Friday, June 15, 2007

The GOP seizes on Verbalgate

Everybody behaved badly. That’s my verdict on the Harry Reid imbroglio, which perhaps can be nicknamed Verbalgate.

Four days ago, in a phone conversation with liberal bloggers, the Senate Democratic leader referred to Peter Pace, the lame duck chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as “incompetent” – a fact that surfaced yesterday, when Politico posted a somewhat sketchy report. In the ensuing fallout, all interested parties played their predictable (and sometimes hypocritical) roles, thereby illustrating the stark ideological divisions that pervade wartime Washington.

Start with Reid. He spent much of yesterday trying to parry the Politico story, telling reporters “I’m not going to get into it, what I said or didn’t say.” Politico had reported the “incompetent” remark, but hadn’t provided any context. That came late in the day, when excerpts from a tape recording of the conversation were posted online. Here’s what Reid said to the liberal bloggers:

“…Well, I guess the president, he's gotten rid of Pace because he could not get confirmed here in the Senate. Pace is also a yes-man for the president. I told him to his face, I laid it out last time he came in to see me. I told him what an incompetent man I thought he was…”

Politically speaking, it’s easy to see why Reid felt compelled to beat up on a senior military officer in a phone call with the bloggers. He is well aware that the Democratic Congress has been plummeting in the polls, in large measure because his party base is furious that it has failed thus far to effectively confront President Bush on the Iraq war; as evidenced by the Washington Post’s surveys, support among liberal Democrats had dropped 22 percentage points since April.

This helps to explain why Reid felt the need to demonstrate that he’s on the case, that he’s still determined to block Bush on the war, that he’s still willing to play the tough guy (at least verbally) – and what better way to demonstrate toughness than to tell the liberal bloggers that he had dressed down a beribboned brass hat in private?

But assuming he really did call Pace incompetent to his face in private, I would suggest that it’s somewhat graceless to publicly share that news. Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned guy who is out of sync with the transparency culture, but it seems to me that there is something to be said for discretion, a trait that was widely embraced in pre-polarized Washington.

Is it fair to Pace – whatever his shortcomings, some of which we’ll discuss in a moment – that criticism directed at him in private is then repeated as red meat for the liberal base? Does that speak well of Reid’s leadership style? Reid himself may have sensed that he had erred by dishing with the bloggers; that may explain why he declined to repeat the “incompetent” characterization while under questioning yesterday.

But while Reid ran his mouth too freely, the Republicans did the same in response. The GOP was in a huff yesterday at the idea that a Democrat would dare say something bad about a man in uniform. At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow declared that “in a time of war, for a leader of a party that says it supports the military, it seems outrageous to be issuing slanders toward the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”

Isn’t this the same White House that dumped Pace only one week ago, having apparently decided that his stalwart defense of the Iraq war had tainted him politically, thus making him a poor candidate for a second term as Joint Chiefs chairman? On the issue of “outrageous” “slanders,” isn’t this the same White House that has repeatedly suggested that Democrats who oppose the Iraq war are aiding the terrorists?

And why didn’t the White House assail Sen. John McCain back in February, when he suggested in a hearing that another military luminary had botched his job in Iraq? (McCain to Gen. George Casey: "I question seriously the judgment that was employed in your execution of your responsibilities in Iraq. And we have paid a very, very heavy price in American blood and treasure because of what is now agreed to by literally everyone as a failed policy.")

While the GOP message machine will focus on Reid’s use of the word “incompetent,” it’s just as useful to note that Reid, in his chat with the bloggers, also described Pace as “a yes-man for the president.” That’s about as earth-shattering as the news that Britney Spears parties without underpants. Pace has been uttering the Bush-Cheney line on Iraq for a long time, seemingly impervious to the downward spiral. He was a faithful servant to Donald Rumsfeld, and he was so loyal to the White House that he took it upon himself to write a character reference for convicted felon Scooter Libby, and send it to the judge (“He impressed me as a team player…”).

But even Pace seemed to sense the pitfalls of being a yes man. During a conversation last July with Bob Woodward, the author asked Pace to characterize the latest spike in violence that was plaguing U.S. forces at the time. Pace replied that the insurgents were simply desperate to stop democracy from functioning.

Part of the reason for the violence, Pace said, “is the understanding of the enemy, that they’re on the ropes as far as if this parliament continues to function…” Woodward then asked whether Pace really wanted to suggest that the insurgents were “on the ropes.” Pace replied, “Wrong word.” Woodward then said, “Yeah, you’re going to sound like Dick Cheney. Do you want to retract that?” Pace said, “I would like to retract that, thank you.” All told, however, when asked to characterize the Iraq war, Pace replied: “I do not have doubt about what we’ve done.”

Bush and the GOP are desperate to find anything that might distract Americans from the havoc they have wrought in Iraq, and they seem to think that Reid’s indiscretion will suffice. In reality, however, Verbalgate will provide them with approximately 17 minutes of respite. The GOP seems to think there is political mileage in labeling Reid as “the Far Left’s front man on Iraq,” but, in truth, “the Far Left” and centrist America are in current agreement that this disastrous war is a GOP production, and that the GOP should be held to account. The 2008 election will not hinge on whether Harry Reid is too loose with his lips.