For the next four years you can take it as an immutable Washington truth that when President Bush is allied with the Senate and most of the mainstream media against the conservative Republican base in the House of Representatives, he is on a quick path to a big mistake.
And so he finds himself this week on the intelligence "reform" bill. In fact, he is not only down the path, he is almost to the finish line. The current conference report will pass imminently. Its stalwart opponents in the House, Chairmen Duncan Hunter and and Jim Sensenbrenner are going to be outflanked and defeated. So it is not too soon to perform an autopsy on the death of common sense intelligence reform.
It all started a couple of years ago when the Democrats concocted the idea for an election year Senate Commission investigation of the tragedy of Sept. 11 (now known as the 9/11 Commission). President Bush wisely opposed such a stunt, as it was obviously a device for scapegoating incumbents. And, as the No. 1 incumbent, I assume the president could almost feel little horns and a goatee about to emerge from his head.
The commission certainly couldn't have been motivated by a sincere interest in strengthening our intelligence capacity -- a topic the Democratic Party has been indifferent toward for the last 40 years.
But as the Democrats organized appealing weeping widows of 9/11 victims into a Greek Chorus of Madame Defarges pointing accusatory fingers at all who differed with their views by even a jot or tittle, President Bush let temporary political expediency get the better part of his judgment, and he begrudgingly agreed to the process. It would have taken the courage of 10 lions to resist the pressure -- and, in this instance, the president only had the courage of six.
The commission was shrewdly timed to report its conclusions in July 2004 -- the week of the Democratic Party nominating convention in Boston. Even in the minority, the Democrats are better at investigative politics than are the sometimes well-intentioned but always procedurally inept Republican senators.
The public hearings were a travesty of proper process, being little more than political and press manipulation. Anti-Bush books, such as Richard Clarke's self-serving screed, would be highlighted on CBS's "60 Minutes" on Sunday night, followed by his testimony before the commission on live television Monday morning.
The hearings were dominated by two Democratic Party commissioners: Former Clinton Dep. Attorney General Jamie Gorlick, who did her best to cover up for Clinton-era mistakes (including her own); and longtime party lawyer Richard Ben Veniste, who made the prosecutors case against George W. Bush and his appointees.
The morning the commission's recommendations were released the rush to passage began. Within two hours of its release Sen. John Kerry announced that he supported every provision and that Congress should enact it in the remaining months of the current congressional session. Neither he nor his advisors had a chance to even read, let alone think about, the 500-page report. But his endorsement was politically, not substantively, motivated.
Virtually every Democrat immediately followed suit. And soon, most Republicans fell in line and called for its unconsidered passage. They were all afraid of an angry electorate come Nov. 2. There were few profiles in courage last summer east of the Potomac.
Then the co-chairmen and a few of the commissioners -- their swelling egos pulsating with new life -- declared that they would not rest until final passage of a bill that faithfully included every detail of their delivered wisdom.
Since then the deceptively mild-mannered co-chairmen, Democrat Lee Hamilton and Republican Gov. Thomas Kean, and the openly robust commissioner, former Senator Bob Kerrey -- snatched from their recent obscurity -- have flooded the airways and editorial pages campaigning for immediate passage without changing a comma of the version of the bill they endorsed.
President Bush had appeared to be conspicuously unenthusiastic about the bill as supported by the Senate. The Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed it. Conservatives concerned about effective war fighting and controlling our borders were strongly against it -- and for good reason.
As House Armed Services Committee Chairman Hunter has powerfully pointed out, the bill would take operational control of needed battlefield intelligence away from the Pentagon and give it to the new intelligence czar. It seems surpassingly odd that we would take control away from the Pentagon, which has been performing superbly for years and give it to the Intelligence agency that has been failing catastrophically for decades.
Likewise, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Sensenbrenner is being nastily opposed for calling for tougher driver's license and political asylum standards to make it harder on possible terrorists. Ironically, the driver's license provision was in the 9/11 commission's final report (page 390), but was deemed too controversial for open border-favoring politicians of both parties.
The president, having weakly endorsed the bill, is now being successfully pressured to overwhelm Chairmen Hunter and Sensenbrenner by his personal intervention. It appears he will do just that.
So, a crass Democratic Party strategy for scoring election year political points on President Bush, yielded to out of political expediency and against the better judgment of the president and most of his party men, is about to become bad law.
It is melancholy to consider that at a time of great national danger the first major intelligence reform in a half a century was conceived in political sin and is being born in weakness and pain. It is not an auspicious birth.