David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation.
He has written for the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Newsday, Harper's, The New Republic, Mother Jones, Washington Monthly, LA Weekly, the Village Voice, Slate, Salon, TomPaine.com, Alternet, and many other publications.
He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War (Crown, 2006).
His book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown, 2003) was a New York Times bestseller. The Los Angeles Times said, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. The Washington Post called it "a fierce polemic...a serious case....[that] ought to be in voters' minds when they cast their ballots. A painstaking indictment."
His first novel, Deep Background, a political thriller, was published by St. Martin's Press in 1999. The Washington Post said it is "brimming with gusto....As clean and steely as an icy Pinot Grigio....[An] exceptional thriller." The Los Angeles Times called it "a slaughterhouse scorcher of a book you don't want to put down" and named it one of the best novels of the year. The New York Times said, "You can either read now or wait to see the movie....Crowded with fictional twists and revelations." The Chicago Tribune noted, "This dark, impressive political thriller...is a top-notch piece of fiction, thoughtful and compelling." PBS anchor Jim Lehrer observed that Deep Background is "a Washington novel with everything. It's a page-turning thriller from first word to last...that brings some of the worst parts of Washington vividly alive."
Corn was a contributor to Unusual Suspects, an anthology of mystery and crime fiction (Vintage/Black Lizard, 1996). His short story "My Murder" was nominated for a 1997 Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America. The story was republished in The Year's 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories (Carroll & Graf, 1997).
He is the author of the biography Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA's Crusades (Simon & Schuster, 1994). The Washington Monthly called Blond Ghost "an amazing compendium of CIA fact and lore." The Washington Post noted that this biography "deserves a space on that small shelf of worthwhile books about the agency." The New York Times termed it "a scorchingly critical account of an enigmatic figure who for two decades ran some of the agency's most important, and most controversial, covert operations."
Corn has long been a commentator on television and radio. He is a regular panelist on the weekly television show, Eye On Washington. He has appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity and Colmes, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, Crossfire, The Capital Gang, Fox News Sunday, Washington Week in Review, The McLaughlin Group, Hardball, C-SPAN's Washington Journal, and many other shows. He is a regular on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show and To The Point and has contributed commentary to NPR, BBC Radio, and CBC Radio. He has been a guest on scores of call-in radio programs.
Corn is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brown University.
So long, politics? As George W. Bush mounted Operation Noble Eagle, Republicans and Democrats found little over which to disagree. In the days after the September 11 terror attack, the entire House and Senate--with the exception of one Congresswoman--approved a resolution of war that granted Bush wide latitude. (Congress declared war, but Bush will designate the enemy.) The Senate OK'd by voice vote the controversial nomination of John Negroponte to be UN ambassador. Congress passed $40 billion in emergency funds and ceded Bush great control over their disbursement. The Senate, with little deliberation, endorsed quickly prepared legislation to expand the government's ability to wiretap suspected terrorists and to order the CIA to scuttle rules on the recruitment of informants with violent pasts. A $15 billion bailout of the airline industry nearly sailed through the House. Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders hailed the sublimation of partisan differences. House majority whip Tom DeLay even jettisoned his opposition to paying back dues to the United Nations.
Who can say how long comity will last? The Democrats' agenda has vanished as the party tries to work out the dilemmas of being in opposition during a time of declared (if not actual) war. "We're confused, as you might imagine," says a liberal House Democrat. "My fear is that most members will give Bush everything he wants and try to adjourn as quickly as possible, not have any tough votes, no debates that might get them into trouble. Every Democratic issue is down the drain." For instance, Representative Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, suspended his almost-successful attempt at forcing Republican House leaders to bring his campaign finance reform bill up for a vote. "All efforts are on helping New York City and the Pentagon rebuild," a Meehan aide explains. House and Senate Democrats shelved provisions that imposed limits on national missile defense funding. "No one wants to look partisan now," says a Democratic Senate aide. "You can argue SDI money is better spent elsewhere, but no Democrat wants to give Bush and the Republicans the opportunity of pointing a finger and saying, 'There they go.'"
It was Bush, not a Democrat, who publicly noted that Washington must remember that a domestic agenda remains. "Sure," says a Democratic Congressional aide, "education and a patients' bill of rights, on his terms now." As members of Congress returned to Washington, Democrats were hoping the Republicans would not move fast with a proposal for a capital gains tax cut. "If they push this forward under the cover of crisis, it will be very difficult to stop," the aide remarks.
