Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

U.S. Senate as a paradise for bullies

John Podhoretz crushes not only Sen. Voinovich for his abuse of Bolton, but the whole Senate as well. How about discussing some issues for a change, rather than engaging in character assasination? Rebeccah Ramey is also a indignant at how Bolton is being treated. She says its not a Mr. Rogers we need as our ambassador to the U.N. I agree. There are a lot of folks hopping mad about this, I have to tell you. One of them wrote this: "Voinovich is lucky he just got re-elected. I know of ten people who would love to run against him!"

Discussions - 15 Comments

Excellent, angry piece by Podhoretz.
The U.S. Senate is a disgrace. It urgently needs radical reform. We should eliminate the filibuster for all nominations, eliminate the ability of one senator to "hold" anything, and eliminate the whole concept of "unanimous consent agreements."

People respond to incentives. Senators are largely unaccountable, and the rules give them far too much power. The Senate was supposed to be the centerpiece of constitutional government. It has become the American constitution’s greatest failure.

And Podhoretz is right to say that the Senate doesn’t debate issues. It simply delays and says No and ruins reputations. It has no independent judgment but rather responds slavishly to elite opinion -- when it responds at all. It is a mockery of what the Founders intended.

And it’s about time that conservative
intellectuals, and President Bush,
said so loud and clear.

Is this a truly constitutional problem, or a problem of particular rules and (possibly outmoded, or now badly abused and distorted) "customs"?

The Dems are a minority now, perhaps a fading one. They are scratching and clawing for any purchase they can dig their nails into. The Senate is traditionally the chamber most solicitous of minority concerns and privileges (admittedly this bent of the Senate is connected to its constitutional status as the upper chamber of a bicameral legislature). Therefore it stands to reason that the Senate should become a locus for last-ditch resistance and scorched-earth fights where the energy that should go into substantive debates is diverted instead into finding "dirt" on nominees and so on.

The elections of 1974 and 1994 really shook up the way the House does things--in each case, I think, moving the body in a more majoritarian direction. Maybe the Senate is due for such an overhaul.

OTOH, one could look at the tactical level and note how bumbling and relatively ineffective Bush and Lugar have been at advocating and managing the Bolton nomination--in both cases, I think, because they simply (as Republicans so often seem to do) underestimated the degree of partisan spite and intensity that the Democrats were ready, willing, and able to bring to the table.

One can only hope that Bush and the GOP Senate leadership are climbing the learning curve fast and will not fumble things in this way when the filibuster and Supreme Court fights come around, as they soon will (if, that is, the GOP Senate delegation really shows the spine to put up a fight).

Is it possible that Senator Voinovich is displaying true patriotism. That he is simply stating what he sees as best for our Country? Isn’t that how we want our elected officials to view things? On the basis of what they believe is best for the people of the United States of America and not simply for the sake of the party or political gain? He doubts Mr. Bolton’s integrity and competency. Take the Bolten nomination out of the picture and ask yourself... On any issue, do you really want him to just agree for the sake of the party or would you have him voice his concerns? I admire independent thought and the courage to speak up when you beleive something isn’t right. I’m increasingly discouraged by the polarization in this Country and the rush to a position on an issue based on what your party affiliation is rather than what a person truly thinks. ( I know this is not true for everyone, but seems to happen more and more often.)

If Aristotle is right, one becomes courageous by performing courageous acts. Patton understood this too.

Unfortunately, the Senate is structured in such a way as to deter courageous action by a majority. If a party is fundamentally courageous -- and let’s not kid ourselves, the Democrats are -- the dysfunctionality of the Senate is not a problem. But if a party is less than courageous -- and I think the Senate Republicans qualify -- it won’t risk the wrath of the other side when Senate rules give the intense minority such an advantage. Therefore, little gets done in the Senate of a conservative nature. The Republican "majority" gets little practice in performing courageous acts, and remains cowardly and impotent.

And I might add, vis-a-vis Bush and Lugar, not only underestimating the Dems’ intensity, but not doing a good job of looking to their own side’s wild cards and loose cannons (see in dictionary under "Voinovich, George").

The best floor strategy now, I suspect, is to stop worrying about GOP potential waverers, and steal a march on the Dems by splitting off some of their Senators and getting them to support Bolton. There are a number running for reelction in red states next fall . . . Bush’s people should let these red-state Dems know toute de suite that voting against Bolton in 2005 will be a great way to ensure numerous presidential visits to fundraise and campaign for their opponents come 2006.

Voinovich’s "case" against Bolton came down to, in so many words, "I’m unseasy about his manners, and I think there may be other and better people out there to do the job." Very thin gruel for denying the president his choice in a diplomatic (i.e., purely executive-branch) appointment, esp coming from someone who didn’t show up to the hearings for weeks.

