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Why the Bolton Nomination is a Very Big Deal

If I have a core idea about politics, it's that it should be unpredictable and improvisational. In part I'm sure that's an aesthetic preference -- that is, the show's more entertaining if you don't know what's going to happen -- but I think it's more than that. Elected officials are more likely to be honest and honorable if they can't be sure they're going to be reelected, majorities are less likely to abuse their power if they know that they might not hold the same power tomorrow, etc. Often I refer to "open" politics, and what I really mean by that word is something more like "fluid," or "uncertain" politics.

The last five years have offered very few opportunities to witness such improvisation, until this afternoon. I have to commend my colleague Steve Clemons for taking up the issue of the Bolton nomination and sticking with it, and along with many others, for helping to create such a moment. Regardless of the final vote on the Bolton nomination itself in three weeks, if it occurs, a lot happened today and last week that will reverberate over the months to come.

For those who didn't have a spouse or friend to say, "turn on C-SPAN, now," the critical moment came when, after a day of procedural wrangling about whether the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could or could not meet, the committee finally met with the clear intention of voting the Bolton nomination out on a party-line vote. After actually beginning a vote on the nomination, Senator Voinovich of Ohio suddenly spoke up to say that, while he had missed the hearing on Bolton, given what he had heard about Bolton's management style, he wasn't prepared to vote to send the nomination out of committee. That prompted Senator Chafee of Rhode Island to beg for a reprieve from the committee chairman, Richard Lugar: "Mr. Chairman, is there anything in what Senator Voinovich said today that might make you hesitate about going forward with this nomination."

One could so palpably feel that Lugar and Chafee had both made a commitment to someone, somewhere that whatever they themselves thought, they were going to march forward on the nomination without looking back. And just by saying what he thought, Voinovich forced them to look back, look around. It was a spontaneous moment, and it can't be put back in the box.

The one worry I have now about the Bolton hearings is that the issue comes down to very personal matters -- did he harass a USAID contractor in Kyrgyzstan on behalf of a client a decade ago? At that point, it turns into another he said/she said personal, slightly seedy episode. On the other hand, if the focus can remain on Bolton's misuse of NSA intercepts, and the reason he harassed subordinates at the State Department, which was that they didn't dutifully back up his unfounded statements about North Korea, Cuba and Iraq, then the nomination becomes the doorway to the question that has been very deliberately excluded from both the Senate Intelligence Committee report and the Silberman commission -- the pressure to distort intelligence. And it can also be a much broader debate about America's attitude toward the world, as embodied in our U.N. Ambassador. Much like the victory over Social Security privatization, this is more than defense or just a check-mark on the partisan scorecard. Handled correctly, it's an opportunity to make an entirely fresh case for a different set of values.

But it's the spontaneity, the thinking-for-themselves that will really have a lasting impact. This reminded me a little bit of the crazy debate over the Crime Bill of 1994, perhaps because Senator Biden was also involved then and as now, talks a lot. That was really the moment when Democrats' control of the House and Senate, and the agenda, fell apart. The election that year was merely confirmation.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 20, 2005 | Permalink


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Great post, Mark! It expresses my reactions exactly (especially about the potential of the issue of intel twisting), and makes me feel less of a geek for having sensed I'd witnessed a significant political drama yesterday.

This reminded me a little bit of the crazy debate over the Crime Bill of 1994, perhaps because Senator Biden was also involved then and as now, talks a lot.

Biden certainly is a windbag, and in this case it seemed a windbag was what was needed : to make the case, while eating up the clock a bit, to team with Dodd (substantive, more concise, but also in bagpipe mode. The windiness formed a sharp contrast with Kerry and Obama (calm, deadly, short and shorter) and Sarbanes (sooooothing voice of reason, "don't see why we can't talk for twenty more minutes about this, we have until 5 o'clock").

My attention was elsewhere in 1994. Thankfully, it sounds as if...

