House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's make-believe secretary of state routine in Syria has been painted by the press as a sign of emboldened Democrats taking on Team Bush's neocon bumblers. Chris Matthews echoed his colleagues' sentiments when he joyously declared Pelosi would "open the doors to peace."
It was, of course, an outrage, a direct slap at the president, an effort to humiliate him on the international stage. President Bush, Vice President Cheney and White House spokesman Dan Bartlett were quoted decrying Pelosi's diplomatic freelancing. Conservative talk radio was livid. But where, oh where, were the congressional Republicans?
More to the point, where is the GOP leadership? I haven't seen the polling data, but it would surprise me if one in 10 Americans could even name them, so absent are they from the scene. John Boehner and Roy Blunt lead the House; Mitch McConnell and Trent Lott lead the Senate. Other than an occasional spot on the Sunday talk shows, they might as well adorn milk cartons with most Americans.
Did the Republican leaders protest Pelosi's freelancing? There was no sign of it on ABC, CBS or NBC, or even in The Washington Post or The New York Times. OK, but perhaps that's because the networks are ignoring their blizzard of press releases, once more proving the bias of the press?
But in this case, no. A search for criticism of Pelosi's jaunt on the Websites of Boehner and Blunt turned up nothing. Ditto with the sites of McConnell and Lott. Even the conservative House Republican Study Committee's site carried nothing. The Republican National Committee had nothing on its Website other than a reprint of a Wall Street Journal editorial against Pelosi, under their feature "In Case You Missed It." It would be easy to miss it when there was close to zero GOP opposition to the Pelosi fracas on these sites. They were leaving the work to Team Bush and talk radio.
Brian Kennedy, John Boehner's press secretary, suggested that it's still early in the electoral cycle. "When he handed the gavel to Speaker Pelosi in January, Mr. Boehner stated his belief that Republicans could disagree without being disagreeable. And I don't think he felt the need to make repeated public remarks to state the obvious here, which is that Pelosi's trip was embarrassing and potentially dangerous." In other words, he passed the buck.
Boehner finally managed to denounce Pelosi's diplomacy back in Ohio in a meeting with reporters and editors of the Columbus Dispatch, only to have it backfire due to more GOP incompetence. That paper played up that Republican Rep. Dave Hobson, a good friend of Boehner's from a neighboring district, accompanied Pelosi on her trip and came out defending Pelosi -- to an absolutely embarrassing degree. Hobson not only criticized Team Bush and Mitt Romney for daring to protest Pelosi, he even praised Syrian dictator Bashar Assad as a "very educated person" who wanted stability in Iraq.
By Saturday, Boehner appeared in The New York Times -- when the Times could finish an article that read like a Democratic position paper, aimed to make him look like an enormous hypocrite. Reporters Helene Cooper and Carl Hulse tut-tutted Boehner's comment to the Dispatch that Pelosi was going to Syria ''for one reason, and that is to embarrass the president.'' But they noted, around this time in 1997, Boehner accompanied Speaker Gingrich to China -- and later called the trip ''very educational.''
It's very likely that the Times lifted this directly from leftist bloggers like Greg Sargent, who were rifling through Nexis to find exactly these comparisons to defend Pelosi's bumbling Syrian tour. But as even Sargent admitted, the parallels aren't precise.
The Clinton-Gore team offered no criticism of the Gingrich trip, but merely stated he spoke for himself. Gingrich did raise eyebrows for making bold declarations about how America under the Clinton administration would respond militarily if China attacked Taiwan, but no one viewed this as political subterfuge. And America was not at war.
Cooper and Hulse also failed to mention the New York Times editorial from that time, which slapped Gingrich for making bold declarations on behalf of the American executive branch, but also praised Gingrich for being "refreshingly candid compared with the oblique criticism favored these days by the Clinton administration. ... Mr. Gingrich's comments on the Chinese political scene were in some ways more honest than Mr. Gore's anemic formulations."
Pelosi's Syria trip did pile up some negatives, not only from talk radio hosts, but even from a strongly critical unsigned editorial by The Washington Post. Even NBC's Matt Lauer eventually found "a lot of people thought she messed up." But the allegedly fearsome "Republican attack machine" on Capitol Hill? At best, it ran on a very low volume throughout Madame Speaker's daffy diplomatic adventure. At worst, it was pathetic.