Pentagon on Hold

Senate Republicans, apparently determined like John Tower that even in the face of probable defeat they will neither retreat nor surrender, have acted to prolong the debate and postpone the vote on President Bush's nominee for defense secretary until sometime next week. The purported aim of this delay is to buy time to try to rally public support for Tower and so increase the political pressure on that handful of Democrats whose votes must be won if he is to be confirmed. Is there a latent pro-Tower constituency in the country? The opinion polls are finding that a majority of Americans oppose his nomination. Rather than building sympathy and support for the former Texas senator, the months of discussion, disclosures and hearings that preceded this week's debate seem only to have deepened doubts and encouraged derision.

To drag things out into yet another week thus appears to be both foolish and harmful. The fight over Tower has been messy and embarrassing, more than once sinking to the level of soap opera as the nominee felt compelled to go public with his pledge to abjure alcohol and his admission of broken marriage vows. His defenders take these acknowledgements as signs of Tower's candor and commitment. Others might see in them evidence of an ambition for high office so overwhelming that it is prepared to accommodate itself to any abasement.

Republicans, in desperation, have taken to arguing that political precedent all but requires Senate approval of a new President's Cabinet choices, and that the extent and nature of the confirmation process that Tower has had to undergo represents an unfair and partisan departure from hallowed custom. But the Constitution doesn't call on the Senate to rubber-stamp a President's nominees; the Senate's responsibility is to advise on and consent to nominees only when they are found fit for office. Tower and his defenders complain that he is being held to an intolerably high standard in the matter of personal conduct--one that many senators could not meet. Perhaps. But while Tower's problem with alcohol may be the most sensational consideration weighing against his nomination, it is hardly the only one. There are real and serious doubts about his probity, based on his revolving-door defense-industry consultancies, and about his ability to make hard budget-driven choices for cutting military costs. Tower was known in the Senate as a man who never met a weapon system that he didn't like. Set all the character problems and all the gossip aside, and Tower remains a less-than-desirable defense secretary for the deficit-burdened 1990s.

The prolonged and increasingly bitter debate over Tower not only is harming prospects for necessary bipartisan cooperation on many issues at the very onset of the Bush Administration. It also leaves the Defense Department in limbo, without approved upper-level civilian leadership and so without clear policy direction at a time when critical choices must be made. What is behind the stubborn insistence on perpetuating the mistake of the Tower nomination by insisting on carrying on the fight? Perhaps Tower, the Texas native, and George Bush, the adopted son of that state, really are in thrall to the old Alamo code that there can be no retreat and no surrender. That kind of battle cry may make for stirring legend, but only the most inspired imagination could see it as a basis for good politics or effective governance.

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