This morning, if all goes according to plan, a slightly stooped, bespectacled man with a pronounced New England accent will rise to his feet next to a desk at the center of the Senate chamber and invoke the body’s arcane rules to begin a historic debate.
At stake for the Senate will be a choice between war and peace. But for George J. Mitchell of Maine, the former federal judge who now serves as the chamber’s majority leader, a second issue will loom almost as large--Congress’ ability to reassert its constitutional power to decide whether American soldiers go into battle.
Since the Persian Gulf crisis began more than five months ago, Mitchell has insisted that while the President “doesn’t need the approval of Congress to threaten war, he does need the approval of Congress to make war.”
In future histories, that insistence--and Mitchell’s role in bringing about the debate scheduled to begin today--may be seen as a key point at which Congress turned away from four decades of giving up the war-making power to the executive branch.
At the same time, Mitchell’s focus on congressional prerogatives has helped to unify the Democrats around an issue on which they all agree--specifically, Congress’ right to have a say--rather than the merits of gulf policy, on which the party is even more divided than the nation as a whole.
Two decades ago, as a Democratic Party official and senior aide to his mentor, then Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, Mitchell saw his party tear itself apart over a war in Vietnam. As a man who instinctively tries to avoid confrontations, he has achieved a major victory simply by preventing a similar split so far this time.
But his victory is heavily weighted with paradox.
Ever since Nov. 8, when Bush announced that he would double U.S. troop strength in the Persian Gulf--a decision Mitchell first learned about only moments before Bush revealed it to the nation--Mitchell has been sharply critical of Administration policy. He repeatedly makes the point that no Administration official has ever even suggested to him that economic sanctions are not working.
Ironically, however, by clearing the way for a vote that the Administration is all but certain to win, Mitchell effectively will be strengthening the President’s hand--allowing Bush to abandon sanctions and move ahead to a war policy with which Mitchell deeply disagrees.
For the majority leader, therefore, the vote is likely to be an ambiguous end to a two-year period during which he has angered some of his party’s liberals by his moderation but, at the same time, has emerged as Bush’s most successful congressional adversary.
The ambiguity is fitting. As one of the Democrats’ two congressional leaders--along with House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.)--Mitchell must play two roles that are at cross-purposes: On the one hand, as national leaders--the heads of the two houses of Congress--the two men feel an obligation to present a united front with the President in his dealings with foreign powers and to cooperate with Bush in making domestic policy. On the other hand, they also are the highest ranking officials of what is supposed to be the “opposition party.”
That tension makes for “an extremely awkward position” for congressional leaders, says Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar who has studied and written about Congress’ role in foreign policy. The roles can be kept in balance only “with great difficulty,” Mann says.
In an interview, Mitchell called the conflict “an illustration of a continuing tension in our positions which exists by virtue of the unique nature of American democracy. In most democracies,” he noted, “the opposition plays no role in governance.” But in America--particularly during the last 20 years--the Democrats have had “an important role to play in governance of our nation.”
“There are many in our party who have succumbed to the belief that the only election that matters is the election of a President,” Mitchell said. Not so, he insists. Congress, too, has a responsibility to govern.
The comment is typical of Mitchell, whose formative experiences in politics came in Muskie’s office, in which he worked from 1962 to 1965.
The fourth son of a day laborer and a Lebanese immigrant, Mitchell, 57, was raised in the 1930s and ‘40s in a poor neighborhood of Waterville, Me., a small industrial city in the central part of the state. As he often tells interviewers, he grew up as a slight, bookish and non-athletic younger brother in a family of athletes, the one son picked out early to become the scholar of the family. He read heavily and, as a child, would spend Sundays before Catholic services standing in the hallway of the family home, reciting the epistles until his father was satisfied with his diction.
The family remains close. Mitchell was divorced from his wife, Sally, in 1987--friends say she disliked Washington and political life--and now stays with his sister on frequent trips back to Maine. He often is up late there, talking into the night with his siblings and indulging a family passion for lengthy games of cribbage.
When Mitchell turned 16, one of his father’s employers arranged for him to meet with the admissions director of Bowdoin College, a small, prestigious school in Brunswick, about 30 miles down the Kennebec River from his home. School officials arranged a series of jobs for him--everything from selling programs at basketball games to driving a truck hauling concrete--to pay his way through college to graduation in 1954.