On the Democratic side, Representative Barney Frank has tried to initiate one crafty strategic thrust. The liberal Democrat drafted legislation to rescind the reduction in the top income tax rate that passed as part of Bush's tax cut. That particular cut mainly benefits the top 1 percent, and Frank would devote the billions rescued to Social Security and Medicare. "This would let us spend $100 billion on reconstruction, airport security, military action, the economy, without tapping the Social Security surplus," Frank says. "The Republicans promised not to touch Social Security; this would allow them to keep their promise."
Frank's colleagues applauded when he described the bill at a Democratic caucus meeting. But the GOPers will certainly seek to smother Frank's legislation, and they have the means to do it. Credit Frank with attempting to provide the Democrats an active position of their own. The question is, Do enough of his colleagues want one? "Great idea," says a House Democrat. "I just don't know if we're strong enough to do this."
Another unknown is whether Democrats and Republicans will skirmish over the attack-related matters that will dominate Washington. A dramatic boost in Pentagon spending appears a certainty. Will there be disagreement over how much? (Some GOPers yearn for a 25 percent increase.) The Administration will be pressing assorted law enforcement and security initiatives. Senator Pat Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has signaled that he's not eager to rubber-stamp new measures with civil liberties consequences. And Senator Russ Feingold, who chairs a judiciary subcommittee, has declared he feels "a special duty to defend our Constitution against proposals, born of an understandable desire for vengeance and justice, that would undermine the constitutional liberties that make this country what it is." Yet how much of a fight might arise? "The mood is basically to cave," says Julian Epstein, the former minority staff director of the House Judiciary Committee. But Epstein believes a partisan clash could materialize if the Republicans get greedy and push for too much.
"This all will be very frustrating," says a senior House Democratic aide. "Who knows how long a war on terrorism takes?" Noting disappointment with his leader, a Democratic Congressman remarks, "Dick Gephardt said there should be no light and no air between us and the President. But there have to be things worthy of debate. It's not political bickering to deal with the economy and civil liberties. There are debates to be had--even if most people want to run out of town."
The military and the national security bureaucracy are quick to use the terror attacks to demand more funds and discretion.
He may have been screwed out of the election, but he's still a terrible candidate.
The next scene in Return of the Bushies may feature Brent Scowcroft, who was National Security Adviser to Bush I. The anonymous leakers of Washington are whispering that Scowcroft is in line to become head of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. This little-known outfit advises the chief executive on sensitive intelligence matters and occasionally investigates national security controversies. In recent years it has probed such delicate topics as security at the Energy Department ("a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has proven itself incapable of reforming itself," huffed the board), ex-CIA director John Deutch's mishandling of classified information (PFIAB--pronounced Piffiab--blasted George Tenet, the current director, for not supervising the Deutch inquiry better) and the China-stole-our-nuclear-weapons-secrets flap ("Possible damage has been minted as probable disaster; workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion has been cast as diabolical conspiracies. Enough is enough"). PFIAB also oversees the Intelligence Oversight Board, which is supposed to prepare reports on intelligence activities that may be unlawful.
Scowcroft, a national security establishment elder, has the standing to lead the board--but his connections make him a poor choice. If he's tapped for the part-time, unpaid job, which requires no Senate confirmation, he'll be granted access to a trove of government secrets. But Scowcroft heads a company that is--and would continue to be--in the business of providing intelligence to firms here and abroad. Should a fellow who directs an intelligence service for foreign and domestic corporations be allowed the run of the US intelligence apparatus?
After the fall of Bush I, Scowcroft hatched the Scowcroft Group. Billed as an "international business advisory group," Scowcroft's firm--"managed directly" by its namesake, according to its website--offers businesses "a wide range of services" to assist them in "strategic planning, risk management, market development and ongoing operations." The group boasts "extraordinary regional expertise" in Asia, Latin America, Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. And it claims "strong ties to key decision-makers" in these regions. Its clients are telecom, insurance, aerospace, energy, financial, electronics and food companies around the world.
As the chairman of PFIAB, Scowcroft could easily come across sensitive information useful to customers and his own business endeavors. For instance, in 1997 the Scowcroft Group contracted with Medley Advisors to help it provide political intelligence and analysis to firms that trade the stocks, bonds and currencies of emerging-market nations. What if Scowcroft, while tending to his PFIAB duties, acquires nonpublic information related to the financial position of such nations? This is not to suggest that he's going to sell secrets and commit treason. But there likely will be enough overlap between his private and public interests to provoke questions about his official actions and decisions.