The Dems clearly view this whole thing as a strategic encounter--viz., it’s not really "about" Bolton himself, but about striking at Bush’s whole foreign-policy approach with a view to crippling his presidency politically and discrediting it before the widest possible audience. The attacks on Bolton’s alleged "arrogance" are just a smokescreen for that. For Voinovich to play up so dramatically his hand-wringing about Bolton in this context is the act of a fool if not worse.

PJC - I listened to parts of Senator Voinovich’s statements and I’m sorry but your characterization doesn’t seem to represent his full concerns. A couple of points that he made were that if Mr. Bolton had displayed the same behavior in the private sector as he did in his position in the public sector that he believed he would have been fired and that Mr. Bolton displays the opposite behavior of one who should be in a diplomatic position. In my opinion, Senator Voinovich is stating what he believes and that is a good thing. As far as the Dem’s you are probably right that to a large degree they see this as a battle that they want to win more than if Mr. Bolton is a qualified and competent candidate which is as bad as voting for him because you have an R next to your name.

Mr. Frisk, I like your second post and want to ask about courage. Do we need to attribute it to party leadership instead of an individual? Can’t it be courageous to vote with your heart instead of along party lines?

And, if the Dems are so courageous then why is there position on Soc Sec nothing more than one against whatever the Republicans propose? If they had true courage, they would tell the public the truth - the ONLY way SS will become solvent is by cutting benefits, raising taxes or a combination of both?

In the ultimate sense, I do think it’s accurate to say the Democrats are cowards, because, as you suggest, they are afraid to face the real needs of this country and to think seriously about them -- things that indeed take courage. However, in their dealings with the immediate political situation, their courage is clear. They are always aggressive, and are rarely deterred by whatever lame threats the Republicans manage to come up with.

Voinovich loses little by stabbing his party in the back. One, he does not represent a particularly conservative state. Two, voters do not punish incumbents for being too liberal or for party disloyalty, as a rule. Three, the White House has not proven to be especially good at punishing its adversaries within the GOP. Yes, it can be courageous to vote with your "heart." But not necessarily. Too often, the heart or the conscience is just a pretty word for something else.

Well, a couple of points, I don’t think agression = courage. Yes, the Dems have shown agressiveness, but that does not necessarily translate to courage. A cornered animal can also be agressive. To me courage is sticking your neck out to do what you believe is right. I don’t really like "party politics" as a rule. And I would be against the White House "punishing" those that don’t agree within their party. I should also qualify that I don’t think an R or a D next to a person’s name makes them good/bad, cowardly or courageous. I do appreciate some of the Dems agressiveness b/c I do not think that the Bush administration really has the mandate that they think they do. There were many factors that played into the election, and just b/c someone was elected does not mean that the majority of Americans agree with their total agenda.

Nick: Thanks for your thoughtful posts. I’ll just say that I’m not at all sure Bolton would get fired. It depends very much on context. There are certain sectors/professions/enterprises/management cultures where being demanding and abrasive is not considered problematic and may even be thought a virtue. No link is to be had online, but Niall Ferguson wrote a review for the WashPost Book World (Sunday book section) last fall, IIRC, about James Wolfensohn and the World Bank (or IMF, whichever one he ran). Ferguson described a huge culture clash as the WB/IMF preferred style, much like the UN’s ,is very smooth, "diplomatic" (in Voinovich’s sense) and tactful whereas Wolfensohn was an investment banker, a trade in which--according to Ferguson--one is expected to shout, curse, storm out of meetings, even throw things, and it’s all in the game. Ferguson (again, IIRC) says Wolfensohn wanted to shock and shake up the complacent bank employees, and he did. If Bolton were an I-banker, therefore, I don’t think he’d necessarily get fired.

As for the "not diplomatic" charge, I think Voinovich is using "diplomatic," as we do in common speech, as a synonym for "nice, tactful, polite." Fine, but I don’t think the "go along, get along" spirit connoted by that word is what we need to help us clean out the Augean Stables at Turtle Bay these days. So in my view, Voinovich, perhaps w/out much thought (he’s probably mostly just parroting the Dems and the media) is hiding a substantive objection to Bolton (something along the lines of "we like the UN and don’t want to see it radically change its ways") inside a trumped-up formal objection ("Bolton is a meanie"). I think the tactic is cheap and evasive. What the critics can’t or don’t have the nerve to defend the UN status quo, so they find ladies who say Bolton threw file folders at them (good grief).

Nick, you’re right that aggressiveness is not equal to courage, but aggressiveness in the face of a substantial opponent (like the fact that the other party has beaten you in the last few elections) does seem to partake of courage. As for your point that having the R or D label doesn’t make people good or bad ... yes, that’s obvious. It is the Democrats’ actions and words that make them bad -- and, unfortunately at the same time, rather strong and effective. Likewise with the Republicans.

