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April 28, 2005

Governing by Cliche
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

This just in...well-sourced speculation about next moves in the Bolton confirmation saga:  The administration may sit back and let the Senate Foreign Relations Committee do as it pleases and even vote down the nomination of Bolton. They may simply take the committee's decision as a negative recommendation, but still push for a floor vote on the nomination so he could still win. So much for valuing deliberative democracy.

Since November, I've been voraciously reading about the rise of the American conservative movement.  For a good overview, I recommend The Right Nation by  John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge. After finishing it, I felt invigorated by the notion that this political undertow that we are presently struggling against is not an accident, but an outcome.

Just what happened to the level headed elected folks who understand that liberal democracies require give and take to survive in the long term? That the word "liberal" itself is a mainstream notion, a positive norm for advanced societies that intentionally stay open minded, innovative and problem-solving.  On the Republican side, many of these liberal minded elected leaders have been purged or have left government altogether. My moderate Republican friends often lament about how extreme their party has become. Although I sympathize with their plight, I am incredulous. Like that line from Cold Mountain "you control the weather, and then have the audacity to bellyache when it rains."

But as for my side, I can't help feeling let-down by the liberal boomers and their seeming negligence of the ideas and infrastructure of the left.  Why weren't we going for the sandbags and pitchforks on January 1, 1995, when Congress flipped to the Republicans?

Two cliches that the conservative movement lives by: "Nature abhors a vacuum" AND "Half of winning is just showing up".

So conservative leaders proceed to destroy public infrastructure--thereby creating a vacuum--and then outsource its replacement to their friends and allies.  A great example of this occurred with the "reforms" implemented by the Contract with America--the de facto elimination of much of the cooperative informal infrastructure like staffed caucuses--that helped Members stay educated and also built alliances between Democrats and Republicans on issues of interest (like arms control or the environment).

Congressional staff from the old days refer to 1995 as "the lobotomy of Congress". Gingrich had no need for these informal venues...he consolidated formal power of recognition to himself and simply outsourced substantive policy needs to the Heritage Foundation.   The left had nothing similar to Heritage in 1995. Now we've got Center for American Progress, but also years of catching up to do.

The switch in control had serious implications for Democrats as they lost both formal and informal mechanisms for collaboration with like-minded peers. Some of what was lost is tragically ironic. Last month I had lunch with a former senior Armed Services staffer. While discussing the appalling lack of basic equipment that our troops have in Iraq,  he mentioned legislation that the Democrats passed in the House Defense Authorization bill for 94 and 95.

"We held hearings at that time, 93-94, on lessons learned in Mogadishu, Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, etc.  One of the major lessons was the need to protect ground forces (and some air) against guerrilla tactics.  We started initiatives on up-armoring humvees and trucks with wheelwell, floorboard, and door armor, bulletproof windshields, and kevlar vests and seats.  We also started an R&D program on mine clearance.  But when the Republicans took over in 1995, they rescinded all of these initiatives, amongst many others, for fear that they would move our "war-fighting forces" into a "peacekeeping" mode.

It's so ironic that over ten years ago we were well aware of the risks of regional, urban, and guerrilla warfare, but politically were unable to protect our troops.  Very sad."

I recently attended a public gathering where the featured speaker was a retired Army officer.  He was explaining how, by and large, the military only reluctantly supports the use of force to solve problems. The audience looked skeptical.  "The president is my boss" he said."Even when he makes mistakes, he's still my boss." Several times, he reviewed basic civics lessons, like who declares war, the role of Congress and how wars can be stopped.  He was, indirectly, trying to convey to this audience that the power to stop policies like pre-emptive war in Iraq lay in the hands of American citizens and that they, not the military, need to lead this vital public discussion.

Since the end of the Viet Nam war, progressives have ceded military issues to the right, simply by ignoring them, by not developing expertise and by dragging all conversations back to domestic needs. We must not let this happen again. Talk to any military officer and you will find him or her keenly aware of the virtues of liberal democracy and the importance of broad public participation in issues of war and peace.  The more of these conversations we initiate, the more comfortable progressives will be with basic military perspectives.

And beware of upcoming public sector vacuums: No Child Left Behind is decimating Social Studies.  This field includes politics, economics, geography and, yes, civics.


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Congressional staff from the old days refer to 1995 as "the lobotomy of Congress". Gingrich had no need for these informal venues...he consolidated formal power of recognition to himself and simply outsourced substantive policy needs to the Heritage Foundation.

I still mourn the loss of the Office of Technology Assessment.

--"Since the end of the Viet Nam war, progressives have ceded military issues to the right..."--

Actually, it began well before then with McCarthy. Kennedy ran to the right of Nixon in the 1960 campaign, with his dishonest "missile-gap" hysteria.

We've never found an answer to the right's McCarthyite tactics, other than to adopt right wing policies. To tell you the truth, I don't know if there is an answer, since even the CIA was sensitive to Team B's charges.


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