Scowcroft and his group are connected to many enterprises that could benefit from inside intelligence. He has been a consultant for the oil industry and sits on the board of Pennzoil-Quaker State. (In 1996 he was paid $130,000 by Pennzoil--part of a consortium exploring and drilling in Azerbaijan--to lobby US policy on Azerbaijan.) He has been a director of Global Power and Pipelines, an Enron subsidiary with interests in power projects in China, Guatemala, the Philippines, Argentina and Colombia. He has been on the board of telecom giant Qualcomm since 1995. This past February he exercised fewer than half his stock options in the company and pocketed $17 million.
Scowcroft is now steering a government review panel assessing new intelligence-collection technologies. Could what he gleans from this exercise be useful to Qualcomm? Or to iDefense, a high-tech firm that maintains a partnership with the Scowcroft Group and was hired by the Pentagon, according to Intelligence Newsletter, to conduct "a series of private intelligence missions"?
Beyond Scowcroft's business ties lies another problem: his Bush ties. A friend of the family, he was a key foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush during the campaign. PFIAB would inspire more confidence if it were not filled with loyalists who could be expected to be protective of the Administration. When Bill Clinton was President, he appointed several fundraiser pals to the board--and earned justified criticism--but in 1998 he named Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator, to be PFIAB's chairman. No one could argue that Rudman had an interest in covering Clinton's backside.
Scowcroft's possible appointment has irritated conservatives who correctly consider him a member in too good standing with the business-before-ideology, go-easy-on-China foreign policy establishment. Columnist William Safire recently took a swipe at Bush for considering Scowcroft, who, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, was dispatched by Bush I on a secret mission to China to keep US-China relations on an even keel. And the Scowcroft Group has been keen on doing and promoting business in China. National security right-wingers shudder at the thought of a Scowcroft-led PFIAB investigating charges of Chinese espionage. Scowcroft has also been opposing sanctions against Iran and Libya of late, and hawks would not be wrong to suspect it's because of his links to Big Oil.
The presidential executive order governing PFIAB notes that members of the board "shall be...qualified on the basis of achievement, experience and independence." Such boilerplate is often ignored. But Scowcroft stretches the boundaries of the independence qualification. He's not independent from Bush circles. And he will arrive toting a briefcase overflowing with obligations to corporate clients. Scowcroft, per federal regulations, will not even have to file a financial disclosure form. This is one act of clan patronage Bush should forgo.
Will Al Gore become the Dimpled President?
Maybe that Karl Rove ain't such a genius. In the past few weeks Democrats have, with a touch of glee, been wondering about George W. Bush's Svengali-strategist as Rove has stepped into several cow pies. Shortly after the Jeffords jump--for which Rove took his lumps--the Associated Press revealed that in March Rove met with senior Intel executives seeking federal approval of a merger of two chip manufacturers--at a time when Rove held between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of Intel stock as part of a portfolio worth $2 million. Rove claimed he had not discussed this particular matter and merely referred the Intel guys to others in the government. But if someone knocks on the door of a Bush Administration official and can say, "Karl sent me," does that not help the visitor? Several weeks later, the Justice Department OK'd the merger--and Intel politely sent a thank-you note to several Bushies, including Rove.
In addition to his ethics, Rove's judgment has been questioned, as his ham-handed role in contentious policy decisions has made the Bush White House appear as political as its predecessor--a tough task! On the campaign trail, Bush the Outsider blasted the Slickster in Chief for governing by polls and setting policy by focus groups. Yet Rove has pushed the Administration to oppose stem-cell research, which involves human embryos, to advance his plan to cement Catholic voters into the GOP bloc. And when Bush announced that the Navy would halt bombing practice on Vieques in Puerto Rico in 2003, angry Hill Republicans questioned Rove's crucial part in the decision and assailed him for placing politics above national security.
Other bad news for Rove: A much-ballyhooed (and front-page) New York Times/CBS poll in mid-June showed Bush's key numbers in decline. Have Bush's (anti-)environment stands and coziness with Big Bidness taken a toll? In other words, is Rove losing his knack?
The White House stood by him--for Rove is the White House--and quickly tried to douse the Rove/Intel story. "My level of confidence with Karl Rove," declared Bush, "has never been higher." White House press-spinner Ari Fleischer pooh-poohed the Rove matter, claiming, "The American people are tired of these open-ended investigations and fishing expeditions." How did he know? Did he take a poll? And how convenient for the GOP to gripe about free-for-all investigations now. Dan Burton, the conspiracy-chasing Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who investigated every speck of controversy hurled at the Clintons, is still pursuing the Clintonites, most recently by probing a nine-year-old prosecution in Florida that tangentially involves Janet Reno. In any event, when Fleischer made his statement, there was no Rove investigation under way. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on Burton's committee, had merely written Rove, asking him to answer six questions regarding his stock holdings and whether he had conducted meetings with representatives of other companies in which he owned stock, including Enron, the Texas energy company. (At press time, Waxman had yet to receive a reply.)
