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When Will Democrats Break With Bush? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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When Will Democrats Break With Bush?

In light of the news that President Bush authorized a top Administration aide to use previously classified information as part of an orchestrated political attack on a prominent critic of the Administration, a radio host asked me over the weekend: "What will it take to get Republicans to break with Bush? How bad will things have to get before they realize that he's a disaster for the country?"

I answered that, in small but significant ways, Republicans have been breaking with Bush for some time now. When the President travels to states around the country to pump up support for his war, he often does so without the accompaniment of GOP members of Congress who find that they are otherwise engaged on the days that the Commander in Chief drops by their hometowns. While most leading Republicans refuse to admit as much publicly, they are putting more and more distance between themselves and a President whose approval rating has dropped to Nixon-in-Watergate depths.

When Congress voted recently on whether to extend the Patriot Act, some of the loudest "no" votes came from conservative Republicans such as Don Young of Alaska and Butch Otter of Idaho, who argued with Democratic US Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin that the legislation was an assault on basic liberties and Constitutional standards. As but a handful of Senate Democrats and key House Democrats such as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel were lining up with the Bush Administration to curtail civil liberties, Texas Republican Ron Paul, perhaps the most consistent critic of the Patriot Act in the House, complained that "one prominent Democrat opined on national television that 'most of the 170-page Patriot Act is fine,' but that it needs some fine tuning. He then stated that he opposed the ten-year reauthorization bill on the grounds that Americans should not have their constitutional rights put on hold for a decade. His party's proposal, however, was to reauthorize the Patriot Act for only four years, as though a shorter moratorium on constitutional rights would be acceptable! So much for the opposition party and its claim to stand for civil liberties."

Perhaps even more significant than GOP opposition to the Patriot Act is the opposition from some of the most conservative Republicans in the House--including Paul, Walter Jones and Howard Coble of North Carolina, and John Duncan of Tennessee--to the war in Iraq. These Republicans, among others, are now among the most ardent and articulate Congressional critics of the Administration's policies in the Middle East.

Last week, Paul, Jones and a moderate Republican, Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, joined with three Democrats--Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Ike Skelton of Missouri and Marty Meehan of Massachusetts-–in a push to get the House to hold a daylong debate on the war, declaring that: "Americans deserve an open and honest debate about the future of US policy in Iraq by their Representatives in Congress." While the debate demand of these Republicans stalwarts was stymied by their party leadership in the House, it is notable that House Republican leaders chose not to block a March 16 amendment by US Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, which put the House on record as opposing the construction of permanent US bases in Iraq. The decision not to fight Lee's amendment, which passed by an overwhelming voice vote, was a tacit acknowledgment by GOP leaders of the reality, pointed up in a recent University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll, that 60 percent of Republican voters oppose a permanent US presence in that country.

Indeed, while a predictable 80 percent of Democrats support moves to begin withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, according to the PIPA poll, a rather more remarkable 52 percent of Republicans now want Washington to begin bringing the troops home.

Although their President and Vice President and a few key Congressional leaders may still be clinging to neoconservative fantasies, Republicans who actually care about their country-–as well as Republicans who care about the political viability of their party at a time when a new Associated Press/Ipsos poll finds that Americans would prefer a Democrat-led House by the widest margin in recent history, 49 percent to 33 percent-–are indeed beginning to make meaningful breaks with Bush.

So the question of the moment is not "What will it take to get Republicans to break with Bush?" The question is: "What will it take to get Congressional Democrats to break with Bush?"

Despite mounting evidence not just of the President's unpopularity but of his reckless disregard for the law-–which was again confirmed by last week's news of former Cheney chief of staff I. "Scooter" Libby's testimony that Bush authorized distribution of previously classified data as part of a concerted effort to undermine the credibility of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had revealed that the "case" for going to war in Iraq was based on false premises-–most Congressional Democrats continue to resist calls to hold the President accountable.

An American Research Group poll conducted in March found that 70 percent of Democrats, 42 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans surveyed favor censuring Bush for authorizing wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining court orders. Yet Feingold's motion to censure Bush has drawn just two Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate, Barbara Boxer of California and Tom Harkin of Iowa.

The same American Research Group poll found that 61 percent of Democrats, 47 percent of independents and 18 percent of Republicans are supportive of moves to impeach Bush. Yet Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has attracted just 33 co-sponsors for his resolution calling for the creation of "a select committee to investigate the administration's intent to go to war before Congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment." Most Democratic members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, have signed on. But House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and others in leadership positions remain aggressively critical of the initiative.

Where, at the very least, is the united Democratic support for Representative Maurice Hinchey's call for the expansion of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into White House leaks-–which produced the indictment of Libby and last week's revelation about the role of the President and Vice President-–to examine the motivations of all of those involved in the White House's political assault on Joe Wilson? Hinchey, a New York Democrat, has been on the case since last summer, when he got thirty-nine other House members to sign a letter he wrote to Fitzgerald calling for the expanded investigation. As Hinchey says, "Justice will not be served until all of these matters are fully addressed in the courts and in the Congress."

Hinchey's right. But the fundamental truth of American politics remains that justice will only be served when the opposition party moves, as a united force encouraged and supported by its leadership in the House and Senate, to demand accountability from this Administration. For most Democrats, that will demand something they have not yet been willing to make: a break from Bush. And Democrats had better be quick about making that break, unless they want their Republicans colleagues to beat them to the punch.

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