The emerging narrative on John Bolton's now-likely confirmation as U.N. ambassador has produced an unexpected good guy: Ohio Senator George Voinovich. According to the accepted story line, a host of Republican Senate moderates sat shifty-eyed while Bolton's nomination rolled through the Senate; Voinovich at least had the presence of mind to bloody Bolton's nose along the way. The editors of The New York Times wrote approvingly of Voinovich's now-famous anti-Bolton soliloquy last week. Chris Dodd of Connecticut mused about "what a privilege it was to serve with [Voinovich]" and vowed to commemorate the speech for his young daughters as an example of a "senatorial moment."
That's one reading, I suppose. The other is that, by elevating Bolton's nomination to the level of grand moral principle--"Mr. Chairman, it is my opinion that John Bolton is the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be," Voinovich thundered last Thursday--and then failing to follow through when he could have blocked the nomination, he damages the very principles he claims to espouse.
As it happens, this is not the first time Voinovich has worked himself up into moral high dudgeon only to back off under pressure from the White House. Voinovich came to the Senate in 1999 proclaiming his determination to restore an ethic of budgetary responsibility. And, for his first two years, he resisted expensive tax cuts favored by the GOP. But, since Bill Clinton had vowed to veto these bills, Voinovich's vote carried no political cost. Then, right around the time George W. Bush entered office, Voinovich's rhetoric began to diverge conspicuously from his actions.
This was particularly evident in 2002, when a set of budget rules that had been fabulously successful at controlling deficits in the 1990s was about to expire. The pay-as-you-go rule, as it is known, requires new tax cuts or spending to be paid for by savings elsewhere in the budget. At the time, Voinovich seemed genuinely worried about its expiration. "As a senator who came here to bring some fiscal discipline to this place, I am just dismayed by our complete lack of fiscal responsibility," he told the Baltimore Sun. But, when he finally got the opportunity to vote to reimpose the rule in 2004, Voinovich balked. Other GOP deficit hawks, such as John McCain, Olympia Snowe, and Lincoln Chafee, had no such reservations.
Voinovich also passed on a chance to impose fiscal discipline in 2003, when he turned out to be the key swing vote on a package of tax cuts estimated to cost roughly $800 billion over ten years. But he never stopped stressing the importance of the principle. "We're on the edge of a fiscal crisis in this country if we keep going the way we are," Voinovich said late that March. He claimed he couldn't abide a tax cut that would cost a dollar more than $350 billion, and he co-signed a letter to this effect addressed to Tom Daschle and Bill Frist. When asked on "Meet the Press" in the weeks before the final vote whether $350 billion was his absolute bottom line, Voinovich replied, "You got it, and anybody that knows George Voinovich knows that, when I say something, I mean it." In response, Senate GOP leaders simply arranged for some of the bill's provisions to expire within six years--thereby lowering the legislation's ten-year price tag--even though they had every intention of renewing the provisions once they expired. This is the legislative equivalent of crossing out $800 billion and writing $350 billion next to it, but it was sufficient to win Voinovich's vote.
When Voinovich piped up in the Foreign Relations Committee last month and claimed that his concerns justified delaying a vote on Bolton's nomination, it seemed to be a rare case of the senator measuring his rhetoric. Voinovich was arguing for more careful deliberation without committing himself to a position he might later undermine. But that sense of proportion vanished when Voinovich shared the product of his deliberations--a scathing indictment of Bolton--then announced the terms of an agreement whereby he would send the nomination to its near-certain approval.
Voinovich is apparently a great believer in norms. He believes in the norm that a government should live within its means. He believes that the executive branch should be transparent in its dealings with Congress and the public. And he believes strongly in the Senate's "advice and consent" responsibilities. (Voinovich actually chided Republicans for not permitting Democrats to explore allegations against Bolton.) But Voinovich doesn't understand the difference between invoking a norm and defending it. Had he stressed the importance of the Senate's advisory role, then concluded from his deliberations that Bolton was acceptable, the norm would have remained intact. The norm would have even survived had he never mentioned it and voted for Bolton.
Either scenario might have emboldened the White House on a future nomination, but not to the point of dismissing the Senate altogether. The fact that a senator grudgingly assents today doesn't mean he won't object tomorrow. Thanks to Voinovich's shenanigans, however, the White House will be increasingly dismissive of congressional grumbling. Voinovich has demonstrated that, even when the Senate does object, it doesn't particularly matter.
That would be unfortunate in any context. But the effect is particularly insidious with this administration. That's because, under Bush, the GOP's chief political tactic has been to identify norms that can be trampled without consequence--and then to promptly trample them. So, for example, Republicans routinely pass legislation in the House and Senate only to significantly change it in a conference committee. Or they unveil complicated legislation just hours before it must be voted on, giving Democrats almost no opportunity to read it. Or, to take an example with which Voinovich is intimately familiar, they announce a reasonable-sounding official price tag for legislation that bears no relationship to its actual cost.
George Voinovich proved himself to be an enabler of the administration's worst excesses when he caved on Bolton last Thursday. A senatorial moment, perhaps. Just not the kind you'd share with your children.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.