Entries from November 2006

Putin’s Enemies Have A Nasty Habit: Dying

David Frum November 25th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Alexander Litvinenko, who died horribly in a London hospital on Thursday, is only the latest critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet a brutal death.

On October 7, another critic, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the lobby of her Moscow apartment building. Two years earlier, in July 2004, the U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov was murdered as he emerged from the offices of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. These killings and many others are linked to the deepest mystery of the Russian state. The mystery is the rise of Vladimir Putin.

In 1998, Vladimir Putin was named head of the Russian secret police, the KGB, now renamed the FSB. In August 1999, a desperately unpopular Boris Yeltsin named Putin prime minister of Russia–the fifth prime minister in less than 18 months. There seemed little reason to expect Putin to last any longer than his predecessors.

Then the bombs started going off. The first bomb hit a Moscow mall on August 31, 1999, killing one person and wounding 40. Five more bombs followed over the next 17 days, striking apartment buildings in Moscow and in southern Russia. Nearly 300 people were killed.

Prime Minister Putin blamed Chechen separatists, and ordered Russian troops to reconquer the province, which had won de facto independence in a bloody war from 1994 to 1996. This time, Russian arms won more success. Putin called a snap parliamentary election in December, 1999, and his supporters won the largest bloc of seats in Parliament.

On December 31, 1999, president Yeltsin resigned. Prime Minister Putin succeeded as acting president. He granted Yeltsin and his family immunity from prosecution on corruption charges and shifted Russia’s next presidential election–originally scheduled for the fall of 2000–forward to March. Putin won handily.

Next he acted to reduce the power of the provinces, to renationalize private enterprise, and to close independent media outlets. Backed this time by the full power of the state and state-controlled media, Putin won 71 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election.

Despite Putin’s enormous personal power, however, questions still linger about the means by which he won it. In addition to the six bombs that went off in September 1999, there was a seventh that did not detonate. On September 22, 1999, local police in the city of Ryazan discovered sacks of explosives in the basement of an apartment house. They found something else, too: a record at the local phone company of a phone call to one of the would-be bombers. The call originated at the FSB offices in Moscow.

After a two-day pause, the FSB explained that Ryazan police had stumbled across an FSB training exercise. The FSB took charge of the investigation, declared the sacks harmless, and quietly closed the case the week after Putin’s election to the Russian presidency.

Meanwhile, the war in Chechnya weltered on bloodily. Most Russian journalists got the message that it was better for their health to focus on other subjects–but not Anna Politkovskaya. Despite an attempted poisoning in 2004, she filed story after story about human rights abuses by Russian forces and the Putin-installed pro-Russian government in Chechnya. At the time of her death, she claimed to have found evidence of state-ordered torture in Chechnya. Any such evidence has now vanished: All her files and computers were seized by police investigating her death.

There is a Chechen link to the Klebnikov killing, too. At the time of his death, Klebnikov had been working on a story about the theft by Russian officials of funds for the reconstruction of Chechnya. In May, 2006, a Russian jury acquitted the two men indicted for Klebnikov’s murder. By remarkable coincidence, the same jury had previously acquitted the same two men for killing one of Klebnikov’s most important sources, a former deputy prime minister in the pro-Russian Chechen government.

As for Alexander Litvinenko, his offense was to have published in 2002 a book arguing that the September 1999 bombings were orchestrated by the FSB to bring Putin to power.

Measured by the number of stories posted and published in the world’s English-language media (5,000 and counting as of Friday afternoon), the assassination of Pierre Gemayel in Lebanon was the week’s top story. And yet in one way at least there is nothing very surprising about this story: Gemayel’s probable killers are the rulers of Syria, an officially designated state sponsor of terrorism.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia, by contrast, is a member of the G8, a veto-wielder at the United Nations Security Council, an honored participant in international summits and conferences.

If this supposed ally in the War on Terror is being run by assassins and bombers, isn’t that a fact that deserves attention–to put it mildly?

Eva’s Got It Wrong

David Frum November 18th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

You’ll never know who will turn up in Washington to talk politics. On Wednesday, the city was graced by actress Eva Longoria, the sultry star of ABC’s Desperate Housewives. Addressing an audience of Latino business leaders, she explained the wide appeal of her show: “Everyone on Wisteria Lane has the money of a Republican, but the sex life of a Democrat.”