Perhaps Democratic senators--who, unlike Waxman, possess the power to initiate an investigation--ought to consider poking into Rove's finances and, more important, the influence of corporate contributors and lobbyists at the White House. (Of course, the latter would invite similar questions about the Democratic Party.) Yet they have not pounced. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle said publicly, "Democrats want to legislate, not investigate." But Waxman and Democratic Representative John Dingell have tried to push beyond the Rove/Intel episode. They asked the General Accounting Office, the Congressional watchdog, to examine the meetings of Vice President Cheney's energy task force and determine who--and what interests--helped shape the Bush energy plan.
Cheney's office balked. "We have not released a list of names so that people could choose whether or not they wanted to air [their] views publicly," explained Mary Matalin, a Cheney aide. Funny, Republicans weren't this respectful of privacy several years ago, when they demanded information about the proceedings of Hillary Clinton's healthcare task force. But few Democrats have raised a fuss about White House reluctance to release the information. The GAO, though, told Cheney he must comply with its request. And still Cheney has not turned over the material, setting up a potential clash.
The bloom may be off the Rove, but he's far from wilted. After all, Rove got a fellow widely derided as a boob into the White House, and then he guided a gigantic relieve-the-rich tax cut through Congress. Those are damn good first--if not last--laughs. Now Bush can also thank Rove (and Cheney) for helping to show that his White House is a down-home hoedown of corporate and political favoritism.
"How would you feel if your wife and children were brutally raped before being hacked to death by soldiers during a military massacre of 800 civilians, and then two governments tried to cover up the killings?" It's a question that won't be asked of Elliott Abrams at a Senate confirmation hearing--because George W. Bush, according to press reports, may appoint Abrams to a National Security Council staff position that (conveniently!) does not require Senate approval. Moreover, this query is one of a host of rude, but warranted, questions that could be lobbed at Abrams, the Iran/contra player who was an assistant secretary of state during the Reagan years and a shaper of that Administration's controversial--and deadly--policies on Latin America and human rights. His designated spot in the new regime: NSC's senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations. (At press time, the White House and Abrams were neither confirming nor denying his return to government.)
Bush the Second has tapped a number of Reagan/Bush alums who were involved in Iran/contra business for plum jobs: Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Otto Reich and John Negroponte. But Abrams's appointment--should it come to pass--would mark the most generous of rehabilitations. Not only did Abrams plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to Congress about the Reagan Administration's contra program, he was also one of the fiercest ideological pugilists of the 1980s, a bad-boy diplomat wildly out of sync with Bush's gonna-change-the-tone rhetoric. Abrams, a Democrat turned Republican who married into the cranky Podhoretz neocon clan, billed himself as a "gladiator" for the Reagan Doctrine in Central America--which entailed assisting thuggish regimes and militaries in order to thwart leftist movements and dismissing the human rights violations of Washington's cold war partners.
One Abrams specialty was massacre denial. During a Nightline appearance in 1985, he was asked about reports that the US-funded Salvadoran military had slaughtered civilians at two sites the previous summer. Abrams maintained that no such events had occurred. And had the US Embassy and the State Department conducted an investigation? "My memory," he said, "is that we did, but I don't want to swear to it, because I'd have to go back and look at the cables." But there had been no State Department inquiry; Abrams, in his lawyerly fashion, was being disingenuous. Three years earlier, when two American journalists reported that an elite, US-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in El Mozote, Abrams told Congress that the story was commie propaganda, as he fought for more US aid to El Salvador's military. The massacre, as has since been confirmed, was real. And in 1993 after a UN truth commission, which examined 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador, attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the Reagan-assisted right-wing military and its death-squad allies, Abrams declared, "The Administration's record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement." Tell that to the survivors of El Mozote.
