- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

With so many big-news stories swirling about from Iran’s decision to enrich uranium and move closer to fielding nuclear weapons to the plea bargain of politically radioactive and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff exchanging jail time for revealing how he bought favors from members of Congress, a highly knowledgeable and experienced European diplomat asked me to describe the state of Washington politics today. This simple image stunned him. The Republicans have circled their collective wagons perhaps so tightly as to prevent the circulation of cleansing fresh air and sunlight. And the Democrats, in taking aim at the opposition, have managed to circle their firing squads.

Interestingly, it is hard to know which party will be better or worse off.

These are serious times. Irish wag Oscar Wilde quipped that one reason why academic politics were so sharp was because the stakes were so small. In the real world, the politics are so sharp because the stakes are immense. With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke let alone the extraordinary comments of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejecting the Holocaust and calling for the elimination of Israel, the future of the Middle East is even more unsettled and potentially more dangerous.

After withdrawing its bid to buy Conoco, China’s acquisition of a substantial share of a Nigerian oil company raised legitimate questions about Beijing’s growing influence, notwithstanding a trade surplus in excess of $100 billion. The links between Bolivia’s new president, Evo Morales, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba, regardless of whether cocoa growing is legalized and Bolivian oil and gas companies nationalized, conjured up the specter of an “axisito of evil” in our own backyard.

Huge stakes are in play at home. Senate hearings on Judge Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination, while lacking the explosiveness of the Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas spectacles, were highly polarized around partisan differences over executive power, Roe v. Wade and lapses in the judge’s memory concerning a 1985 job application and promised recusal in cases concerning a mutual fund. With a court split 4-4 on so many issues, Democrats fear the Alito confirmation will shift that balance to the right, including reversing Roe v. Wade.

While polls show that most Americans seem less bothered by administration domestic spying activities outside the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that ignored obtaining mandated court warrants, both political parties are incapable of addressing this clash between individual freedoms and national security in a useful manner. Despite promises of budget and fiscal discipline, the deficit continues unchecked, health care costs now account for about one-sixth of GDP, and corporations are shucking obligations for pension funds, throwing responsibility back to government and the taxpayer.

Given these significant issues and potential crises, what did the political process do? Led by the president to bolster support for his strategy for victory in Iraq, Republicans chose to circle the wagons to defend the administration’s foreign and domestic policies rather than use the opportunity to readjust and correct past mistakes.

Despite the good political fortune afforded by Republican problems, in shooting back, Democrats managed to circle their firing squads. Instead of seizing the high ground to promote sounder policies or making a strong case against Judge Alito, the Democrats carped and complained and in the end offered few alternatives. As a result, the public’s confidence in either political party is missing in action.

Take Iraq. The results of the December election are unlikely to lead to a government that embraces the Sunni minority in any significant way. Indeed, the new government, whenever it is formed, it likely to be highly theocratic and ethnic in composition, and manned by a bureaucracy marked by corruption and incompetence. Republican and administration policy now is transfixed on the pace and level of turnover of responsibility to the Iraqis and the mantra is to defend that judgment at all cost. Aside from Rep. Jack Murtha’s call for withdrawal from Iraq (but not the region), what alternative strategies have been proposed by the Democrats? The answer is none.

Regarding the lobbying scandals, the Democrats have remained largely silent, possibly in the realization that there but for the grace of God many of them could have been implicated. Perhaps some will be. However, if there were ever a good opportunity to impose bipartisan reforms on Congress and the political process, even from the minority side, this was it.

Professional politicians observe that the shadow of the November 2006 elections stretches a long way back, even to January. Both parties will be cautious in not wishing to offend constituents unnecessarily. However, with one party hamstrung by an excessively defensive crouch and the other currently incapable of engaging the right targets, it is the nation that will be hurt.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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