It’s a pretty good joke–but very poor sociology. Over the past 15 years, it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who have emerged as the party of upper-income America. In 2000, Al Gore beat George Bush among the 4% of voters who described themselves to exit pollsters as “upper class.” In 2004, John Kerry won nine of the 10 richest zip codes in the United States.

As for sex–well, it turns out that it’s Republican (and especially Republican women) who have it more often and better. The two strongest predictors of Republican affiliation in America are (1) marriage and (2) church attendance. These are also the strongest predictors of female sexual satisfaction. The authoritative 1995 University of Chicago survey Sex in America found that conservative Protestant married women were the group most likely to report that they “nearly always” orgasmed during sex. Married women of all religions were almost twice as likely as unmarried women to describe their sex lives as “extremely satisfying.”

So if offered the choice, reader, you’d be wiser to choose Democratic money and Republican sex.

And yet, somehow the joke would not be very funny that way would it? Stereotypes overwhelm even the strongest facts.

Here’s another stereotype, even deeper and more enduring than Longoria’s: Liberals are more compassionate than conservatives. Certainly, this is a view deeply held by liberals themselves. Yet the truth is exactly the opposite.

Next week, Basic Books will publish an astonishing new volume by Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks: Who Really Cares. Prof. Brooks reviews the vast academic literature on charitable giving and arrives at a startling conclusion: By virtually every measure, political conservatives are demonstrably more generous, more honest and more public-spirited than political liberals.

Consider for example this one fundamental liberal/conservative dividing line, the question “Do you believe the government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality?” In a major 1996 survey, 33% of Americans gave the liberal answer, “yes”; 43% gave the conservative answer, “no.”

Those who gave the conservative answer were more likely to give to charity than those who gave the liberal answer. And when they gave, they gave much more: an average of four times as much as liberal givers.

Correct for income, age and other variables, and you find that people who want government to fight inequality are 10 points less likely to give anything at all–and when they did give, they gave US$263 per year less than a right-winger of exactly the same age earning exactly the same money.

A second survey, this one conducted in 2002, found that people who believe that “people should take care of themselves” accounted for 25% of the population–but gave 31% of America’s blood.

“To put this in perspective,” Brooks says, “if the whole population gave blood like opponents of social spending do, the blood supply would increase by more than a quarter. But if everyone in the population gave like government-aid advocates, the supply would drop by about 30%.”A third survey found that people who believe that the government “spends too much on welfare” were more likely to give directions to someone on the street, return extra change to a cashier, or to give food or money to a homeless person.

A fourth found that a poor family that worked for its income donated three times as much money as a family that received an exactly equal income from welfare.

It’s almost a psychological rule: The more you espouse “compassion” in your politics, the more likely you are to be selfish in your personal behaviour.

How often do we hear the generosity of Europe contrasted to the “savage individualism” of the United States? Yet Americans give vastly more to charity: per person, more than twice as much as the Spanish, more than three times as much as the French, seven times as much as the Germans and 14 times as much as the Italians.

Despite working an average of 400 hours more per year than their European counterparts, Americans are 15 percentage points more likely to volunteer their time than the Dutch, 21 points more likely to volunteer than the Swiss and 32 points more likely to volunteer than Germans. (Indeed, 80% of Germans never volunteer their time for any cause at all.)

If we must have stereotypes, let’s at least have accurate ones. Not only are conservatives sexier than liberals–they are kinder too.

Letters From Guantanamo

David Frum November 11th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

The 430 prisoners in the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay send and receive 44,000 pieces of mail per year. Lawyers fly in and out on the commercial flights from Miami to the U.S. base to meet with their clients. The International Red Cross inspects the camp and interviews prisoners.

And yet the idea persists that Guantanamo represents some kind of “American Gulag”–and that the detainees are victims of a monstrous miscarriage of justice: innocent goatherds and blameless wedding guests swept up by blind American injustice.

Ten days ago, I joined one of the regular tours of Guantanamo organized by the U.S. military. Hundreds of U.S. and international journalists, human rights experts, and parliamentarians had taken this trip before me. (You can read a four-part description of the visit in the next four issues of the Toronto Sun, in articles and photographs by Peter Worthington, who travelled with me.)

