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Senator’s vision of ‘American way’

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2008

After growing up seeing how the rest of the world works, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is eager to export "the American way."

But the Rhode Island Democrat, like other progressives in his party and unlike neoconservatives in the other party, says he wants to use trade policy, both as carrot and stick, and almost never bombs, bullets and rockets.

"We shouldn't have free trade with countries that don't honor private property rights, that don't allow some modicum of a free press and basic civil rights," he says, adding that some governments will tend to cheat on human rights, anti-pollution and free-press agreements.

"Somewhere along the line, we have to make sure our trade policies don't turn from a theory that expands economic efficiency into a device that allows countries to race to the bottom in violation of basic norms that maintain civilized behavior," he told The Washington Times in an interview at his offices in the Hart Senate Office Building.

His almost Wilsonian desire to export the American system of governance comes from seeing firsthand what living without property, civil and labor rights is like.

"I grew up in the Foreign Service," says Mr. Whitehouse, whose father was a World War II Marine Corps pilot and then U.S. ambassador to Laos and Thailand.

"I lived in Cambodia, South Africa, the Philippines, Guinea, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. I have seen an awful lot of poverty and corruption on a scale we can't even imagine in the U.S. To me, it is a beneficence to share American values with other countries so long as we do it in a thoughtful, sensitive, diplomatic way," he says.

This eagerness to spread U.S. ways is one example of Mr. Whitehouse's belief that bipartisanship can work - on matters of "fundamental patriotism."

While ferocious partisanship "has its place," he says, liberals and conservatives share enough common ground to make Washington work better, though he also understands that proposition alone is enough to make some on the right grab for their wallets and the Constitution.

"Regardless of secondary issues - even big ones - there is a first issue," he says. "It's about loyalty to America, to its principles, to our history - a sort of fundamental patriotism that is across the board, for liberals and conservatives."

A big man with a relentlessly sunny disposition, the former Rhode Island attorney general can sound like a teacher reading from a 1959 civics textbook. "Left and right, we're very common as a people in our loyalty to America and understanding that America is a vision and not just a country where you come to take stuff."

Then the realistic ex-prosecutor in him kicks in.

"Where liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans go from there and what they think are the next steps for America to take to fully achieve its promise is a second-order question," he says.

Although those second-order questions can be deal breakers, his answers have mostly followed the Democratic Party line at the time while also representing principles of governance that rested a notch or two above knee-jerk partisanship.

He co-sponsored an amendment to end funding for the Iraq war - and some philosophical conservatives agree with the underlying sentiment.

He also co-sponsored what he called the "restoration of the Senate's role in the confirmation of nominees for U.S. attorney vacancies" and introduced a bill "to restore safeguards against political interference at the Justice Department, a policy change adopted by President Bush's latest attorney general, Michael Mukasey."

Mr. Whitehouse had some of the Republican hawks up in arms when he tried to expand privacy protections in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) - setting limits on governmental surveillance of Americans - and when he tried to prohibit the U.S. government from using torture as he and fellow Sen. John McCain defined it.

"You get some surprising allegiances," Mr. Whitehouse says. "Senator John Cornyn, for instance, my fellow former attorney general from Texas, is as strong as any Democrat on freedom of information, and open records, and has put a very strong improvement through the Judiciary Committee."

Mr. Whitehouse's liberal pedigree for saying these things is about as pure as it comes. With a bachelor's degree from Yale and married to a marine biologist who is also an environmental activist, he veered from a perfect Northeastern progressive resume only in taking a law degree from the University of Virginia.

When in 2006 he beat Republican incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee, conservatives were dry-eyed, as they had regarded Mr. Chafee as a "RINO" - Republican In Name Only.

Once safely ensconced in the Senate, Mr. Whitehouse began doing a little selective conspiring on the side with conservative Republicans such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. All three have been engaged in a mutual search for ways to improve health care, among other things.

