Breaking GOP ranks

As more Republican senators sour on Rumsfeld's war, John McCain and Chuck Hagel may no longer be the party's lone men of conscience.

By Martin Sieff

Published May 12, 2004 7:01PM (EDT)

A funny thing happened on Capitol Hill last week. In the days before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, no longer smirking with the certainty he had the only true answers to every question in the world, was hauled before the Senate Armed Services Committee to testify on the appalling revelations of torture and humiliation of prisoners in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, the Republican Senate leadership en masse broke ranks with President Bush and said so.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the committee, said on May 5 that Rumsfeld and the controversial deputies he has repeatedly backed to the hilt carry "ultimate responsibility for the actions of the men and women in uniform." This was a lot more than the pabulum and boilerplate feigning outrage that party loyalists always express when they are maneuvering to pump out a squid's ink stream to protect their embarrassed leaders. Warner followed up his words with tough and decisive action. He dragged a reluctant Rumsfeld to testify within two days before his committee.

Warner, not usually the most reckless or outspoken member of his party, was not alone in his outrage. "No member of the Senate had any clue" about the Abu Ghraib outrages, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the New York Times. "This is entirely unacceptable. I think it is a total washout."

The Abu Ghraib revelations unleashed a pent-up tidal wave of resentment at the cavalier way that Bush and co. have kept congressional leaders in the dark over crucial and highly charged issues, one after another. Lawmakers are appalled that Rumsfeld sat on a detailed report from Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba about the Abu Ghraib situation for weeks and that they had to learn so much from, of all places, the Web site of the one information source that good Republican conservatives despise even more than the New York Times -- National Public Radio. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was furious that his committee had been kept in the dark too. "That's unacceptable," he told reporters on May 5.

Even Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the former Senate Republican leader, told the New York Times, "I don't feel good at all about what I'm finding out about who didn't know what." Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the avatar of Reagan Republicanism over the past quarter century, was the most outraged and plain-spoken of the lot: "It's abysmal; it's criminal," he said. And if, or rather when, the allegations are proved true, "somebody needs to go to jail," he added.

The revelations of repeated torture and extraordinary humiliation of Arab prisoners in Iraq have obviously appalled lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike. But there is a lot more to it than that. For the first time in this administration, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska no longer look like an incorrigibly romantic idealist (Hagel) or an embittered, jealous presidential wannabe (McCain), both with Vietnam on the brain. Suddenly they look like prescient leaders of their party and the good consciences of the Senate.

How badly has this continuing scandal hurt the president's clout on Capitol Hill? Far more than he, his staff or even Republican lawmakers themselves yet realize.

Unease, a smoldering anger and even fear at being cut out of the loop by Rumsfeld and his Pentagon have been building for months on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate. Powerful mainstream senators like Warner, Lugar and Roberts are now saying in public things that would have gotten them in boiling hot water only a few weeks ago. These men will still not go as far as McCain or Hagel in blasting administration policy or Rumsfeld forthrightly. But they have come a long way already, baby. Rumsfeld is without a doubt on the skids with them. And the president's evident determination to hang on to "his" Rummy through thick and thin is going to strain relations even more.

The White House and the Pentagon have systematically shut the Senate out of the consultative process on Iraq in a way not seen since World War I. The horrific pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib therefore did not hit a political vacuum or a strong buffer of support for the president and his defense secretary. Instead, they have served, some Senate GOP staffers privately say, to focus and harden fears and resentments that have been building for months.

The House is a tougher nut to crack. Historically, House members usually do not concern themselves with many foreign affairs issues -- with the exception of hot-button ones of particular interest to influential lobbies or groups in their own districts. Also, the GOP majority of recent years under the leadership of Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas has been especially uniform in its views and in harmony with Bush on them. So far, no one there has broken ranks, and there have not been any independent, grim and public expressions of concern from House Republican leaders comparable to what has already been uttered by their Senate counterparts.

But talk to some House staffers who are privy to the thoughts and concerns of their congressmen and sometimes surprising expressions of anger and frustration come forth.

These so far fall into two categories: The first is that the czar, in this case the president, is still wise and good and just, and that it is his pesky advisors who are to blame. A remarkable amount of anger appears to be spreading in GOP House staff circles against Rumsfeld and the supposedly brilliant group of neoconservative intellectuals around him, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith -- those who pushed the conquest and occupation of Iraq so remorselessly yet now appear to have not the slightest clue what to do next.

The second reaction is found less commonly among House staffers but is even more remarkable. That is the expressed belief of Republican conservatives that to retain the power that really matters (their majority in the House, with continuing control over its committees and fiscal powers), they may have to sacrifice the power that they regard as more superficial and transient: Bush's holding on to the White House.

According to this line of thought (and I have been unable to ascertain from staffers how many Republican congressmen hold such a view), Bush, Rumsfeld and their hawks have already made such a mess out of Iraq that the next president, be it Bush or John Kerry, is certain to be on a hiding to nothing as he struggles with the war's consequences next year. Indeed, it is inevitable that there will be a massive popular backlash against the sitting president, Republican or Democrat, come the midterm elections of 2006. Far better, therefore, that Kerry win in November and still be hemmed in on the domestic front by a Republican House majority that is then free of the albatross of Iraq. If Bush wins in November, according to this belief, there is a very real danger that after 12 years the GOP will lose the jewel in its crown -- control of the House -- in 2006.