Here in this shorter space, I want to focus on something else: the words of the detainees themselves, as posted in 53 PDF volumes at http://www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/detainees/csrt/index.html.

These statements are excerpted from the testimony of detainees before military tribunals. The evidence against the detainees in many cases remains classified, but you can read the protestations of innocence in full–and determine their credibility for yourself.

Some selections from my own still incomplete reading (citations will be posted Monday at frum.nationalreview.com):

- One detainee, a Kuwaiti national named as an al-Qaeda operative on a seized al-Qaeda hard drive, was captured as he tried to flee from Afghanistan into Iran. He insisted that he had no association with any terrorist organization. What then had brought him to Afghanistan? His answer: He had donated 750 Kuwaiti dinars (“not a lot of money” he added) to an Islamic charity to dig wells in Afghanistan–and had decided to travel from Kuwait to see that his money was properly spent.

– Another detainee, a Yemeni, explained that he had come to Pakistan to study medicine at a university. Unfortunately, the particular university he had selected lacked any medical faculty. He ended up instead studying the Koran in a student guesthouse–and when one of his housemates suggested they take a sightseeing tour of Afghanistan, he agreed to go along. The housemate’s name? He had forgotten it.

– A detainee identified by eyewitnesses as a Taliban military judge, who inflicted hideous punishments on hundreds of accused, explained to the tribunal that he was in fact only a humble chicken farmer. The question, “What did you feed your chickens?” baffled this detainee. He answered: “A mixture of foods they sell in the bazaar” (perhaps at the Afghan equivalent of Petco).

– One detainee was apprehended in possession of a military identity card that named him as a member of an especially vicious Taliban militia. He explained that it was not his own card. It belonged to a friend who had asked him to hold it for him.

– A Saudi mechanic said that he had journeyed to Afghanistan because someone had persuaded him that it was the ideal place to complete his religious education. Who was this person? “I don’t know.”

- An Afghan detainee intercepted at the Pakistan border carrying a satellite phone, thousands of dollars in cash, without identity papers and riding alongside a noted al-Qaeda explosives expert, explained that he had not realized he needed identity papers to cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

– A former Egyptian army officer acknowledged that he had undergone training in Afghanistan at a camp run by the Kashmiri group, Lashkar-i-Taibi (LiT). However, he said, he had been listening to the BBC in February 2001 and heard an announcer describe LiT as a terrorist organization. After that, he said, he quit the group and had never had anything to do with them again. How had he supported himself in Afghanistan over the following year? He had, he said, relied on charity from his fellow Muslims.

– A young Tajiki told the tribunal that he had attended a training camp at the suggestion of a man he met on a train. He did not know the man’s name. But he had never had any weapons training: He had spent his time carrying firewood.

– A Saudi detainee, confronted with evidence that he had traveled to Bosnia in the mid-1990s, then to Sudan, then to Afghanistan, explained that he had devoted himself exclusively to the construction of mosques. But had his travel not been paid by al Haramain, a well-known front group for al-Qaeda? He knew nothing about that. “If al Haramain is a terrorist organization, why is it my problem? Am I guilty if they are terrorists?”

Or, in the words of that Yemeni would-be medical student without a medical school: “What is the meaning of ‘terrorist’? I don’t even know what that word is.”

That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.

But what’s the excuse of those in the West who succumb so easily to the deceptions of terrorists who cannot invent even half-way plausible lies?

Last Chance

David Frum November 9th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

The Bush administration woke up yesterday morning to a deeply ugly political situation. Those polls that show the president below 40% approval? They would look even worse if they surveyed only Republican members of Congress. As for the president’s opponents: They are slavering for a nice two-year-long munch on the administration’s haunches.

Worst of all, the administration seems to have exhausted its energy. Frustrated by Iraq, wounded by Katrina, thwarted in its two most recent major domestic initiatives (Social Security and immigration), the administration looks baffled, uncertain and often strangely passive.

But President Bush can yet regain the initiative. His opponents in Congress are badly divided amongst themselves: Witness Nancy Pelosi’s attempt last spring to engineer the ouster of her own No. 2, Steny Hoyer, in favor of John Murtha.

