Friday, July 06, 2007

GOP dissidents in the Cave of Winds

The U.S. Senate has long been derisively characterized as the Cave of Winds, because the august members of the upper chamber tend to talk a good game without actually doing anything. Bear this in mind while watching the parade of Republican senators who seem eager to declare their rhetorical independence from President Bush and his ruinous war.

Yesterday, Pete Domenici of New Mexico became the third GOP senator to break with Bush within the last two weeks, echoing Dick Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio. Domenici, who faces a tough ’08 re-election race in a newly swing state where he was once considered inviolate, voiced his desire for “a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to continuing home.”

However – and here’s the rub – he also signaled that he has no intention to join the Senate Democratic majority in actually crafting a substantive antiwar bill (“I’m not calling for an immediate withdrawal or a reduction in funding”); not did he even hint at any desire to round up his fellow Republicans to vote for such a bill, and to stand firm by overriding the inevitable Bush veto.

Domenici sounded just like Lugar. Eleven days ago, the Indiana lawmaker called for a major change in Iraq strategy during a speech on the Senate floor – then proceeded to undercut his words by scoffing at the Democrats’ attempts to take action. In subsequent TV interviews, he dismissed the idea of enacting “so-called timetables” and characterized them as “very partisan.” And that’s certainly how he felt back in the spring when he and his GOP colleagues voted against Democratic efforts to enact a withdrawal timetable.

Stephen Colbert wins first prize for nailing Lugar – and, in essence, exposing the GOP dissidents as typical inhabitants of the Cave of Winds. From his show last Thursday: “According to (Lugar’s) spokesperson, this speech was ‘months in the making, weeks in the writing.’ Which means Senator Lugar already thought that the war wasn’t worth it back in April when he voted against a timetable for withdrawal…Why did he wait to make the speech? He wanted to make sure it was perfect…This, folks, is just the latest example of what I call ‘courageous waiting.’ Anyone can see a crisis and so something about it, but it takes a special breed to recognize a problem, wait until nothing can be done, and then express an opinion.”

Rather than actually confront Bush – a president who has long demonstrated that he is immune to rational persuasion – the GOP dissidents continue to believe that the prudent course of action is…rational persuasion. Hence, Domenici said yesterday that he supports the bipartisan Senate bill that would codify the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group as official U.S. policy. The problem is that, although the Iraq Study Group did envision a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops by next March, it did not call for the imposition of any enforceable timelines. Which means that such a law would leave Bush plenty of wiggle room to simply stay the course.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, clearly aware that these Republicans are talking bravely but offering little else, issued a statement yesterday that essentially called upon the dissidents to either put up or shut up:

“We will not see a much-needed change of course in Iraq until Republicans like senators Domenici, Lugar, and Voinovich are willing to stand up to President Bush and his stubborn clinging to a failed policy – and, more importantly, back up their words with action. Beginning with the Defense Authorization bill next week, Republicans will have the opportunity to not just say the right things on Iraq, but vote the right way, too…”

Reid was referring to the impending Senate Democratic bid to attach binding antiwar language to a Pentagon spending bill – perhaps a requirement that troop withdrawals begin within four months, followed by a large-scale pullout next spring. He’s clearly challenging the big-talking Republicans to walk the walk, but don’t hold your breath. (Also yesterday, GOP House member John Doolittle told an audience in his conservative California district that the Iraq war is a "quagmire" and that he now wants our troops to be pulled off the front lines. But, like the Senate GOP dissidents, he says he wouldn't support a mandatory withdrawal timeline, either.)

It’s not hard to dissect the GOP dissidents’ strategy. They’re just trying to talk their way out of their political bind. With the ’08 elections looming, and with a landslide majority of Americans now opposing the war and supporting a troop drawdown, these nervous Republicans are trying to put themselves on record as skeptics; this way, when the political climate gets even worse for the GOP next year, they can cite their ’07 speeches as proof that they had already distanced themselves from the loyal Bushies. On the other hand, they don’t want to actually help the Democrats confront Bush by enacting substantive legislation, because that would tick off the loyal Bushie conservative voters. Domenici, and a number of his politically vulnerable colleagues, will need those voters in 2008.

But unless these Republicans actually back up their words with action, it’s likely that nothing will change. President Bush and Vice President Cheney (or perhaps it’s the other way around) won’t budge unless confronted by a bipartisan, veto-proof demonstration of countervailing power. Here’s one new opinion on how to get Bush’s attention:

“The president is strongly motivated to string out the war until he leaves office, in order to avoid taking responsibility for the defeat he has caused and persisted in making greater each year for more than three years. To force him to begin a withdrawal before then, (Congress should signal) a flat refusal to appropriate money to be used in Iraq for anything but withdrawal operations, with a clear deadline for completion.

“The final step should be to put that president on notice that if ignores this legislative action and tries to extort Congress into providing funds by keeping U.S. forces in peril, impeachment proceedings will proceed in the House of Representatives. Such presidential behavior surely would constitute the ‘high crime’ of squandering the lives of soldiers and Marines for his own personal interest.”

Who’s saying that, John Conyers? Michael Moore? Rosie O’Donnell? Cindy Sheehan?

No, that’s retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, who served eight years under Ronald Reagan, first as the Army's senior intelligence officer, then as director of the top-secret National Security Agency. Even he seems to think that the time for talk is long past. And unless the GOP Senate dissidents agree to act in a substantive fashion, they will merely be gusts of air in the Cave of Winds.


Following up on yesterday's post about John McCain's campaign money woes:

You know that the erstwhile "maverick" must be in bad shape, when it turns out that he actually has less cash on hand than...Ron Paul.