But it wasn't his lies about mass murder that got Abrams into trouble. After a contra resupply plane was shot down in 1986, Abrams, one of the coordinators of Reagan's pro-contra policy (along with the NSC's Oliver North and the CIA's Alan Fiers), appeared several times before Congressional committees and withheld information on the Administration's connection to the secret and private contra-support network. He also hid from Congress the fact that he had flown to London (using the name "Mr. Kenilworth") to solicit a $10 million contribution for the contras from the Sultan of Brunei. At a subsequent closed-door hearing, Democratic Senator Thomas Eagleton blasted Abrams for having misled legislators, noting that Abrams's misrepresentations could lead to "slammer time." Abrams disagreed, saying, "You've heard my testimony." Eagleton cut in: "I've heard it, and I want to puke." On another occasion, Republican Senator Dave Durenberger complained, "I wouldn't trust Elliott any further than I could throw Ollie North." Even after Abrams copped a plea with Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, he refused to concede that he'd done anything untoward. Abrams's Foggy Bottom services were not retained by the First Bush, but he did include Abrams in his lame-duck pardons of several Iran/contra wrongdoers.
Abrams was as nasty a policy warrior as Washington had seen in decades. He called foes "vipers." He said that lawmakers who blocked contra aid would have "blood on their hands"--while he defended US support for a human-rights-abusing government in Guatemala. When Oliver North was campaigning for the Senate in 1994 and was accused of having ignored contra ties to drug dealers, Abrams backed North and claimed "all of us who ran that program...were absolutely dedicated to keeping it completely clean and free of any involvement by drug traffickers." Yet in 1998 the CIA's own inspector general issued a thick report noting that the Reagan Administration had collaborated with suspected drug traffickers while managing the secret contra war.
So Bush the Compassionate may hand the White House portfolio on human rights to the guy who lied and wheedled to aid and protect human-rights abusers. As Adm. William Crowe Jr. said of Abrams in 1989, "This snake's hard to kill."
In Washington, all politics is personality. Or so it often seems. After the Jim Jeffords jump, the media zoomed in on Senator John McCain and breathlessly penned a new chapter in the Bush-McCain psychodrama. Look, McCain is hosting Tom Daschle at his weekend home in Arizona! Is he about to bolt the GOP? McCain pals, including pundit/publisher/political strategist William Kristol, are meeting to ponder the possibilities of an independent McCain presidential run! Slap the news on the front page!
Ever since Bush whupped McCain in the GOP primaries, the will-he, won't-he game hasn't ceased--although McCain repeatedly pledges fealty to party and dismisses talk of a 2004 bid. But each denial stokes speculation, and much of the accompanying chatter has concentrated on McCain's ego. He can't get over being beaten by a putz. He still resents the dirty tricks pulled by Bush backers. He'll do anything to get on TV. No doubt McCain, like most pols, is driven by personal concerns. During the 2000 contest, he fell in love with leading what he considered (accurately or not) a grassroots movement for reform. Armchair psychology: It was as if McCain believed he was finally the hero he had long been portrayed to be by others. In McCain's mind, his Vietnam story--shot down and taken prisoner, refusing an early release as an admiral's son, then breaking under torture and signing a confession declaring himself a "black criminal" and attempting suicide--is not a heroic tale. "I failed," he once told an interviewer. Clearly, McCain was happy to develop a hero-through-politics narrative.
It's intriguing that McCain is trying to keep this story line alive, not only by hinting and then denying he'll go indy but by adopting a set of stands that are left of center, by conventional reckoning. The McCain soap opera isn't only about ambition and recovered heroism; it's full of policy subplots. McCain has joined Democrats Ted Kennedy and John Edwards to push a patients' bill of rights opposed by the White House, and he has also joined Democrat Joe Lieberman to offer legislation to tighten a gun-show loophole. With Democrat Russ Feingold, he pushed a modest, if problematic, campaign reform bill through the Senate over GOP objections. He even whacked Bush for abandoning the Kyoto global-warming treaty. During debate on the tax bill, he offered an amendment to scale back the tax cut for the wealthiest (the measure lost on a tie vote). Then he was one of two Republicans to vote against the bill. Not even hero-to-Democrats Jim Jeffords did that. (Jeffords had the power to gum up the relieve-the-rich tax bill, yet chose not to.)
McCain has developed a quirky agenda with a liberal leaning. He remains hawkish; he is still officially antichoice. But he's either using the prospect of a move to independence (and the attention that brings him) to push this non-Republican platform or exploiting this non-Republican platform (and the attention that brings him) to create the opportunity for a move to independence. Perhaps both. In any event, it's an encouraging development for Democrats, who, prior to the Jeffords jump, were unable to put forward much of their own message. In a closely divided Senate, a McCain in the spotlight can help them on several key fronts.