Mr. Bush’s Democratic opponents are also burdened with a very visible extremist wing. There is a real possibility that Alcee Hastings will be named chairman of the extremely important Intelligence Committee–he of course being the Florida ex-judge impeached and removed in 1989 on corruption charges. The Democrats are also haunted by gnawing fears that crucial segments of the American electorate distrust them as cultural aliens and foreign-policy weaklings, as demonstrated by the panicked Democratic reaction to John Kerry’s inadvertent slur against the troops in Iraq.

With a little ingenuity, the Bush administration could take advantage of these weaknesses–and make yesterday’s defeat work to its own advantage. President Bush should prepare to bombard Congress and the media with new ideas and proposals that rally his own party, divide his opponents and drive a wedge between left-wing Democrats and the voting public. So long as he is acting, he forces Congress to react.

The president’s critics complain that the administration has lacked accomplishments over these past two years. The new Congress offers an opportunity to prove that Republicans remain the party of ideas–and that their opponents still lack them. The nomination of Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense offers a new start. The serene and knowledgeable Mr. Gates is in for a grilling, but by standing his ground and insisting on the importance of succeeding in Iraq, he can expose to the TV-watching public the real beliefs and purposes of left-leaning Democrats like Carl Levin.

At home, the administration should seek less to pass legislation–although legislative success is always welcome–than to clarify the differences between the parties for 2008. For instance: The president talked vaguely in 2005 of a grand new tax reform, but never gave enough detail to interest anybody in his ideas. What he had in mind, of course, was a shift away from taxing work, savings and investment toward taxing consumption. Good idea, but awfully abstract. The next Congress offers an opportunity to make it clear what this reform means.

President Bush has repeatedly asked Congress to make permanent his cuts in the income, dividend, estate and capital-gains taxes, as well as his doubling of the child tax credit. Congress has hesitated, citing fears of the impact of permanent tax cuts on the U.S. fiscal balance. These cuts constitute the most valuable element of Mr. Bush’s domestic legacy. It’s worth fighting to remind the country that Democrats would allow the president’s tax relief to lapse–and that if Democrats are allowed to return to power, taxes will shoot back up in 2010.

The president should send Congress a tax-reform proposal now, shaping it so that it appeals to enough Democrats to split the opposition. Here’s one way to do that: Democrats have made a great theme of “energy independence.” The president has likewise denounced America’s “addiction to oil” and often presented nuclear power as a crucial element of an ideal energy policy. What if he baited the Democrats with some kind of energy tax (or, better, a carbon tax–which exempts nuclear-generated energy) in exchange for permanent cuts in taxes on work, savings and investment. “Tax waste, not work” is not a bad slogan.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a carbon tax that began at $12 per ton emitted and rose gradually to $17 would raise $208 billion over 10 years. That’s enough to fully compensate for the cost to the Treasury of making permanent the president’s cuts to taxes on capital gains and dividends–and leave over almost $40 billion to balance the budget.

Education reform offers another opportunity for the administration to display energy and highlight opponents’ divisions. The testing system instituted by the No Child Left Behind law will soon begin delivering its five-year report cards. Many American schools will be rated as failing–and very likely the majority of these schools will be found in Democratic congressional districts. Over the past five years–and over the 20 years before that–hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured into America’s worst schools, without discernible improvement.

George Bush entered politics as an educational reformer. Now, he can return to the good fight by scooping an idea from an opponent. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has proposed a voucher system that would grant progressively larger vouchers to children from poorer families. Given how much taxpayers already pay to support the nation’s worst schools–the District of Columbia spends more per child than any other jurisdiction–Mr. Reich’s idea might even save money. But it would certainly put the cat among the Democratic pigeons, especially if the president recruited Mr. Reich to lobby for it.

Democrats have effectively used ethics as a political lever against Republicans. With the election behind them, they will surely welcome the chance to transform their slogans into reality. The president might take the lead in calling for a voluntary ban on lobbyist-paid travel by members of Congress. And since we should want to encourage members of Congress to travel abroad, the president should propose a formal congressional travel fund. Make the fund big–at least double what is being spent now–and propose a special joint House-Senate subcommittee to oversee it based on the principle: oversight yes, golf no.

Over the next two years, executive energy must be more than a doctrine. It may prove the key to Republican survival–and the coming conservative resurgence.

