Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Why the GOP can't hide behind the soldiers

Next week, our congressional lawmakers will return to action – if you want to call it that – and resume their intricate chessboard maneuvers over Iraq.

For instance, the House Republicans are working up a strategy that is designed to shift the focus away from President Bush and his war team (a smart idea, since Bush and his war team are the architects of this foreign policy disaster), and instead try to spotlight the Democrats by painting them as white-flag wimps who don’t care a whit about the safety or morale of U.S. troops.

The House Republicans, relying not merely on their rhetoric, are also floating a bill that would bar lawmakers from cutting off the war money, or restricting the money in any way. They obviously have calculated that a lot of Democrats would feel compelled to go along, just to ensure that the GOP would not be able to label them as “against the troops” during their ’08 re-election campaigns. (Indeed, that’s one reason why the majority Democrats will ensure that this bill never comes up for a vote.)

But the basic weakness of the Republican argument – better yet, its rank hypocrisy – is that its architects apparently don’t know, or choose not to remember, their own history. Because 11 years ago, when President Clinton was in the process of sending troops to Bosnia, and putting them in harm’s way, the House Republicans huddled in a party caucus and voted by nearly a 2-1 margin….to cut off funds for the troops. An action, by the way, that prompted some worried Republicans to warn that they might be undermining troop morale.

And here’s the most priceless factoid: A Texas Republican congressman, Sam Johnson, is leading the current push for the aforementioned bill that would bar any restrictions on the Iraq war money…yet this same congressman uttered these remarks on the House floor, on Dec. 13, 1995: “I wholeheartedly support withholding funds… Although it is a drastic step and ties the president’s hands, I do not feel like we have any other choice. The president has tied our hands, gone against the wishes of the American people, and this is the last best way I know how to show my respect for our American servicemen and women. They are helpless, following orders.”

Bush defenders might argue that the GOP’s Bosnia stance was different, because, unlike in Iraq, we didn’t have tens of thousands of troops already in harm’s way. But that is irrelevant. Johnson’s point, in 1995, was that Congress did have the power to withhold money and “tie the president’s hands.” Yet today, with most Republicans still pledging fealty to their Decider, any such step is dismissed as “micromanagement,” and as a potentially unconstitutional “slow bleed.”

And here’s a question: Wouldn’t an administration that prides itself on “supporting the troops” want to ensure that the most vulnerable soldiers of all – those with debilitating physical and mental injuries – are receiving the best care and treatment back home? It would seem so, yet it’s clear – according to this new Washington Post series – that support for the troops doesn’t always extend beyond the rhetorical.

Two reporters spent months inside the famed Walter Reed hospital and discovered “a messy bureaucratic battlefield nearly as chaotic as the real battlefields they faced overseas,” with the wounded tending to other wounded, with psychologically damaged vets put in charge of suicidal comrades (because the staff is overworked), with squalid living conditions, with bureaucrats who try to weasel out of paying disability payments to the disabled.

One amputee and Walter Reed resident, Marine Sgt. Ryan Groves, told the Post: “We've done our duty. We fought the war. We came home wounded. Fine. But whoever the people are back here who are supposed to give us the easy transition should be doing it. We don't know what to do. The people who are supposed to know don't have the answers. It's a nonstop process of stalling."

And the administration that “supports the troops” isn’t necessarily keen on showing them off, not when it result in bad PR. One telling anecdote, deep within Part Two of the series, says it all: David Thomas, a former gunnery sergeant from Tennessee who suffered a brain injury and lost a leg, wanted to attend a ceremony honoring a Mexican-born buddy who was slated to be awarded his U.S. citizenship by President Bush. But Thomas was told that, because he would be seated in the front row, and because there were going to be cameras, he would not be permitted to display the fact that he was an amputee. He was told that, if he wanted to attend the presidential ceremony, he would have to wear long pants. He refused, reportedly saying, “I’m not ashamed of what I did, and y’all shouldn’t be, neither.” So he was left off the invitation list.

By the way, Bush spokesman Tony Snow was asked the other day, in the wake of the Post series, whether his boss had been aware that the conditions for the troops were so dire at Walter Reed. At first he dodged (“I am not certain when this — when we first became aware of it”), but then he decided to make it clear that, of course, the Decider knows all: “Now, the president certainly has been aware of the conditions in the wards where he has visited, and visited regularly.”

So hang on: Since the Republicans insist that they have a monopoly on supporting the troops, why didn’t Bush, who “certainly has been aware,” blow the whistle at Walter Reed a long time ago?


On another matter: Regarding my Sunday print column and Monday blog remarks about the panderings of John McCain, I see that he sought to clarify the matter yesterday, while meeting with religious broadcasters in Florida. He said, in his defense, “Nobody accused me of courting and pandering to the liberals when I went to the New School,” a reference to the Manhattan education facility.

Well, let’s quickly unpack that remark. McCain is right. Nobody accused him of pandering when he addressed the New School liberals. I think that was because the New School liberals have absolutely no role in deciding who wins the ’08 Republican nomination.

By contrast, the religious right is fully aware of its own role in that vetting process – as one of the Florida panderees, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, pointed out yesterday. He told the press, “(McCain) recognized he cannot be president of the United States without reaching out to the evangelicals…he is breaking down those walls. He helped himself in that room tremendously today."


But I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that McCain is the only candidate these days who is engaging in strenuous rhetorical gymnastics. I should also nominate one of his rivals, ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Much has been written elsewhere lately about his ongoing rightward journey, but one of his quotes about abortion – uttered two years ago, but newly released - is downright irresistible. The Post asked him to explain his position on abortion.

He replied: “I can tell you what my position is and it's in a very narrowly defined sphere, as candidate for governor and as governor of Massachusetts, what I said to people was that I personally did not favor abortion, that I am personally pro-life. However, as governor I would not change the laws of the Commonwealth relating to abortion. Now I don't try and put a bow around that and say what does that mean you are - does that mean you're pro-life or pro-choice, because that whole package - meaning I'm personally pro-life but I won't change the laws, you could describe that as – well, I don't think you can describe it in one hyphenated word.”

Got that?


Romney isn’t the only person who can get tangled up in his wording, however. Today I cop to the same problem.

Yesterday, while writing about Newt Gingrich, I mistakenly left the impression that the Nancy Pelosi plane story actually had some basis in fact. It does not. The latest evidence surfaced yesterday, in a Tampa Tribune profile of GOP congressman Adam Putnam, who had accused Pelosi of “an arrogance of extravagance” for allegedly ordering a swanky plane to bring her home to California. A key story excerpt:

“It turns out there's no evidence Pelosi requested any such thing….The nonpartisan House sergeant-at-arms released a written statement explaining that for security reasons he asked for a plane that could carry Pelosi nonstop to her home in San Francisco, a much longer distance than former Speaker Dennis Hastert, of Illinois, had to cover. Putnam now acknowledges he had no personal knowledge of any Pelosi request. He said he was commenting on an anonymously-sourced story in The Washington Times and additional coverage from CNN. ‘This was a classic case where the media got out in front of us,’ Putnam said. ‘Did we jump on it? Yes.”’

In other words, Putnam decided to drive this “message,” even though he didn’t have a clue whether it was true or not, and didn’t bother to find out the facts. Perhaps it will be worth remembering this incident when the House Republicans seek to drive the message that their friends across the aisle are “against the troops.”