Scandalous Partisanship

By Herbert London

Published July 22, 2005, issue of July 22, 2005.
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The Democratic sharks smell Republican blood in the water. As a consequence, they are zeroing in on Karl Rove in order to embarrass the president in what has become a tidal wave of partisanship. It is revealing, however, that these are toothless sharks on a hapless mission.

There is the contention that Rove revealed Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent, thereby violating the law — one might call it the Philip Agee precedent — and putting Plame in a compromised position. Overlooked in the overheated accusation is that all discussion of Plame’s identity was initiated by journalists; that Plame was not an undercover agent at the CIA; and that Rove’s intentions, to the extent they’re discernible, were to discredit Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, who according to British intelligence lied when he reported that Iraq did not seek nuclear material from Niger.

There you have it, Washington’s latest pettifogging issue.

Yet the Democrats are in high dudgeon. Senator Chuck Schumer couldn’t contain his sanctimonious utterances by calling for the removal of Rove’s security clearance. Senator Joseph Biden called Rove’s actions “a national security breach.” And Senator Hillary Clinton, reflecting on events in the White House, struck a decidedly low note by comparing President Bush to Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman.

Washington loves farce the way boxing aficionados crave blood. At the moment Washington is a “hot house” in which Democrats seek to embarrass Republicans and vice versa. Democrats are feeling their oats because they believe Bush may be on the losing side of history. So hostile is the present atmosphere that I sometimes have the impression many Democrats would prefer to see an American defeat in Iraq than a triumphant Bush.

To some degree, the Democrats are in search of the contemporary Watergate. From their perspective, Watergate was the nadir of Republican fortunes. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans view the Clinton impeachment as the apogee of their political gamesmanship. As a result, each party seeks the embarrassment of the other side in an explosive partisan cauldron.

Today liberals understand they can tie the administration in knots even if their argument is about a pseudo-event. Does anyone remember how President Eisenhower had to bow to press opinion because Sherman Adams, his close associate, accepted the gift of a fancy coat?

Op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times, notes “there’s no question that [Karl Rove] damaged national security for partisan advantage. If Democrats had done that Republicans would call it treason.” Here in unvarnished form are media smear tactics. Presumably Rove damaged national security and, if the charge were in the other political direction, it would be treason. These are strong words unmoored from empirical evidence.

Unfortunately, this is a typical Washington media exercise. Words need not be defined. On either side of the partisan divide people can play fast and loose with the truth. In fact, partisan advantage trumps basic human concerns.

At a time when it is essential the nation develop a working consensus to deal with a war against terrorism and radical Islam, there is low intensity conflict in Washington. Democrats have thrown down the gauntlet on this occasion — although sensible liberals must realize there isn’t much to blow out of proportion. Of course, that won’t stop them from trying.

It is ironic that Schumer, to cite one example, is flogging on his Web site “to stop Karl Rove” and by the way, “build financial resources so we can help our candidates… achieve a Democratic Senate majority.” Yet in 1982 Schumer worked to defeat the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which was enacted at President Reagan’s insistence. Now Schumer sings a new tune. Could it be related to his position as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee? How can any serious person entertain his assertion?

This is the new Washington, the one that inflicts injury by throwing character assassination bombs.

In 1968 conservative senators, led by Michigan’s Robert Griffin, prevented a vote on President Johnson’s choice for chief justice of the Supreme Court, Abraham Fortas, by hurling fiery invective against him. Several years ago Robert Bork, arguably the most talented jurist in the nation, was denied a seat on the Supreme Court because of a well-designed liberal media crusade launched against him. Today Senator Christopher Dodd and his well-placed colleagues have thus far prevented John Bolton from securing a position as ambassador to the United Nations, on the laughable accusation that he became angry at a former employee.

Washington is electrified through scandal, both the real and the imagined. As I see it, the real scandal is that during these parlous times the parties should be working together despite their differences. The so-called Rove affair is a mere distraction, a way to make points against an opponent. In the end, this bickering only arouses public cynicism about politicians and enervates the spirit necessary to fight real enemies.

Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, is author of “Decade of Denial” (Lexington Books, 2001).

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