America Is Still A Conservative Country

David Frum November 9th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Tuesday’s mid-term result contains two great lessons, one for liberals and Democrats and one for conservatives and Republicans. For liberals: America remains a very, very, conservative country. In a year that many called “the worst Republican environment since Watergate”, the GOP lost fewer than half as many seats as the Democrats lost in 1994. Control of the Senate hovers just beyond Democratic control.

Democrats in Missouri did pass a measure to allow embryo-killing stem-cell research, and minimum-wage ballot measures generally did well. Beyond that, however, voters opted for the more conservative side on almost every initiative on the ballot.

Perhaps even more strikingly, previous Democratic wins–1974, 1986–swept into office new and very liberal freshman classes. The House Class of 2006, by contrast, will be strikingly less liberal than the existing Democrat caucus.

The Democrats’ (unsuccessful) Senate candidate in Tennessee, Harold Ford, described God as his campaign manager and posted the Ten Commandments on the back of his business cards. Gun control went utterly unmentioned, and same-sex marriage was condemned by all but the safest Democrat incumbents. Perhaps the most hilariously shameless Democratic repositioning took place in Virginia. Determined to defeat George Allen, whom many liberals execrated for his neo-Confederate affections, Democrats nominated…a genuine neo-Confederate, James Webb, formerly Secretary of the Navy under Reagan, whose son Robert has just shipped out to Iraq.

America, in short, has experienced a sharp partisan tilt–but not nearly so sharp an ideological change. Polls continue to show that somewhere between 45-55 per cent of Americans would favour a military strike on Iran if diplomacy fails to halt its nuclear programme. Guantanamo remains popular, as does terrorist surveillance. Ideologically, Iraq’s impact has been much more like that of Korea than like Vietnam–bitterly as Americans disliked the stalemate and slaughter in Korea, that war did not lead them to reject anti-communism. Likewise, frustration in Iraq is not leading Americans to reconsider the war on Islamic extremism. Indeed, many polls suggest that Americans are becoming more radical in their attitudes to Islam: the proportion of Americans who associate Islam with terrorism did not rise at all after 9/11, but has risen sharply since this spring’s Danish cartoon controversy.

The lessons on the other side of the political ledger are equally important–and possibly even more painful. Not only has the President been forced at last to cashier his Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, but he has replaced him with Bob Gates, a former CIA director who was one of the intimates of the first President Bush. Along with the isolation of Vice-President Dick Cheney, this marks an abrupt and embarrassing reversal for George W. Bush. The administration has often been described as “neoconservative”. In fact, people with neocon CVs were prominent in second- and third-tier positions–Defence, State and so on–but the top jobs went to people with a more personal relationship with Mr Bush. Now they are gone, too.

Exit polls suggest that “corruption”, not “Iraq”, ranked first among voter concerns. But the corruption of the Republican Party went much deeper than a couple of congressmen accepting gifts from Jack Abramoff and his fellow-lobbyists. The deeper problem was that people such as Abramoff were able to purchase attention for issues and causes rejected by most Americans.

The most extreme example of this phenomenon was the Bush Administration’s push for an immigration reform that combined amnesty in all but name for most of the 12 million illegal aliens in the country with a guest-worker programme to import many million more low-skilled, low-wage workers. For Democrats, this reform offers obvious appeal: Democrats do well among new immigrants and legalising 12 million people who have no current right to live in America promises to add many millions more votes to the Democratic column for decades to come.

Republicans and conservatives by contrast hate the measure. Yet George W. Bush and the Senate Republicans have pushed for it again and again, trying hard in August 2001, again in January 2004, and finally and most intensely in 2006. A very liberal amnesty plus guest-worker Bill passed the Senate, only to falter in the Republican House. What emerged was a compromise measure that authorised a fence along about one-third of the United States-Mexico border.

But the President has already made it clear that he has no real intention of building the fence–and his first message on election night offered co-operation to the Democrats if they would work with him to revive his amnesty guest-worker plan. Of course they will! And snigger at him the whole while. For not only does this plan threaten the long-term viability of the GOP–it also promises to sever the last cords tethering the President to his political base.

Since inauguration day, Mr Bush’s support among conservative Republicans has dropped by more than 20 points, from the high-90s to the mid-70s. If Democrats can manoeuvre him into fighting his party on immigration, they can isolate him almost completely.