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Apr 20, 2005 10:52:32 PM

What was the deal in '94 that you were referring to? Thanks

Posted by: John | Apr 21, 2005 1:14:17 AM

as a student of history (i.e. someone who enjoys dissecting the last battle, on the dubious pretext that it will help us win the next one, but mostly just 'cause it's interesting), let me ask you: could the Dems have done anything differently with the Crime Bill that would have made a difference? for example, if Clinton had thrown up his hands & withdrawn support for the bill, and then asked the voters for a more compliant Congress, could it have worked?

i'm interested in everyone's views, but personally, i think not. the Crime Bill might have been the crystallizing moment, but the Dems fate had been sealed before that. to me the fateful moment was when the Manufacturers Association (whose members stood to gain more than anybody from health care reform) came out against the Clinton Plan, without endorsing any alternative. from that point forward, it was clear the health care reform was going to tank, and Dems up for re-election were scrambling to find another issue, any other issue, to show that they were centrists out to help middle america. hence the importance of the crime bill, and the utter lack of principle with which it was pursued ("just pass a bill, any bill, that sounds tough enough to innoculate me against charges of 'far left' and 'out of the mainstream'").

i see that crack-up (and saw it then) as the result of a fundamental strategic error: the Dems should have put welfare reform ahead of health care, gotten it done in '93 or early '94, and then made the '94 elections a referendum on health care reform. maybe that wouldn't have worked, either, but that's what i've been banging my forehead about ever since.

Posted by: Tom | Apr 21, 2005 11:30:55 AM

Two points: first, Mark, I think you're likely wrong (I've been around DC long enough to
qualify that) about the dangers of the "he said/she said" dynamic in the Bolton postscript
(hopefully that's what it is). The reason is that it's not simply that one episode. It's a
clear pattern of at worst several such "he said/s/he said" episodes in which the non-John
Boltons are all describing very similar behavior in comparable situations. Sometimes the
circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk. And this
particular trout is rotting from the head.

Second, re the comments and commenters on 1994, I think, Tom, that you can stop banging your
forehead. The Clinton Administration/congressional failure that led to the 1994 electoral
debacle was not at its heart a tactical one that a different legislative order would have
changed. Or, more precisely, to believe that you needed a different legislative order -- that
welfare reform should have gone first because it would have put the Republicans in a corner
-- assumes a pre-1994 awareness by the Dems that the Rs were now treating government generally
and legislative politics particularly as a vehicle for political destruction of the opposing
party rather than as a means of policy conciliation (along with an awareness of how disabling
the Dems' congressional dysfunctionality had become). The Clintons walked into this by
assuming the policy conciliation model was still in place -- that they could come up with
their own ideas, and then start the congressional negotiations -- when the congressional
Republicans had decided (I don't think this was nearly as clear at the time as it is in
retrospect) that they could only lose politically if they allowed anything to pass, and that
they had no responsibility to allow any policy conciliation process to engage.

Yeah, the Rs had been doing bits of this ever since they started manipulating Senate votes to
set up NCPAC attack ads leading up to the 1978 elections. But they -- including people like
Dole -- had managed to be at least somewhat functional on all kinds of things -- from budget
and tax policy to disability, civil rights and environmental issues -- from 1982 to 1991. Of
course, after 1991, the Republican forces led by Newt, seeking dictatorial power at all costs,
had established themselves in opposition to Bush I's tax hikes in ways they couldn't when
Reagan raised taxes, and the Republicans' rule and/or ruin regime started.

The lessons from the Republicans' use of government as a vehicle for political destruction
rather than policy conciliation really go to the point of Mark's neighboring post on the
generational approaches among Democratic activists. To oversimplify just a bit, the older
group (among whom I number myself in age but mostly not in inclination) still regards the
government-as-policy-conciliation model as one that must be pursued, even if they accept its
current dysfunctions. The younger recognizes the truth that the Republicans dominating
Congress have come to respect only campaign contributions and grass-roots clout, and that you
need to organize and demonstrate raw partisan political power before you can consider engaging
in any policy conciliation.