For the moment, however, members of the House are silent. GOP leaders are keeping their heads down, hoping the whole mess will go away in the next news cycle. Whatever the unease and resentment building against Bush there, he still has several months to rally the faithful, jut his jaw and look manly. House members will not distance themselves from a president who shares their core beliefs before the fall and, even then, only if come September he is looking like as much a lost cause as his father did by that time in his unsuccessful reelection campaign against Bill Clinton in 1992.

In the Senate, Bush's problems are far more immediate: If the Abu Ghraib scandal continues to metastasize, as it shows every likelihood of doing, then the biggest pressures Bush will face to drop his beloved Rumsfeld will come not from the big, bad media so many Republican true believers still believe to be liberal, or the supposedly wimpy Democrats on the Hill, but from the leaders of the Republican Senate majority themselves. Majority Leader Bill Frist, of course, is a Bush loyalist and totally onboard with the White House. But the Tennessee doctor has been strikingly out of step with his own committee chairmen of Foreign Relations, Intelligence and Armed Services on the issue.

The danger is real enough for Bush, staffers for mainstream Republican senators say, that the two hard-charging mavericks, Hagel and McCain, may set their party's tone, or even agenda, on dealing with Rumsfeld. Other Republican senators are already so disgusted with Rumsfeld's bungles that they at the very best will not publicly defend him. The 92-to-nothing bipartisan resolution passed on Monday condemning the Abu Ghraib abuses signals that the turning point is very close, and may already have been reached. GOP Senate leaders showed none of the usual efforts to delay or water down a resolution that, after all, was highly damning to the administration run by their own party.

If there was a single moment when congressional Republicans' doubts about Iraq germinated and started to bloom, it was when Bush was forced to unleash his $87 billion request for rebuilding Iraq last August. As luck would have it, the request came out just as Islamic guerrillas in Iraq assassinated Shiite Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, United Nations special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and several hundred of their officials, supporters and other victims in a blitz of bombings.

Successful politicians, especially in a system like that of the United States -- where every congressional seat is up for grabs, at least theoretically, every two years -- cannot afford the luxury of the neocon fantasy of bringing American-style democracy to Iraq. They keep their seats for a lot longer than two years by delivering the bacon and the pork for their constituents and by being plugged in to what the folks back home are thinking. And the remorseless rise in body bags coming home from Vietnam -- sorry, Iraq -- combined with the unyielding refusal of the reviving economy to generate well-paying new jobs, alarms them. Even the growing casualties and death toll did not seem to matter so long as the people running things in the Pentagon and the White House still looked as if they knew what they were doing.

But that is no longer the case. Bush remains convinced that Rumsfeld is a genius. Almost no one in the Senate majority, apart from Frist and a couple of other true believers, agrees anymore. Even in the House, the murmurings of staff members have grown into a chorus of cicadas.

Many congressional leaders had circulated with Rumsfeld on May 1 at the annual White House Press Correspondents dinner as the Abu Ghraib story was breaking, and the carefree way he and Wolfowitz enjoyed themselves that evening is now also reverberating on Capitol Hill. What for so long seemed the secretary's greatest asset -- his blasé coolness and imperturbability through every crisis -- is being widely reinterpreted as arrogant and even reckless delusion.

Yet as Bush made clear in his visit to the Pentagon Monday morning, he remains determined to keep Rummy on -- a determination that should be taken literally. For this president is, to quote the one book he appears to ever seriously consult, "an Israelite without guile." He could not bring himself to acknowledge a single personal mistake or error of judgment when pressed four times in his press conference last month. Nor could he bring himself to personally apologize to the Iraqi people for the torture and abuse revelations when he went on Arab television, supposedly with the express purpose of doing so. All this pales compared with the magnitude of error and miscalculation he would have to admit, however tacitly, if he dropped Rumsfeld now.

By keeping Rummy, Wolfie, Dougie and the gang on, the new gap between Bush and seasoned Senate loyalists like Hatch and Lott could grow into a Grand Canyon. Bush probably imagines that his House majority is made of sterner stuff, but by no means all of them are. The House is far more responsible to public opinion than the Senate is, and historically, in times of crisis, congressmen tend to defer to outspoken senators on issues of national security and foreign affairs -- as presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson have discovered to their cost.

If it were not for the steady stream of catastrophes followed by bombshells erupting from Iraq, Bush would be looking good. Kerry's performance so far has been lackluster, and the Bush-Cheney campaign's $60 million ad blitz in early spring drove up Kerry's negatives to satisfyingly high numbers. Even the flat jobs growth rate -- boosted only by part-time jobs devoid of health benefits -- could be massaged into a feel-good numbness.

But Iraq will not stay quiet. It will not stop coughing up horrifying and disgusting surprises. Bush and Rumsfeld appear to be genuinely unconcerned by this, but Capitol Hill Republicans clearly are coming to see it very differently. They are professional politicians who cannot afford to live in a permanent fantasy in which they imagine themselves walking in the steps of Winston Churchill.

Martin Sieff

Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International in Washington.

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Donald Rumsfeld John Mccain R-ariz.