Many in Europe perceive Mr Bush as a Right-wing extremist. If he were, he would in fact be in far less trouble today. In truth, his relationship with conservative America (36 per cent of the electorate–double the portion that calls itself “liberal”) has always been tense and complicated.

Yet at exactly the moment that conservative Republicans yearn to hear a reassertion of their principles and ideals, they are likely to hear instead a command to fall back into formation for one last grand charge on behalf of an immigration policy demanded by the party’s donors, not its voters.

This is Abramoffism without Abramoff.

And if the President pursues it, it is precisely the kind of action that will transform Tuesday’s defeat into a two-year-long rout.

Battle For White House Gets Serious

David Frum November 8th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Last night’s vote represents only the first great move in the great game for control of the White House in 2009.

For the first four years after 9/11, Republicans enjoyed a huge advantage over Democrats on the only issue that mattered: national security. In the first post-9/11 shock, Americans gave Republicans an almost 30-point lead when polled on the question, “Which party will do a better job on national security?”

The mishandling of Iraq destroyed that advantage. And over the past year, the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate did an outstanding job recruiting candidates with credibility on security issues:

For the Virginia Senate seat, they nominated Ronald Reagan’s former secretary of the navy, Jim Webb. Webb served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, winning more combat decorations than any other member of his U.S. Naval Academy class. Webb’s son has just shipped out to Iraq with the Marines himself.

This may be one of the most hilariously ironic races in the country. National Democrats are slamming the incumbent Republican senator George Allen for his fondness for Confederate memorabilia. Yet their candidate Webb genuinely is what Allen merely pretends to be: His great-great-grandfather rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s murderous cavalry; Webb, who has often spoken eloquently in praise of the southern soldiery, named his own son after Robert E. Lee. Talk about your red-state appeal!

Democrats have actually nominated more Iraq war veterans to Congress than have Republicans, including Tammy Duckworth, who is running in Illinois’s 6th congressional district. Duckworth, who co-piloted a helicopter in Iraq, lost both her legs in a midair grenade attack.

The Democrats hoped that the military biographies on their roster would not only win Congress, but actually change the dynamics of the national security debate in their favour.

But the hard part of that task starts now.

Democrats have historically again and again failed to understand the nature of the Republican advantage on national security. It is not just a matter of personal service. In that dimension, John Kerry and Al Gore both excelled George Bush, to no avail–never mind the failed presidential candidacies of John Glenn (Korea, the space program), George McGovern (30 intensely dangerous bombing missions over Germany), or, for that matter, Winfield Scott Hancock, the great hero of Gettsyburg, defeated by the GOP in 1880.

The Republicans owe their advantage on national security not merely to what their candidates did on the battlefield, important though that always is, but to the ability of the party to express and champion American nationalism. And that is a task at which Democrats have seldom succeeded.

Now Democrats have gained another chance. They are likely to exercise some legislative power for the first time since 1994. They will wield the gavels and hold the microphone. What will they say? Will they find words to express determination to win the war on terror? Or will they express doubt, reservation, and weakness? Will they persuade the public that they too truly in their heart of hearts want to take the fight on Islamic extremism to the enemy? Or will they use their new power to demand negotiations with Iran and a hasty exit from Iraq?

Where will they stand on the surveillance of terrorists, on the protection of America’s borders, on rebutting the slurs and falsehoods hurled at the United States from critics in the Middle East and false friends in Europe?

Will Democrats, in other words, find the inner strength to break away from their old well-earned image of weakness? Or will they espouse that same weakness but with better resumes?

The Bush administration will of course lurk to trap them. Politics is a game with multiple players. And much of the energy and cunning of the Republican party over the next two years will be devoted to thrusting on the Democrats decisions and votes intended to split the more hawkish class of 2006 away from the more traditional liberals in the safe blue-state seats.

In 2004, for example, House Republicans introduced a resolution urging the administration to use “all appropriate means” to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb. That non-binding resolution passed the House with only three dissenting votes. The Republicans will spread many (and more subtle) versions of that same trap out for Democrats in the 24 months ahead.

Democrats will resent these manoeuvres bitterly. But they will find themselves again and again confronted by the hard reality that over the long run the only way to seem tough on defence is to be tough on defence.

All the jockeying and elbowing and eyeball-gouging to come over the next two years will be directed toward establishing bragging rights on this one great issue.

