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Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President
In the decades before the seismic congressional elections of 1994, two dozen moderate Republican senators would meet for lunch in the U.S. Capitol every Wednesday to build camaraderie, enjoy one anothers company, and talk about how they would work together in the week to come. They represented states in every corner of America and believed in conserving natural resources, protecting individual liberties, confronting foreign nations only when it served the national interest, using the tools of government to help our most vulnerable citizens, and raising enough revenue to cover spending.
By 1999, when I became the Republican senator from Rhode Island, the party had drifted so far right that only five Republicans were willing to be seen at the moderates table on Wednesdays. We had no one there from, say, Wyoming or Kansas anymore. Our most senior member was Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Like me, the rest were New Englanders: Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and James Jeffords of Vermont, who would later quit the party to become an Independent.
The real action was at the Conservative Steering Committee, which had probably started out at a table for five and then grew to include almost the entire Republican caucus. The Senate delegation from the South was inexorably turning from conservative Democrat to conservative Republican, and the hard-liners solidified their gains when they took over the House and the Senate in 1994, two years into President Bill Clintons first term. The Republicans who came out of the House and were elected to the Senate that year had chafed under Democratic rule and were eager to flex their muscles as the new majority.
Early in December 2000, Senator Specter asked Richard Cheney, our Republican vice presidential candidate, to have lunch with us on Wednesday, December 13. The vote-counting fiasco in Florida was under way, and no one knew whether Texas governor George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore had been elected the nations forty-third president. Then, the night before we were to meet with Mr. Cheney, the news broke: The U.S. Supreme Court had declared the Florida recount unconstitutional. The Court authorized Katherine Harris, Floridas Republican secretary of state, to declare Bush and Cheney victorious.
We Republicans had won the presidency by a single vote in the Electoral College and a single vote in the Supreme Court. In the executive branch, winning by a whisker is as good as winning in a landslide, but not so in the Senate. For the first time in a century we had a Senate split down the middle, fifty-fifty, with a Republican vice president available to break a tie in our favor. That whisker-thin margin of victory had real consequences, to my way of thinking.
It meant that our small club of five moderate Republican votes would be vital to President-elect Bush if he had any hope of getting his legislative initiatives through.
Despite that happy turn of events—happy for us moderates, I thought—I was sure Richard Cheney would have more important things to do that following noon than keep his appointment with our lonely band of five.
I was wrong about that, and more.
I made my way through a rabbit warren of corridors to Senator Specters office, actually a satellite of his main office, and so well hidden in the Capitol we called it “the hideaway.” Hidden or not, I found a crowd of reporters and photographers and, in the middle of that crush, our new vice president-elect. I was surprised and delighted to see him there and felt I was a witness to history in the making. George Bush had promised to bring America together again, and here was his running mate holding out his hand to the key moderate votes the president-elect would need to keep that promise. What a humbling experience it must be for Mr. Cheney, I thought, as I watched him navigate the press gauntlet: to lose the popular vote but come to power with a one-vote margin in the Electoral College after a historic Supreme Court ruling.
President-elect Bush had made a solemn promise to be “a uniter, not a divider.” That resonated after six years of sniping and bickering between the White House and the Congress, led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In the Senate, Majority Leader Bob Dole had the unenviable task of trying to keep the new breed of fire-breathing Republicans in line. On June 12, 1996, after less than two years, the job went to Trent Lott of Mississippi, who relished partisan battle.
Soon the country would endure the seamy and embarrassing spectacle of the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. It was a sickening discord that seemed to go on and on without end. The American people and many in Congress were thirsting for the different approach that George Bush had promised in 2000.
In my first year in the Senate, I dreaded going to the moderates Wednesday lunches because we never seemed to get past complaining about the insignificant role the Republican caucus allowed us to play in shaping legislation. I have never been big on moaning and whining. Oh, woe is us. We have no power. Our Republican leaders dont listen. They just do what they want . . . If we had beer we would have cried in it, but this was lunch. I called it the weekly “crying in our soup.” But there would be no more of that with the Senate divided right down the middle, I thought. We were the five moderate voices that could tip a partisan vote one way or the other, which meant they would have to become less partisan. We could get control of the agenda and change the tone in Washington. It was clearly what the country needed and wanted, a move to the center and some measurable progress on some vital issues, particularly: the environment, health care, tax fairness. Three of us around the table, Jeffords, Snowe, and I, had a fresh mandate from the voters. We had been elected to new terms just a few weeks earlier. The voters had endorsed our occasional splits with the Republican leadership, times when we voted with President Clinton on health and workplace issues that affected their daily lives for the better. All three of us had won by comfortable margins. It was no fluke, because the opposite was true for conservative Republican incumbents and conservative challengers alike. The voters had battered them in race after race. Five incumbent Republican senators had gone down in defeat, all loyal to the right-wing agenda of our leadership team.
