Chamber Potshots

Election '04

Throughout the past week, members of the Bush administration and other top Republicans have engaged in a game of career assassination against Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism chief who has criticized President Bush for being disengaged in the fight against al-Qaeda. They've noted that Clarke was the only constant during the ten years of al-Qaeda attacks against U.S. interests that began in 1993. Conservative commentators Bob Novak and Ann Coulter even suggested that Clarke made his remarks because he's ticked that Condoleezza Rice, an African-American woman, got the job he wanted.

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) joined the chorus. On the Senate floor, he said he was "troubled" by Clarke's statements, "troubled that someone would sell a book, trading on their former service as a government insider with access to our nation's most valuable intelligence, in order to profit from the suffering that this nation endured on September 11, 2001." Frist called for a classified briefing that Clark gave in 2002 to be released in order to show discrepancies between Clark's statements then and now.

Expect to hear more statements like this in the next seven months. As Roll Call reported Monday, Senate Republicans plan to defend President Bush and question Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on the floor. Just in case the race on the campaign trail isn't nasty enough, Republicans plan to sully the Senate chamber with mudslinging as well.

The GOP's tactics, while disturbing, are inevitable, says Eric Uslaner, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and the author of several books, including "The Movers and the Shirkers: Representatives and Ideologues in the Senate." Senators are politicians, after all, and this is a highly contested election year. "Given what's going on in American politics in recent years, all government is politics," Uslaner noted. "Each party spends an incredible amount of time lambasting the other."

And unlike in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, the fates of the party's presidential and congressional candidates are closely tied together. "Overlap of the presidential and congressional vote is so strong that a president and his congressional party are bound to each other, whether they like it or not," Uslaner told me. "Tip O'Neill used to say all politics is local. Now, all politics is national."

The GOP's defense is that Democrats were the first to bring the presidential race to the Senate floor. "It is clear that the presidential campaign has already started on the floor of the Senate and Democrats are using all of the time they can to try and score political points," Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told Roll Call. "We should not cede the floor to them."

Kyl, however, is missing the point. Democrats are questioning Bush because that's their constitutional role. It's called checks and balances. Democratic lawmakers would be remiss in their duties if they didn't ask tough questions about the administration's plans. (Republicans should be doing the same.) But the GOP doesn't have the same role to fulfill in asking questions of Kerry; for them to do so smacks solely of partisan political theater.

All of this ignores the fact that the Senate floor is supposed to be a place where lawmakers debate issues related to legislation that's up for a vote. It's where they're supposed to govern. It's not as though there is a shortage of problems for senators to tackle. The Medicare trust fund is due to go bankrupt in 15 years. The United States is facing a mammoth deficit. And as statements from all of the witnesses before the 9/11 commission show, we've got a lot of work to do to make the country safer from another terrorist attack.

But don't expect Republicans to change their tune. As Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted in a letter to Bush earlier this month, "This administration has shown its willingness to engage in unfair and untoward retaliation when it is confronted with criticism." It happened with former Ambassador Joe Wilson, with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and now with Clarke. The GOP's next target is Kerry. His challenge is to make sure they don't succeed -- both on and off the Senate floor.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.

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