The Bolton fiasco

Posted: Apr 25, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The White House and Republican Senate leaders have a little better than two weeks to save John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations after last Tuesday's fiasco in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. All that can be promised is that their efforts on Bolton's behalf will be tougher and better organized than they have been so far. That should not be difficult because they could hardly be worse.

 Republicans, weak and disorganized, were ground down by the Democratic juggernaut. Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio was so impressed by Democratic demagoguery that he impulsively dropped his support of Bolton, ending the narrow 10 to 8 committee tally for sending the nomination to the Senate floor. But since Voinovich is notoriously quirky and prone to break his Republican leash, the question arises why the White House was not more attuned to making sure he was safely on board.

 Presidential aides have met with Voinovich since he jumped overboard, beginning the difficult task of reeling him in -- as well as Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Republicans who followed Voinovich away from Bolton. Even if the committee majority somehow is restored, Chairman Richard Lugar will have to defeat efforts by Democrats to bring in Bolton for an auto-da-fe.

 The grim outlook for Bolton constitutes a major victory for the adversarial style practiced by Senate Democrats, with Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut taking the lead. Bolton's undeniable conservative ideology has antagonized the State Department's liberal cadre and its senatorial defenders. His hard line on Fidel Castro has alienated Dodd, whose long-term goal has been normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. Yet, Dodd on Tuesday made the astounding statement that his opposition to Bolton "has nothing to do with substantive disagreements," only his personal characteristics.

 Dodd, in demanding a postponement of a vote on Bolton, claimed during Tuesday's session that Bolton's management performance "ought to be indictable." He claimed it was "rare indeed for me to express objection to a nominee."

 In truth, Dodd has been a serial objector to Republican nominees over the years. He has voted against Martin Feldstein (Council of Economic Advisers), James Watt (interior secretary), James Edwards (energy secretary), Raymond Donovan (labor secretary), William Clark (deputy secretary of state and interior secretary), Rex Lee (solicitor general), C. Everett Koop (surgeon general), Kenneth Adelman (arms control director), Edwin Meese (attorney general), Robert Gates (CIA director), Ted Olson (solicitor general), Porter Goss (CIA director), Alberto Gonzales (attorney general), and Supreme Court nominees William Rehnquist, Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. He also opposed Bolton for his current under secretary of state position and kept the nomination of anti-Castroite Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state from even reaching the Senate floor.

 The only new element in Dodd's case against Bolton was the claim by Melody Townsel (self-described as a "vocal outspoken Democrat") that she was mistreated by Bolton in a 1994 dispute in Moscow when Bolton worked in the private sector. Her claims were buttressed by Washington consultant Kirby Jones, and here again the Cuban connection emerges. Jones is described by Newsweek as having "better contacts in Cuba than any other American" and by The New York Times as "the man to see about business in Cuba."

 Voinovich, displaying the grand senatorial style, admitted he had not attended previous committee hearings on Bolton and what he knew was based only on what he had heard Tuesday from Democrats. Chafee, indicating that he too was switching on Bolton, gushed about how thrilled he was to hear a senator change his mind after listening to another senator. Those comments could invite future demagoguery from Democrats.

 Republicans always expect the worse from Chafee, who said he wrote in a vote for the senior George Bush for president in 2004. But Voinovich took the party by surprise. That surprise validates the opinion of senior Republican senators who consider this administration's congressional outreach the worst they have seen.

 The only serious Republican defense of Bolton Tuesday was made by first-term Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota. This passivity not only leads Democrats to believe they will prevent John Bolton from going to the U.N. but also shows them the way to replicate this triumph.