My Thoughts: A Friend Lost; Simplistic Stories; Failing the Troops

Posted February 13, 2007 at 4:31pm

Three topics of discussion this week beginning with this: Congress lost a true friend and one of the all-time great scholars of its history and dynamics last week with the death of Nelson Polsby.

Polsby was a larger-than-life figure in every respect. (The Times in London, in its wonderful obituary, described him as “a mountain of a man; he looked like an American footballer gone to seed.”) His imposing physical presence was matched by an even more imposing intellect. His tongue, and pen, could be withering, but legions of students and colleagues, me included, could not have a better friend and mentor. Polsby’s scholarship spanned many areas, but Congress was his true love and the subject of his best work. [IMGCAP(1)]

His article “The Institutionalization of the U.S. House of Representatives” is among the most cited scholarly pieces ever published in the American Political Science Review. His last book, “How Congress Evolves: Social Bases of Institutional Change,” is typically elegant and deep, a huge contribution to the scholarly literature but written so that a nonprofessional reader can learn mightily from its insights. It is a must-read for every Member of Congress who wants to understand his or her institution in a historical and political context — which should be every Member of Congress.

On to topic No. 2. The national press already is developing its themes for handling and analyzing presidential candidates: Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is too much sizzle and not enough steak; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is a hypocrite. Like all facile frameworks, these ones are simplistic and off-base enough that they generate stories that strain, and sometimes fail, to fit the mold. As Obama has noted, his two books demonstrate more substance and attention to issues that matter than most pols are able to pull together in a decade. Being popular and charismatic does not necessarily correlate with being shallow.

As for McCain, the bannered headline in the front-page story in The Washington Post on Sunday says it all: “McCain Taps Cash He Sought To Limit; Onetime Reformer Calls on Big Donors.” The length and placement of the story scream to the reader that this is a big deal. But in fact it is no deal at all. There is nothing hypocritical about someone who worked tirelessly to reform the campaign funding system using the rules as they exist to run his campaign.

The phrase “the Constitution is not a suicide pact,” first attributed to Abraham Lincoln, can be adapted to the campaign finance system as well: No candidate should commit suicide by responding to the system he or she hopes will be in place instead of the one that is. McCain has supported reforming the presidential funding system, which was touched only indirectly by the legislation known as McCain-Feingold, the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. That system is broken and desperately needs reform now. The fact that McCain, along with all the other major candidates, will go outside the matching fund/spending framework says only that the system doesn’t work anymore, not that he or others are hypocrites. There may be grounds for a hypocrisy charge (see last week’s comments on tax pledges, for example), but reform is not one of them.

Now on to the most important topic of the day, triggered by another Post front-page story on Monday. That headline read, “Thousands of Army Humvees Lack Armor Upgrade.” Over the past three years, we have had repeated reports of inadequate body armor and armored vehicles in Iraq. We know that thousands of casualties, including deaths, limbs lost, disfigurement and more, have occurred or been worsened by the lack of adequate protection for our troops. We have had the pathetic reality of soldiers in harm’s way scrounging to make “hillbilly armor” and families trying to raise money to send their kids helmet liners and body armor because the military did not do so. Nothing angers me more than the broken covenant we have had with our gallant young men and women sent into danger.

I refuse to accept any excuses (“We go to war with the army we have”; “There is only one manufacturer of the right body armor”; “The production pipeline is clogged”). We are the richest country in the world and have spent $400 billion in Iraq. Don’t tell me or anybody else that we are incapable of the kind of crash program we saw prior to and during World War II to produce enough planes, ships and guns to fight the right kind of war. What we have seen is a remarkable lack of intensity by our leaders to deal with this problem, verging on indifference.

And Congress has been a central part of the problem. Where were the high-profile oversight and investigative hearings on these issues? Where were the appropriators and authorizers telling the Pentagon that all hell would break loose on their other priorities if the body armor and vehicle armor were not produced pronto? These are questions to ask every Member of Congress who gets up and talks piously about supporting our troops — where were you when the issue was not symbolism but real efforts to provide real protection? People have died, families have been devastated and lives have been destroyed because we did not have a crash program to equip our troops as they deserved to be equipped.

There is a major onus on this new Congress to make sure that this issue is dealt with aggressively and appropriately, forcing the White House and the Pentagon to move mountains to get that equipment out there now — not next month or this summer, but now.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.