You say you don’t like "party politics." Well, at any level above local government at least, that’s exactly what we have. You’re all but saying you don’t like politics.

And just for the record, I am all for the White House doing what it can to enforce party discipline, because I’m far less concerned with the "rights" of senators than I am with fair representation for the voters who put them there -- and with the survival of self-government in America, which the liberals in the judicial branch are destroying. Next to that, the moans of senators who feel their dignity is being violated mean exactly nothing.

As for the Democrats and their aggressiveness or courage or whatever, there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question here, but I think you’re seeing both a token and a cause of their arriving minority status. Shrinking from majority to minority status means, almost by definition, getting closer to your "natural" base (which in our still mostly two-party system means for each of the majori parties a figure somewhere between one-third and two-fifths of the electorate). And of course for a party to shink toward its base will normally also mean sliding toward the end of the ideological spectrum near which that base is concentrated.

A feedback-loop process of sorts can set it in. To describe in schematized and somewhat exaggerated-for-effect terms--party shrinks, influence of relatively extreme elements w/in now-smaller party grows, median voter gets more turned off by party, party shrinks some more at next election, extremists increase their stranglehold on now-rump party, etc.

Something like this dynamic may now be overtaking the Democrats. The way they’ve "courageously" (or if you like, aggressively) stuck w/ the filibuster and other obstructionist tactics despite the evidence that Bush has hurt them with it over two election cycles running may be counted as evidence of this, I suspect. So was the easy elevation of Nancy Pelosi--literally a "San Francisco Democrat"--the House Minority Leader post over a relatively moderate Sunbelt Dem (Martin Frost of TX).

This doesn’t necessarily mean the Democrats will never be competitive again. Larger circumstances could change in their favor somehow in ways significant enough to overwhelm the effect of the Dems’ own electorally baleful inner dynamics. Or they could surface a talented individual vote-getter (like Bill Clinton) who represents an epicycle cutting against their larger and longer-term trend toward decline. But parties have also ceased to exist in US history (remember the Whigs?) as well.

Finally, the very fact that Dems are now reduced to staging procedural battles over nominees--even if they fight these fights with intensity and courage or rashness or what have you while Republicans act irresolute--is not, I think, a sign of long-term strength for the Democrats. A rising party would be fighting on policy grounds, with new ideas (or new versions of old ideas) and a coherent positive agenda that went beyond digging in opposite wherever the majority party happens to be and preparing last-ditch resistance. In the larger scheme of American politics, I suspect that Bush and the GOP are still Sherman while the Dems are Joe Johnston in North Georgia, but I guess time will tell us more. Thanks again for your posts.

I disagree with Voinovich on this issue of John Bolton, but my displeasure with him goes beyond that. It’s not just about his being wrong (IMHO) on Bolton’s suitability, but the way he’s gone about it. First, he doesn’t show up for any hearings, then shows up for the vote and says, "Gee, I don’t know enough to feel comfortable voting on this nominee." I’m no corporate governance expert, but I wonder if not showing up for meetings would get you fired.... And then there’s the way he sandbagged Lugar and the GOP leadership. He gave them absolutely no indication he wasn’t going to support Lugar, and thus caused them great embarrassment in that first debacle several weeks ago. While I generally agree that it’s appropriate (and sometimes even admirable) for a senator to simply vote his conscience, he doesn’t have to do it in such a way as to screw over his party to maximum effect. Bush, Lugar, et al didn’t deserve that, and that’s not the way you treat team members who work with you (and vice versa) on the vast majority of issues. Especially when the GOP is facing such a rabid Democratic opposition. I commend Voinovich for at least letting the nomination go to the floor for a vote, although it sounds like it took a great deal of ass-kissing to bring that about (phone calls from the president, former presidents, cabinet secretaries, etc.).

Mr Frisk and PJC,
Thank you both for your responses. Mr. Frisk, you made me realize something. I always thought that I was a fan of politics, but after reading your response it made me think that you’re right I probably don’t like politics so much. I like History and Government, but not really "politics" I am probably a bit naive as to how "the system" works. I have been following things closely only for the past year or two and have been frustrated at the combative and talking point debate that both parties seem to engage in. The discussion that you and PJC have responded with is much more interesting than watching any any debate that I have seen on TV.

PJC - very true that the type of personality traits being attributed to Mr. Bolton would probably be seen as an asset in a varity of positions. It is just my opinion that it probably isn’t the best for a UN position. I do agree with you though that we can’t simply have a "yes man" appointed to the UN. The UN needs reform. This is also just my opinion, but I would think that diplomatic skills would be essential for a representative from the U.S. to gain the support we would need to accomplish that. Of course, my opinion weighs very little regarding if the President should have his nomination confirmed or not.

I’ve enjoyed both of your responses. While I still respect Senator Voinovich for stating his concerns, I see there is another layer of debate that I am probably not informed enough in.

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