From the federal government perspective the latter are clearly more correct right now -- other
than constituency projects, all progressives can do in DC now is play creative and strong
defense, as they are doing on Bolton. But what both sides are missing as a nationwide
movement is the importance of pushing the model of policy conciliation by other means and in
other places, particularly at state and local levels. What I'm talking about are genuine
collaborative processes that fully and adequately represent all necessary groups and are
properly structured and facilitated to allow for any outcome on which essential consensus (not
unanimity, but close) can be reached. The reason this is essential is that even "rule and/or
ruin" Republicans continue to embrace the rhetoric of policy conciliation even as they seek
to kill it in reality. Where an issue is too big to ignore and the politics allow a genuinely
collaborative process to be engaged, it can force everybody to be at the table or be
marginalized and have their bad faith exposed. Plus, once engaged, serious collaborative
processes establish a pretty rigorous straight-face test that tends to put a premium on being
reality-based, which (per Oliver Willis) can be like kryptonite to wingnut BS.

The point of all this is not to be deluded that collaborative processes automatically have a
kumbaya effect, because they won't work unless they are politically accepted (mostly
grudgingly, but that's fine), truly inclusive, and transparent for at least all involved.
It's that we can't reestablish the policy conciliation function of government, especially at
the national level, by presuming it will simply come back once Democrats get enough
grass-roots support, money, and power to retake some part of the federal government. The
politics of national government have been too poisoned, and the corporate media have become
too bought, cynical, and detached from reality in depicting government, to allow "normal"
processes of political conciliation and policy-making to be reestablished simply on a change
of party. The process of governmental policy conciliation has to be reestablished in credible
ways outside of electoral politics, and that can only happen by empowering grass roots and
wider interests to participate directly and be accountable (lobbying in DC particularly has
devolved to selling elephant repellant only and has become antithetical to any search for
consensus solutions).

Sorry to go on for so long -- this is obviously only part of a much larger discussion, but I
thought the coincidence of posts on what started to go badly wrong in 1994, and the
institutional thinking about "where do we go from here", was too tempting to resist.

Posted by: Steady Eddie | Apr 21, 2005 1:41:46 PM

Sorry for all the weird indents in the above. When I hit "preview" it showed the whole text scrolling way out past the right margin, and the hard returns to create the indents were my failed attempt to correct that.

Mark, how to get "preview" to line up with what's actually posted?

Posted by: Steady Eddie | Apr 21, 2005 1:58:37 PM

It was just completely refreshing to see somehting actually transpiring in that setting, after the last few years of rehearsed messages that mean nothing. I grew up thinking that this is how government is supposed to work, I saw it working in the Watergate hearings way back then, and I saw it again this week. Someday perhaps the radical right will see that there is value in the process, rather than treating the process as something to choreograph. Some day maybe, but I doubt it.

Posted by: mdsand | Apr 21, 2005 3:29:51 PM

Steady Eddie, do you blog anywhere? I very much appreciate your comments, broken lines notwithstanding.

Virginia's recent experience with successfully pulling back from the brink fiscally have had me been thinking about local/state ways to break out of the paralysis of polarized parties. Examples from other states would be most welcome (and certainly more inspiring than the Va. experience, which was not grassroots, transparent, or inclusive. It did act as partial kryptonite to some winger BS, though.)

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Apr 21, 2005 10:24:24 PM

Mark: the nomination [can] become the doorway to the question that has been very deliberately excluded from both the Senate Intelligence Committee report and the Silberman commission -- the pressure to distort intelligence.

From the Decembrist's mouth to David Ignatius' ear:

The problem with Bolton, in fact, is that he epitomizes the politicization of intelligence that helped produce the fiasco over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration has so far evaded any real accounting for its role in the Iraqi WMD blunder, letting the intelligence community take the hit. The Bolton saga is a microcosm of that larger failure: It's the story of a policy-maker who tried to pressure intelligence analysts into supporting WMD views that turned out to be wrong.

I've read hundreds of pages of testimony gathered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in its review of the Bolton nomination. It's a fascinating account - not simply in its documentation of how Bolton tried to intimidate the analysts when he was undersecretary of state, but in showing how the analysts refused to buckle under pressure. In that sense, it's a lesson in how to improve the performance of the intelligence community.

