How well I recall the Panama Canal Treaty fight of thirty years ago. The political establishment was adamantly in favor of the Treaty. The people were against it. There were two political consequences of the ratification of the Treaty. Many Democratic Senators insisted they knew better than the people. The first of these was Senator Thomas J. McIntyre (D-NH). “I was elected by the people. I know more than they do. Of course, I am in favor of the Treaty.” Well, no. The people knew better than he did. He made that statement in 1977. The following year a co-pilot for Allegheny Airlines, Gordon J. Humphrey, upset McIntyre in the biggest story of that election. Likewise in Iowa, Senator Richard Clark campaigned for the Treaty. His opponent, former Lieutenant Governor Roger Jepsen, upended Clark in the second biggest story of 1978. Other incumbents likewise lost their seats in the Senate that year.
It was the beginning of the election cycle in which the establishment challenged popular opinion and lost. In 1980 Ronald W. Reagan was running for President. But in many states the Republican Senatorial candidate outpolled Reagan, who himself was popular. So many states used the Panama Canal as an issue that Republicans won control of the Senate for the first time since the 1952 election. A few of these Senatorial candidates might have won without the Panama Canal issue but not a sufficient number to control the Senate. Many incumbent Senators, such as Senator George S. McGovern (D-SD) were amazed. “We could have had a decent debate over our role in that part of the world but Abdnor (then Senator-elect James B. Abdnor) kept harping that we gave away our Canal.”
The matter also had consequences for Republicans. Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R-TN), then Senate Minority Leader, also believed he knew better than the public. Had he been against the Treaty, he might have been considered by Ronald Reagan for Vice President. But because he supported the Treaty, Reagan declined to offer him the position.
When the establishment wants something it usually prevails. Not that time. Indeed, not until the immigration fight of 2007 did we have such a clear-cut fight. That battle began with the establishment’s prevailing. Then at the end, Senator after Senator came aboard the anti-establishment cause. It was amazing to watch. Members of both parties changed sides. There was one very dramatic episode when Senate Minority Leader A. Mitchell (Mitch) McConnell, Jr. (R-KY), who had not committed, came aboard. McConnell, who manages 49 Senators to the Senate Majority Leader’s 51, is known as a very shrewd barometer of public opinion and also is one of the most effective Minority Leaders in modern times. He wanted to be with the people of Kentucky as was his colleague Senator, James P. (Jim) Bunning (R-KY).
Now there is another people versus the establishment fight. There were thirty years between the Panama Canal Treaty and immigration fights. So it is nothing short of remarkable that there would be another in less than a year. I am not sure if the establishment is flexing its muscles, fearful that it had lost so much ground in the immigration contest or if the people feel now that they can take on the establishment and win, but either way it is a fight.
I refer to the Law of the Sea Treaty (called “LOST” by opponents). True, former Senator William H. (Bill) Frist (R-TN), using his powers as Majority Leader, did not schedule a vote on ratification for consideration in the last Congress but that was hardly a fight. Don’t get me wrong. We were terribly grateful to Majority Leader Frist for delaying the measure. But as I say, this was not a real fight.
Now the entire establishment is allied on one side and the people on the other. Every conservative organization, from CATO to the Family Research Council, some 75 organizations in all, is armed with knowledge and ready to fight. Most members of the establishment are lined up on the other side. All of the liberals in both parties are set to fight. It is strange indeed that President George W. Bush, who withdrew the U.S. from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and withdrew the country from the jurisdiction of the World Court, is fighting with the liberals on this issue. Reagan rejected the Treaty but now George P. Schultz, who served in the Reagan Cabinets, supports it. He is and always has been a member of the establishment.
On the other hand, Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., President of the Center for Security Policy, is fighting LOST with everything he has. He, too, served in the Reagan Administration. He just released a 30-second commercial for television. Clifford Kincaid also has a 30-second commercial. Both are devastating. Talk radio? It is just gearing up, which is good because it played a crucial role in the immigration fight.
Where are the Senators in this fight? They are just beginning to examine the issues. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has exactly two hearings scheduled on the matter. Yet several other major committees have some jurisdiction. If McConnell were Majority Leader he would surely schedule LOST for hearings before other committees.
Unfortunately, he is not. He can’t schedule hearings beyond Foreign Relations. Yet many Minority Senators, including some ranking Senators, want jurisdiction. It will be interesting to see if Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-NV) gives into the requests of these Senators. Reid is a member of the establishment; it is almost unthinkable that he would do so.
Where is McConnell on this issue? He says he is studying it. As smart as he is I can’t imagine he would be a modern-day Howard Baker. He is a good man who loves America. It would make no sense for him to pay tribute to an Administration that will soon be out of office. Supporting the Iraq War is one thing, but this Law of the Sea Treaty?