An Evening with the Bush Administration’s Good Side and A Call for Senator Reid’s Tough Side: Navigating Political Rapids As They Are, Not As We’d Like Them To Be


As I have stressed a number of times on TWN, I am not into ideological zealotry — from the right or the left.
My agenda in the coming several years is to do what modest things I can to help Democrats get back into the foreign policy/national security game and to help Republicans restore a moderate, sensible core as its defining edge. Many of my readers disagree with this agenda, but that is mine — to help both sides get back into constructive, competitive engagement on important policy challenges facing the country.
Tactics, and even primary objectives, will differ between many progressively minded writers and public intellectuals, but it seems to me that the country will be in much safer hands when we get out of the high-fear dynamic that parts of the Bush administration are using to grab, justify, and consolidate power.
As I have written before, I had a nasty experience long ago when the Democratic members of the Los Angeles City Council and then Mayor Tom Bradley were bought off by Armand Hammer and Occidental Petroleum who sought permits to drill for oil off the Pacific Palisades. This was a local deal, but at that time, the Dems were engaged in Abramoff like behaviors. Democrats don’t have a monopoly on decency or fair play.
But people like me who are progressively-concerned centrists have to accept the fact that the current administration’s dominant personalities are not “playing well” with the rest of the political system. Bush’s model of government is sending out disastrous signals to potential democratic change agents around the world — teaching them that checks and balances can easily be up-ended and ignored. This is not the kind of foreign policy leadership that any realist or liberal internationalist can support.
What has triggered my thinking about these matters are two conversations I had yesterday.
One was a dinner with an unnamed Senior Administration Official who confirmed my view that there are many thoughtful, fair-minded, and deeply concerned senior Bush administration Republicans who think that the administration must turn itself around and get out of the “thumb in their eye” national security positions it has taken.
The other was an interesting conference call between bloggers and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
The administration official I spoke to yesterday — and others of similar perspective scattered through the administration — believe that there have been huge public relations and policy disasters surrounding Guantanamo, the management of accountability after Abu Ghraib, the rendition of prisoners abroad, the administration’s battle with John McCain over torture policy, and even the NSA intercepts.
While TWN and these various officials may disagree over the ‘substance’ of some of these policy matters, the fact is that the public relations disasters that have occurred have preempted any honest debate about policy substance — and this official acknowledges that. This person is introspective and self-critical about these problems and wants to fix them. He wants to address the problem and to reconnect to real debates.
This is exactly the right strategy — and this writer and pundit is more than happy to help those inside the Bush administration try to get to more constructive ground than that on which the administration currently stands.
That brings me to the phone encounter with Harry Reid, who was extremely forthcoming by the way. Among the matters he discussed were the Alito confirmation vote and hearing, his new proposal restricting any acceptance of lobbying gifts, the NSA wiretaps, and his Rule 21 effort to compel the Senate Intelligence Committee to move forward on its Phase 2 report.
Senator Reid shared with us that just that day an unnamed Democratic Senator had come to him with a proposal on “ethics reform” ala Abramoff that could be bi-partisan. Reid told this person that this was the wrong time to be engaged in construtive “reform” proposals with the other side. He said that this was the time to draw a line and to show how “our side” differed dramatically from “their side.”
Given the 2006 elections ahead, this strategy makes sense on many levels. But this reminds me somewhat of the attitude of the AFL/CIO in 1996-1997, when I worked for a Democrat in the Senate, that “we needed to be about defining the problem, not about fixing things.”
I think that there will be more than enough problems and failed policies and brewing scandals for contrasting images to be juxtaposed to Democratic party benefit in the next elections.
However, generating constructive and positive policy proposals — that fix problems and that would appeal to “most Americans” meaning Dems, reasonable independents, and independently minded Republicans” — are vital parts of a successful political strategy, in my view.
I complimented Senator Reid for invoking Rule 21 and shutting down the Senate to compel Senator Pat Roberts and the Republican Senate establishment to stop dragging its feet on its investigation into the administration’s use and potential abuse of WMD intelligence. Reid relished telling the tale of how it all unfolded.
I told him that such demonstrations of backbone needed to be less rare — and that the absence of such resolve in the Alito confirmation process was disheartening. He said that he was meeting today with the Democratic caucus to see if there are 41 Senators willing to say no to Alito — and really say no (meaning a filibuster). He indicated that there was only a 50/50 chance that there were 41 Senators and sounded doubtful.
But while I am all for constructive policy proposals, I also believe that “winning” is important. Alito should be filibustered in my view. He is the wrong judge to go to the Supreme Court in these times — and Dems should send that message.
However, as I told Senator Reid yesterday, Democrats have too much of a tendency to concede defeat before the battle has really been fought — and many Republicans, in contrast, are declaring victory even if they may be losing.
Dems need a combination of hard-edged tactics and serious resolve as well as good vision and proposals.
But we have three years left of one of the most dramatic and often disturbing presidencies in decades — and I believe that the reasonable and sensible personalities in the Bush administration should be supported while the clan that holds close to Vice President Cheney — and which is responsible for the worst disasters of Bush’s term — need to be exposed and vilified.
More on this later.
— Steve Clemons
UPDATE: Two things to add at this point.
First, Jim Lehrer will be interviewing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid tonight on the News Hour and rumor has it that a number of the PBS staff have been intrigued that Reid is doing conference calls with bloggers. . .
Secondly, I was notified that CNN is doing some sort of story today based on the blog post above — and focusing on Reid’s statement during the conference call that he was more interested in showing the difference between Democrats and Republicans on political ethics reform than in bridging them. Senator Reid’s staff has contacted me to emphasize that while TWN‘s account is accurate, the intent of his statement was to not allow Republicans a “duck and cover” strategy that would allow them to escape responsibility and accountability for the behaviors we have seen unfold in the Abramoff case.
More later.
— Steve Clemons