Trashing Patrick Leahy

The Republican National Committee claims the Vermont Democrat "disrespects" the heroes of Sept. 11, but the charge shows the GOP disrespects the truth.

By Brendan Nyhan
Published April 19, 2002 9:42PM (EDT)

A Republican National Committee e-mail to party activists this week compares the war on terrorism to the GOP's political fight with Democratic senators, and falsely accuses Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., of "attacking the courage and memory" of the firefighters and policemen who died on Sept. 11.

The e-mail was sent Thursday night to registered members of the RNC's Team Leader program by Blaise Hazelwood, the political director of the Republican National Committee.

In a letter to the activists contained in the e-mail, Hazelwood draws an outrageous parallel between America's war on terror and the Republican fight against Democratic opposition in domestic politics:

"Fellow Americans, we are fighting two wars right now. Abroad we fight terrorism and at home we fight the disgraceful and obstructionist Democrat senators."

After attacking Daschle for blocking a vote on making President Bush's tax cut permanent, Hazelwood lays into Leahy for "attacking the courage and memory of our fallen heroes from the attack on 9/11." In another section of the e-mail, an "Action Alert" titled "Senator Leahy Disrespects NY's Heroes," Hazelwood tells team leaders to "[e]xpress [their] outrage over Senator Patrick Leahy's (D-VT) refusal to bring a bill to a vote that would have awarded the Presidential Medal of Valor to firefighters and policemen who responded to the 9/11 attack last year."

Nowhere in the e-mail is it mentioned that Leahy pushed the resolution in question through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, on Thursday, or that Thursday night Democrats passed it unanimously on the Senate floor, along with two similar bills.

Here's what happened: On Oct. 30, the House passed a resolution calling on President Bush to award the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor to the police, fire and rescue workers who died on Sept. 11. It was referred to Leahy's committee and was still awaiting action (along with the two other bills, which originated in the Senate) last Friday, April 12, when the New York Post broadsided Leahy with a scathing article claiming he "single-handedly killed" the House legislation.

Leahy's spokesman called the report inaccurate, and the senator announced later that day that all three bills would be brought before the committee on Thursday, April 18.

The explanation for the delay, according to Leahy and his staff, is that the senator wanted to wait for the medal review board of public safety officers to be formed, as originally intended under the legislation. The reported goal was for the officers themselves to make recommendations for recipients, rather than having politicians make the choice. Also, the committee had to reconcile the three bills in question. After the controversy arose, Leahy decided instead to support moving all three bills forward.

It's certainly fair to criticize Leahy for letting procedural issues hold up the bill and then reversing himself under pressure, although Leahy's explanation seems reasonable. But the GOP e-mail completely fails to acknowledge Leahy's actions since the Post story came out. And clearly, Leahy never attacked "the courage and memory" of the officers who died on Sept. 11, as Hazelwood falsely claims. Republican spokesman Jim Dyke told me Friday afternoon that when the e-mail went out Thursday afternoon or evening, they "were not aware" that the bill had passed out of committee. When we spoke, he also did not know that the bills had been approved by the Senate as well. It's not clear what's worse, the GOP's vicious rhetoric, or the sloppiness with which it's bandied about.

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan.

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Patrick J. Leahy