The odd sideshow here is Kristol. His associates say he has embraced McCain as a Teddy Roosevelt figure who can champion the somewhat vague but bombastic "national greatness" conservatism Kristol advocates. But McCain's acts of apostasy involve small steps to the left. Does Kristol, who was instrumental in smothering HillaryCare, really crave a strong patients' bill of rights?
McCain's latest shuffles probably bolster the Democrats more than his presidential ambitions. He'd have a tough time fully repudiating Bush and the GOP. At the Republican convention--only ten months ago--McCain said, "If you believe patriotism is more than a soundbite and public service should be more than a photo-op, then vote for Governor Bush.... I know that by supporting George W. Bush, I serve my country well." Can Mr. Straight-Talk Express renounce that statement and not seem an opportunistic crybaby? It's not as if Bush has veered from his campaign positions. To justify an exit from the party, McCain would have to proclaim: I've seen the light--Bush and the Republicans are wrong; I was wrong to support them, and it's time for me to go. Such talk might be too straight to utter. In the meantime, McCain--ambition-driven or policy-driven--has figured out how to do what many Democrats (paging Al Gore) have not: discomfit Bush, shape debates and advance a few policies that tilt left.
"What do we do now?" That famous last line of the 1972 film The Candidate, in which Robert Redford finds himself--to his surprise--elected to the Senate, should be on the minds of Senate Democrats, now that Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont has abandoned the GOP for independent-hood and an alliance with the Dems. It took a moderate--a dying breed in the Republican Party--to thrust Tom Daschle & Co. into control of half of Congress. That should mean the end of Bush's relatively--and unexpectedly--easy ride in Washington. With such a change, the Democrats' leaders will no longer be able to wring their hands and plead minority status when they lose legislative battles, such as the fight over the relieve-the-rich tax cut. The party will gain the (theoretical) ability to strike down the Bush agenda and deny him his more extreme appointees--to speak for the majority of voters who said no to Bush. All this is possible, that is, if the Democrats can mount a unified opposition. A big if, since several Senate Dems have been happy to work with Bush on taxes and other measures. The Jeffords switch doesn't change that dynamic. After all, a dozen Senate Dems ended up voting for the Reaganesque tax cut.
There is much the party can do with the Senate in its hands. Ever since the Republicans took over Congress after the 1994 election, the Democrats have tried to beat up the party of Gingrich on kitchen-table issues, including healthcare, prescription drugs, education and wages. With an edge in the Senate, Democrats have the chance to pass uncompromising legislation on several fronts: a strong patient bill of rights, expansions in health insurance to cover those not covered, a minimum-wage boost free of tax breaks for corporations. These bills would likely be shot down by the Republicans in the House and President Bush. But this could show that the Democrats do stand for something and create a record of difference useful for the party in the elections of 2002 and 2004. The last time the Democrats were in charge of Congress, they passed a modest Family and Medical Leave Act, Bush the Elder vetoed it, and a very effective campaign issue was handed to candidate Bill Clinton.
The Democrats have picked up the power of subpoena. There are many topics worthy of its use. Oil company price-gouging. Electric utilities price-gouging. Pharmaceutical companies price-gouging. Perhaps an inquiry into the recent fundraiser at the Vice President's home. (Oh, sorry, the Republicans claim it was just a "thank you" to financial supporters, not a fundraiser.) The Democrats are free to host high-profile hearings to counter Bush's bully pulpit and to advance their own ideas. Imagine hearings on victims of arsenic poisoning. Or on the dangers of nuclear waste disposal. Or on the plight of older Americans who can't afford medicine. Or on renewable-energy alternatives to increased oil drilling.
The Jeffords move, perhaps partly caused by heavy-handed Bush/GOP tactics, including threats made against dairy price supports for Vermont farmers, shows that the Republicans have a hard time being anything other than a party of the right. Yet Senator Zell Miller--the conservative Democrat of Georgia and number-one target for GOP defector-hunters--could in a similar way inconvenience the Democrats, although he has twice said he wouldn't join the party with which he regularly votes. And a Jeffords jump is not the end but the beginning of the intrigue. GOPers will be trawling for other Democratic cross-dressers besides Miller (and making sure that at least one senior citizen, Strom Thurmond, has ready access to prescription drugs). Senator Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, ought to be sweating even more. He's being investigated on a number of matters--deservedly so, it appears--but now the Republicans have even more incentive to nail him.
That one Yankee could so upset the balance in Washington--and so discomfit the Bush advance--illuminates not only how divided are forces in the capital but how much opportunity exists for the Democrats, should they be able to act like a party of principles.