It's a rare Ignatius column I endorse wholeheartedly. This is one.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Apr 23, 2005 6:22:46 PM

Neil -

I read the transcripts of the testimony surrounding Westermann's experience. It's easy to how Bolton's behavior could have a chilling effect on INR. Berating Westermann is an incident that surely made the rounds in INR, as did his efforts to get him off of Bolton's portfolio. The message from that would be perfectly clear to folks.

And then Bolton's crew leveled charges of unprofessionalism at INR when they attached a dissenting views to CIA reports (actually, it was one report on China, I think), which is a clever tactic employed to disguise true motivations.

I certainly was disappointed in Powell's relative acquiesance to the Bushco agenda. But I think it's noteworthy that Powell always supported INR through these incidents, and it's not coincidence that INR got the Iraq WMD situation exactly right. It appears that Powell was able to protect his folks where Tenet could not.

Posted by: Jon K | Apr 25, 2005 9:54:13 AM

This is one case where Democrats need to stand together. There will be further nominations to come -- more important judicial nominations -- but in a sense this is the one to watch, not least because it affects America's standing in the world. You don't have to be a U.N.-o-phile to see that Bolton is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At at time when the world needs America to engage the international community, to pursue multilateral solutions to emerging crises in places like Iran and North Korea, to take a stand against atrocities in places like Darfur, and to bolster the flagging reputation of the U.N. in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal, what is needed is the very opposite of John Bolton. Given Bush's track record, we won't get the opposite, but at least we might get someone with some decency, moderation, and common sense.

With the Bolton nomination and the filibuster issue, Democrats are finally showing some backbone. Let's hope they maintain the momentum going forward. And let's hope at least a few good and decent Republicans, like Senator Voinovich, have the courage to do the right thing.

My lengthier comments are at:


Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | Apr 25, 2005 3:56:41 PM

Mark, while most of what you say here is provocative and correct, as usual, I disagree w/ you on the question of the USAID contractor harassment. Dismissing that as personal and seedy is--and I know you don't mean it this way, so I use these terms cautiously, not meaning to hurl a bomb--tainted with unreflective and biased sex stereotyping. Those are fighting words to women, whose experiences are too often dismissed in precisely those words. I ask you to consider whether you would have used the same words had she been male. If what she said is true, if he used any and every method (including terrorizing her, essentially locking her into a room, ruthlessly attacking her for raising utterly reasonable concerns, undercutting her credibility with distortion, lies, and innuendo) to achieve his goals for his client, that's not merely personal and seedy: that's a signal that he would behave ruthlessly to win power no matter what the issue. It's a description of the Fox News approach, actually, using bullying, innuendo, and lying to achieve the goal: power without accountability to the facts, to a reasonable public, to civil discourse. Nominating such a person for a position of power and influence is a serious sign of a diseased administration.

And yes, the turning back of the nomination is a real sign of hope. Here's another question: Will the Republicans run Voinovich out of office, attacking him as disloyal in his next primary? That's what my family & friends in Ohio are wondering, since he's bucked the party line now more than once.

Posted by: EJ Graff | May 3, 2005 12:33:33 PM

Yes, I absolutely would have had the same reaction if it were a man reporting that encounter with Bolton. (I can't always say that with certainty, but here I can.) Yes, it indicates all the things that you say, but all those same things are fully indicated by more recent actions, while in government employment, some of which happened to men and some to women, and which are corroborated by other witnesses.

This one happened a long time ago, while Bolton was not a government employee (which is what I mean by personal), and it doesn't seem to be otherwise provable. Bolton's supporters are eager to turn this into another he said/she said, tearing down this victim (she is now routinely referred to on the right-wing blogs as a former Soros employee, which I think means that she volunteered for an anti-Bush organization last year, although it was not one of the 527s. But that's the worst thing they can say about someone!)

If that were the principal charge against Bolton, other than his general philosophy, would it be enough to sink him? Maybe for me, if I were a Senator and thought he was otherwise qualified, but it won't be enough for the wavering Senators, and that's why the right wants to make this the main issue on Bolton and why it's important not to.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | May 3, 2005 3:05:23 PM