For Mr. Whitehouse, the largest acreage for non-ideological cooperation is in trying to fix what he, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Coburn agree is a broken health care system.

The three senators have teamed up to push the federal government to lift its prohibition against doctors electronically prescribing controlled substances - a prohibition they say is a significant barrier to widespread "e-prescribing" and health information technology.

"Billion-dollar transactions are done electronically," Mr. Whitehouse says. "Highly classified national-security information travels electronically. Military attack aircraft are targeted electronically. So don't tell me we can't figure out a way for a doctor to prescribe Vicodin electronically."

Agreeing on new ways to finance health care as a way of fixing it is another matter. He admits to wide disagreement with, at the conservative end, relying on tax-free health-savings accounts - what he calls "a dog-eat-dog" solution - and at the other end, the ultimate dream for some liberals of a single-payer system run by the government, "with health care that everybody shares," as he puts it.

He says in between those extremes are legislation by Sens. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, and Robert F. Bennett , Utah Republican, and bills by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, and Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat and presumptive presidential nominee.

For many conservatives all these schemes smack of statism. Limited-government champions tend to regard only the private health-savings accounts as safe from what they see as the fatal error of having the government choose winners and losers and direct the flow of investments.

Mr. Whitehouse says he understands and respects such concerns and also acknowledges that conservatives can latch onto policies that set his teeth grinding - though discreetly, of course.

He calls them "flame-thrower issues - gay marriage, abortion and - at the extreme - gun rights. Then there are other issues where liberals and conservatives have very divergent views and a lot of extremism - but also a lot of room to maneuver in the middle."

Immigration is a good example, says Mr. Whitehouse, who also was a U.S. attorney during the Clinton administration.

"There are practical solutions - it is not an all-or-nothing proposition," he says. "Yet those are issues in which the extremes have dominated the debate to a point where it is hard for people to find a middle ground to maneuver because as soon as their extremes start howling and screaming, people get scared away from the middle."

He says issues like those surrounding immigration are "resolvable in a reasonable universe."

"It's just that right now there's too much heat around them," he said.

The heat source varies with the issue, he says.

For immigration, he and most other Democrats join the Bush administration and its Republican allies in blaming what Mr. Whitehouse calls "the right-wing talk-show world that sort of exploded right in the middle of the immigration debate."

He says that explosion "essentially drove sponsors and supporters" of the Bush-backed bill - which critics said offered amnesty - "literally off the floor of the Senate. But some real profiles in courage showed themselves," such as Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mel Martinez of Florida.

"Kyl and I sit on the Judiciary Committee and probably disagree on everything," Mr. Whitehouse says. "But I'll tell you he stood out there on the Senate floor and stuck by promises that had been exchanged, that supported the consensus proposal. And it was not easy. He was taking enormous pillorying across the country and particularly at home, and he stuck to his guns."

The values issues can be the most divisive between left and right - and, not always so noticeably - between right and right.

For example, Mr. Whitehouse has Senate colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle - he won't name them - who think same-sex marriage is not a matter for government involvement.

"I've had conversations with people who sort of wish this issue would go away, people who are fundamentally libertarian, who say, 'Get government out of my bedroom as well as my boardroom as well as my clubroom and living room,'" he says.

In many ways, he thinks, that was the old-line Republican point of view. But that viewpoint became taboo in Republican ranks at some point, and the opposite view has become an "article of political faith."

He says he understands that taking opposite sides on such issues is what drives the Democratic and Republican electoral coalitions. Democrats don't think they can get elected without bowing to homosexual activists and Republicans think they can't win without deference to religious conservatives.

Although Mr. Whitehouse nabbed a career that demands a certain amount of extroversion, he somehow lacks the right gene for it.

"I walk into a room, and I'm anxious about whether people will like me, whether I'll fit into conversations. I suffer all the things shy people are shy about," he says.

How does he manage to live with this mismatch of personality and job requirements?

"You get used to it," he shrugs.