I had seen this sort of political dynamic before, at home in Rhode Island. In the late 1980s, a small group of Republican senators controlled all legislation that passed through the heavily Democratic State Senate. At the time, Democrats held forty-one of fifty seats in the Rhode Island Senate. They promptly split into subparties, as can happen when you have an overwhelming majority. People who think politically start to break up into cliques as they feud over how to gain control of the megaparty. Democratic loyalties in Rhode Island were split between Senator John Bevilacqua and Senator David Carlin. The Bevilacqua faction ran the Senate by one vote, as long as it could win over every Republican. No piece of legislation was adopted unless it addressed the concerns of Minority Leader Bob Goldberg and his tiny band of swing votes.
In 2001, I told this bit of Rhode Island lore to my fellow Republican moderates in the U.S. Senate. I argued that we could do the same in a Senate where the right and the left were split fifty-fifty. Nothing could pass without the moderates support if we stuck together.
The administration had a plan for making sure we did not stick together. That was why Richard Cheney came to our lunch that day: Not to say he needed us, but to tell us that he and George W. Bush were in charge and no one else.
The reporters were ushered out, the door was closed, and there sat the six of us, not a staff member in sight. We made a little small talk at first. The vice president recalled that he and my father, the late U.S. senator John H. Chafee, had gone on a pack trip in bear country in the 1980s when the federal government was hearing testimony on listing the grizzly bear as an endangered species. At the time, Mr. Cheney represented Wyoming in the House.
Soon we got down to business, and that was when Richard Cheney would shatter everything I had believed was true about our party, our campaign, our victory, and the four years ahead.
In steady, quiet tones, the vice president-elect laid out a shockingly divisive political agenda for the new Bush administration, glossing over nearly every pledge the Republican ticket had made to the American voter. We were going to get out of a host of international agreements, he said. We would disavow the United Nations Kyoto Protocol on global climate change, even if it were to be ratified by a sufficient number of nations to give it the force of international law. We would end our support for the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. We would cancel the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty ratified in 1972. We would slash taxes by $1.6 trillion and wipe out the budget surpluses generated in the Clinton era. John Ashcroft of Missouri, defeated in his Senate reelection bid weeks earlier because voters rejected his far-right politics, was being seriously discussed as our next attorney general. I like John Ashcroft. We were always on friendly terms, but he would be a polarizing choice for attorney general at this critical time when we had an opportunity, at last, to heal a fractured Congress.
President-elect Bush had promised that healing, but now we moderate Republicans were hearing Richard Cheney articulate the real agenda: a clashist approach on every issue, big and small, and any attempt at consensus would be a sign of weakness. We would seek confrontation on every front. He said nothing about education or the environment or health care; it was all about these new issues that were rarely, if ever, touted in the campaign. The new administration would divide Americans into red and blue, and divide nations into those who stand with us or against us. I knew that what Mr. Cheney was saying would rip the closely divided Congress apart. We moderates had often voted with President Clinton on things that powerful Republican constituencies didnt like: an increase in the minimum wage, a patients bill of rights, and campaign finance reform. Mr. Cheney knew this, but he ticked off the issues at the top of his agenda and did it fearlessly. It made no difference to him that we were potential adversaries; he was going down his to-do list and checking off Confrontation Number 1.
Senator Arlen Specter spoke first. As the most junior member, I would have my say last, if at all. I could hardly sit still as I waited to hear my respected friend wade into this outrageous manifesto.
And then, in a moment I can only describe as infuriating, Senator Specter took no leadership role in representing the moderate point of view. He acquiesced, and others followed his example.
As each of my colleagues spoke in turn, I waited for one of them to push back. Surely one of them would have the presence of mind to say, Whoa! Time-out! What are you talking about, Mister Vice President? You werent elected to scrap international agreements. You never said to the voters: Elect us and we promise to bring back deficit spending and drive the next generation into debt.
But no one resisted. We sat there and listened as Mr. Cheney made divisive pronouncements of policy that would come as a complete surprise to many of the Americans who had voted to elect the Bush-Cheney ticket. I stopped waiting for someone to challenge Mr. Cheney when I saw my Republican friends around the table nodding in agreement as he held forth.
I was at a loss to explain my colleagues compliant behavior then. I remain so now. It may have been an all-too-human response to the circumstances of the time. Anxious weeks of uncertainty were finally over. Now we knew the outcome of the election. The bitterness of the Florida recount was behind us. My colleagues seemed happy and relieved just to know who was in charge. And they seemed a little awestruck. This is the vice president of the United States.
