Demetri Sevastopulo’s assessment that Bolton’s nomination is withering on the vine and that the White House is just stalling out on him. This editor — who has a point — thinks that the White House could call Bolton up on the Senate floor again just to show how obstructionist and inflexible Democrats can be in the midst of these major fights on Supreme Court nominees.
I appreciate his perspective but disagree. Appointing ideological judges forces moderates to maintain their position on Bolton so as to show that they will oppose wrong-headed White House nominations. In addition, there are three weeks of debate ahead before August recess. The Senate will be consumed with Supreme Court issues, and a UN reform bill will be drowned out. Trying to link Bolton to a pernicious UN reform bill promulgated by Cheney’s wing of the White House will seem petty to the nation.
Bolton’s nomination will suffocate in the coming weeks of debate.
And what few people publicly say or write but which is true is that the opposition to Bolton is not fully partisan. Many moderate Republicans detest this vote and choice. Their staff people openly moan about the White House’s choice and don’t hesitate to offer anecdotes of their experiences with constituents — Republican constituents — who are encouraging opposition to Bolton, out of principle. The entire battle against John Bolton’s nomination would have been impossible without robust behind-the-scenes support from Republican sources.
It’s hard work to beat a political establishment whose majority and minority largely fly on automatic pilot, in grooves of behavior that inhibit acknowledgement of new factors, new realities, new information. But it has happened on Bolton.
I think that there is something big here — not just for Democrats but also for moderate Republicans who want to guide this nation and their party back towards enlightened and principled, problem-solving, empirically-informed engagement in world affairs.
Political miscalculations are opportunities for arbitrage and entrepreneurship. There is a lot of opportunity out there to fix problems now and to redirect both political parties.
More later.
— Steve Clemons