If the empowered Democrats succumb to their instincts to go the way of Michael Moore and MoveOn.org and Daily Kos, well then this will be the shortest-lived congressional victory since the Republicans’ suicidal two-year ascendancy in 1947-49. But if they are smart enough and tough enough to break from their past bad instincts and give the Republicans a real tussle on the national security issue, then America’s friends and foes abroad will be startled to discover that what happened last night was a sharp move toward the Democratic party–without any move at all to the political or ideological left.

Some Democrats Are Worse Than Others

David Frum November 4th, 2006 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Most observers agree that the Democratic party will win the midterm Congressional elections. But which Democratic party? For there are two.

There is the Democratic party of MoveOn.org and the Daily Kos, the Democratic party whose supporters calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and acceptance of an Iranian nuclear bomb. It is the party of the Al Gore who publicly muses about impeaching George W. Bush.

But there is another Democratic party, and this one gets less airtime. It is the Democratic members of the House of Representatives who joined their Republican counterparts in 2004 to pass by a vote of 376-3 a resolution urging the administration to use “any and all appropriate means” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

It is the Democratic party of Steny Hoyer of Maryland (the number two House Democrat) and of Ike Skelton of Missouri (the likely next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee). And it is the party of a very different Al Gore, who had this to say about Iraq in June, 2006:

“It’s possible that setting a deadline [for the withdrawal of troops] could set in motion forces that would make it even worse. I think that we should analyze that very carefully. My guess is that a deadline is probably not the right approach.”

Which Democratic party will emerge uppermost?

The first test will come as the leaders of the House choose the chairmen of the great House committees. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the House Democrats, has indicated she will rely heavily on seniority. That principle would put the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee (the committee that writes the first draft of America’s tax laws) in the hands of Charlie Rangel: a big taxer and spender who represents Harlem. It would assign the gavel of the Judiciary Committee to John Conyers, a far left-winger who has actually drawn up articles of impeachment against the President. Most shockingly, it would suggest that the House Democratic seat on the four-member Select Intelligence Committee would be taken by Alcee Hastings, a congressman from Florida elected after he was impeached and removed from his position as a federal court judge on corruption charges.

If Rangel, Conyers and Hastings become chairmen, that will be a victory for the MoveOn.org Democrats–and a powerful statement about the course the Democrats have chosen.

The next test will come as the new committees begin their oversight. Do they use their investigating powers as tools of politics? Do they try to stage show trials for the television cameras, focusing entirely on past mistakes in Iraq rather than accepting Congress’s shared responsibility for finding solutions? Do the committee chairmen make circuses out of the confirmation process?

Donald Rumsfeld has lasted as secretary of defense in very large part because the administration hesitated to undergo a big confirmation battle. These fears froze the Department of Defense leadership in place long after their effectiveness had deteriorated and their credibility had come under fire.

The 2008 defence budgets will test the Democrats as well. Will they allow the military all the resources it needs? Or will they slice and chop, using their power of the purse to impose a concealed foreign policy agenda?

The next Congress can play a very positive role in foreign policy. The Bush administration has sometimes gone dangerously easy with the Saudis and other Gulf Arab regimes. It lacks a coherent Iran policy and has baffled itself in Iraq. It has dangerously over-relied on Pakistani good intentions. And Condoleezza Rice is displaying early symptoms of succumbing to the futile temptation to solve the Palestinian problem.

A Congress intent on prodding and goading the administration to better policy choices could be welcome. A Congress eager to foil and thwart the administration’s war effort, for the sake of partisan advantage, would be a disaster.

So which will it be?

The Democratic leadership in Congress will come under enormous pressure from many of its most fervent supporters in the country to choose the angriest, most destructive course.

But many of those leaders will remember that they have seen this movie before. From the McGovern campaign of 1972 until this very year, the Republican advantage on the issue of national security in most opinion polls never fell below 10 percentage points, usually hovered at about 20 and peaked after 9/11 at 30. That’s the kind of advantage that decides presidential elections.

Having been on the wrong side of it for so many years, the Democratic party’s leaders have vowed never to throw away the national security issue again, the way they did in 1972. They are determined never again to look weak on defence. But here’s the tough part: The only way not to look weak on defence is not to be weak on defence.