The contentious and destructive agenda that Mr. Cheney dropped on us was troubling enough, but what really unnerved me was his attitude. He welcomed conflict. We Republicans had promised America exactly the opposite. In the presidential debates, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Governor Bush to describe the foreign policy he would adopt, if elected. Candidate Bush said he would be humble in foreign affairs; that if we were arrogant, other countries would resent us. Now his running mate was telling us the new administration would make a point of being arrogant and divisive. Mr. Cheney was brazen in his pronouncements. A humble foreign policy? His attitude was anything but humble. He said that the campaign was over and that our actions in office would not be dictated by what had to be said in the campaign. And he pronounced this deception with no emotion or window dressing of any kind. He was fearless, matter of fact, and smug.
I wondered, where does Cheney get the nerve to say these things a few hours after the Court established him as our vice president-elect? Where did he get the authority to make this radical departure from the president-elects own campaign rhetoric?
I had supported Governor George W. Bush over Senator John McCain in the 2000 Rhode Island presidential primary. I met the Texas governor for the first time in 1999, when he came to Rhode Island to raise money. I contributed and sincerely applauded his remarks to supporters at the Providence Convention Center. He had good campaign patter, and I was impressed. He said all the right things. I thought he could win on his pledge to bring a new, unifying atmosphere to Washington, and that he might even be as good and decent a president as his father had been. He seemed moderate enough to win support from all sides, and he had the Bush name. After the bitter partisan atmosphere of the Clinton impeachment, voters looked back with affection at the governors father.
I liked that the governor had worked cooperatively with Democrats in the Texas legislature. If leaders in both parties could rally around him, he was just what the country needed. America stood at the summit of power, emerging from the cold war as an economic, cultural, and military force without equal. We had wasted valuable years in partisan bickering, but our moment in history was still at hand. What a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to do good things in the world.
Then came that devastating first day after George W. Bush and Richard Cheney prevailed in the Supreme Court. If we were to believe Mr. Cheney, the president-elect would not only reignite the partisanship of the Clinton-Gingrich era but would make it even more toxic. Mr. Cheney tore our best campaign promises to shreds and the moderates acquiesced instead of pelting him with outrage. It was clear to me then that there would be no key bloc of moderate votes helping to shape legislation and reunite America over the next four years. In any event, Cheney was not asking for support—he was ordering us to provide it. The president-elect had his agenda; we were just along for the ride.
My heart sank as my colleagues peeled away, one by one. It was the most demoralizing moment of my seven-year tenure in the Senate.
When it was my turn to speak, I made the case that our five votes would be crucially important in an evenly divided Senate. I chose my words carefully, and probably stammered with the effort to contain my fury. We were on the cusp of a new millennium that held enormous promise for American leadership in the world, and what I had just heard was petty, arrogant, and irresponsible. It threatened to lead in exactly the wrong direction.
I spoke in the perhaps too-optimistic hope that I might yet rally the moderates to seriously apprehend the implications of the new agenda. When I told Mr. Cheney, “Our votes at this table are important,” he could hardly be bothered. He gave me the back of his hand with a truism: “Every vote is important.”
There was no support to be had, and lunch was over.
I was more than unhappy as I walked back to my office in the Russell Senate Office Building, disgusted with the vice president for his audacity and with my fellow moderates for the weakness they had shown. I thought back to the Republican convention in Philadelphia just six months earlier, in August, when I applauded Mr. Cheneys speech. It was uplifting and emotionally charged, but that was before I knew the Bush administration would be so willing to use words dishonestly.
Mr. Cheney recalled for the convention his days as secretary of defense, describing his frequent helicopter flights over Washington and how he looked down on the city with thoughts that were solemn, patriotic, and reverent.
“When you make that trip from Andrews to the Pentagon, and you look down on the city of Washington, one of the first things you see is the Capitol, where all the great debates that have shaped two hundred years of American history have taken place.
“You fly down along the Mall and see the monument to George Washington, a structure as grand as the man himself. To the north is the White House, where John Adams once prayed ‘that none but honest and wise men [may] ever rule under this roof.
“Next you see the memorial to Thomas Jefferson, the third president and the author of our Declaration of Independence. And then you fly over the memorial to Abraham Lincoln, this greatest of presidents, the man who saved the Union.
“Then you cross the Potomac, on approach to the Pentagon. But just before you settle down on the landing pad, you look upon Arlington National Cemetery, its gentle slopes and crosses row on row.
“I never once made that trip without being reminded how enormously fortunate we all are to be Americans, and what a terrible price thousands have paid so that all of us, and millions more around the world might live in freedom.”
A day later, I was jolted to read that the staff at Arlington National Cemetery had put out a statement correcting something our candidate for vice president had said in the most inspiring part of his address.
The cemetery staff took note of the reference to “gentle slopes and crosses, row on row,” and noted: “There are no crosses in Arlington National Cemetery.”
They suggested that Mr. Cheney had lifted the image from “In Flanders Field,” a moving poem by Canadian John McCrae, in 1915.
In Arlington National Cemetery the American war dead of all faiths lie under tombstones with rounded tops.
Richard Cheney, who avoided military service as a young man, may never have looked out the helicopter window as secretary of defense to reflect solemnly on the sacrifice of the fallen.
Did he think it was all right to push that emotional button for political gain? To use Americas war dead as a campaign prop?
The cemetery staff stood up for the truth and held Mr. Cheney to account. This was no partisan press release; it came from the professionals who see our war dead to their final resting places, and who work under the motto “Where Valor Proudly Sleeps.” They resented that Richard Cheney had made up a tender story about the hallowed grounds they tend, or had allowed a Republican National Committee speechwriter to make one up for him.
If he was willing to speak falsely about Arlington National Cemetery, what else in his speech would prove inaccurate?
Given that this was a campaign event, Mr. Cheney sang hosannas not just to America, but to the integrity and wisdom of our nominee, the Texas governor, saying he had “the courage, and the vision, and the goodness, to be a great president.”
“I see in our nominee the qualities of mind and spirit our nation needs, and our history demands,” he said. “Big changes are coming to Washington. To serve with this man, in this cause, is a chance I would not miss.
“George W. Bush will repair what has been damaged. He is a man without pretense and without cynicism. A man of principle, a man of honor. On the first hour of the first day he will restore decency and integrity to the Oval Office. He will show us that national leaders can be true to their word and that they can get things done by reaching across the partisan aisle, and working with political opponents in good faith and common purpose.
“In this election, they will speak endlessly of risk; we will speak of progress. They will make accusations; we will make proposals. They will feed fear; we will appeal to hope. They will offer more lectures and legalisms and carefully worded denials; we offer another way, a better way, and a stiff dose of truth.”
At the time I had been in the Senate for a year and had witnessed the hard-right agenda at work, but I must admit I was caught up in the spirit of the convention and honestly thought this was one of the most rousing political speeches I had heard in years.
After the revelations of the Wednesday lunch four months later, my head was swimming with the vice president-elects pronouncements on Republican policy, his assertion that everything we had said in the campaign was about campaigning and winning and getting power. They had a whole different plan for governing.
I take people at their word. When someone abuses my trust and proves his word false, I am forever on my guard. I made a commitment then and there to be on guard with this new administration. That determination would serve me well over the next six years when voting on the Bush-Cheney agenda.
When I got back to my office that day, I told my chief of staff, David Griswold, that I had been briefed on the Republican postelection platform and was deeply alarmed. I had worked to elect the Bush-Cheney ticket thinking we would do great things together if Republicans should win the White House. Now I was so rattled by what Mr. Cheney had said—and how he had said it—I was moved to sit down and address a letter to him right away. I wanted to get it on paper that we had made a commitment, as candidates, to unite the nation and not divide it.
In that letter, I wrote:
The following are some issues I believe bode well for success:
Debt Reduction—We are on an encouraging course toward reducing the national debt, and I believe we must maintain discipline both in discretionary spending and in proposals for significant tax cuts. This time of relative prosperity and peace is an opportune time to eliminate the debt. As you know, interest payments on the debt still consume a staggering proportion of the federal budget—amounting to $222 billion in Fiscal Year 2000.
Tax Fairness—Majorities from both parties in Congress expressed support in the past year for reform of the estate tax and repeal of the so-called marriage tax penalty. This appears to be an area of great promise for early bipartisan cooperation. Democrats can be expected to support reform in both these areas at least to the extent contained in the substitute amendments proposed this past summer by the fiscally responsible Senator Moynihan.
Education—I hope that common ground can be identified on a package to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I believe our chief emphasis in federal education policy should be funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As you know, IDEA was enacted with the goal that the federal government would compensate local school districts for 40 percent of the cost of compliance. Instead, federal support languishes at about 15 percent, while local districts struggle to comply with this worthwhile but costly law. I hope we can make significant progress in making good on the federal commitment.
Health Care—The debate over prescription drug coverage in Medicare and reform of managed care through a Patients Bill of Rights collapsed amid partisan wrangling this year. But these issues will continue to stir public interest, and proposals do exist that provide measured steps with bipartisan support. I look forward to working with you to help shape an approach that the new administration might support.
Environment—Progress on environmental issues could do much to enhance the new administrations program, and a first step could be enactment of legislation I have sponsored to advance the cleanup of abandoned urban “brownfields,” both to speed the redevelopment of these properties and to preserve the environment. There is wide bipartisan support for this legislation and I hope it can be made part of your agenda. In addition, I hope the new administration will be open to proposals to reduce the countrys reliance on foreign oil, through energy conservation and greater investments in mass transit.
The agenda Mr. Cheney had outlined at lunch was certain to tear the country apart. My letter to him was fair warning; I would not be a soldier in his cause.
against the tide. Copyright © 2008 by Lincoln Chafee. All rights reserved.
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