Mitchell had planned to go on to graduate school and become a college history professor. He still is an avid student of history, currently re-reading Will and Ariel Durant’s history of Greece in the age of Pericles. But, after a stint as an Army intelligence officer interviewing refugees in West Berlin, Mitchell changed course and moved to Washington, where he worked as an insurance adjuster while attending night law school at Georgetown University.
After two years at the Justice Department and his job in the Senate, Mitchell returned to Maine, where he remained a Muskie protege. He practiced law and became Democratic state chairman in 1966, U.S. attorney for Maine in the early 1980s and--briefly--a federal district judge in Maine before being appointed to the Senate when President Jimmy Carter named Muskie secretary of state in 1980.
In 1982, against a popular but inept Republican opponent, Mitchell overcame a large disadvantage in early polls to win a victory of nearly 2 to 1. In 1986, as chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, he recruited candidates and raised money to help the party recapture the Senate majority, earning the gratitude of his colleagues who chose him as their leader two years later when West Virginia’s Robert C. Byrd retired from the post.
Taking office at the same time as Bush, Mitchell has confronted from the beginning the tension of his dual role--leading the opposition but at the same time serving as a partner in a coalition government. The balance has been even more difficult to strike because of the divisions the policy has created deep within Democratic ranks.
The source of those divisions is clear in conversations with Democratic legislators such as Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a former legislative aide who now represents central Illinois’ 20th Congressional District.
“I’m 46,” Durbin says. “I can’t think of a major decision I made for eight years of my life that was not influenced by Vietnam.” The war, he muses, “was a major formative force in my life.”
The majority of Americans seem willing, at least for now, to accept White House assurances that a war in the Persian Gulf would be rapid and victorious--"not another Vietnam.” But for Durbin and many of his Democratic colleagues, those assurances carry the echoes of similar statements from government officials in that unhappy Vietnam era--"We can now begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Those Democrats, deeply troubled by Bush’s gulf policy, have become the leaders of efforts to oppose the Administration in Congress.
Simultaneously, however, other Democrats see the gulf as a prime chance to change the party’s public image as a group that opposes virtually any use of military power. Party conservatives and moderates such as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) say that such blanket opposition to force is unrealistic. And they argue that the image of pacifism has seriously wounded the Democratic party among voters--particularly in presidential elections.
In addition to those long-standing foreign policy divisions between the party’s liberals and conservatives, the gulf crisis has created another split.
On most foreign policy issues, Durbin would expect to be on the same side as such fellow Democratic liberals as New York Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, whose first big step into politics was managing an anti-war congressional campaign in his native Brooklyn in 1966.
But on the gulf, Solarz--who has represented Brooklyn in the House since 1974--has been one of Bush’s most outspoken supporters, partly reflecting the deep concerns of his heavily Jewish constituency about the threat that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein poses to Israel.
Other liberal Democrats who represent districts that have large numbers of Jewish voters have been less outspoken than Solarz but have still reacted far more positively to U.S. military action in the gulf region than they do to military action elsewhere.
“Saddam Hussein as Mr. Big in the Middle East is a disaster for U.S. national interests,” says one such legislator, California Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City).
The result has been a party that is without a message on the biggest issue currently facing the country. The Democratic lawmakers have been able to reach consensus on only one issue--that Congress does have a major role to play. Says Berman, more acidly: “We don’t elect a President to have him become a dictator for four years.”
With combat in the gulf still only a threat, the debate over what policy to follow has not yet created the sort of deep divisions Vietnam brought about--either within the nation or among the Democrats. But for Democratic leaders and strategists--who had hoped to succeed in concentrating public attention on domestic issues, where the Bush Administration has been weak--the divisions over the crisis in the gulf have been a painful reminder of the party’s bitter foreign policy splits of the past.
Part of the problem is that the structure of the political parties--and of Congress--has changed in recent decades. Years ago, a congressional leader like Lyndon B. Johnson, who served as Senate majority leader during the 1950s, could meet with a president and “speak for his chamber,” says political scientist Barbara Sinclair of UC Riverside. Since the mid-1960s, however, no leader has had that sort of unquestioned authority.
Today, congressional leaders must cajole and adapt. The strategy that Mitchell and Foley have followed to keep the party’s divisions at bay has been two-fold:
The first aspect has been repeatedly to declare that the gulf is an “issue of conscience,” not merely a partisan matter.
Political strategists say that approach is inescapable. In a matter in which life and death literally are at stake, “people would be repelled” if either party appeared to be “playing politics,” says Democratic pollster and strategist Robert Shrum. In addition, even if a politician were inclined to try to play the gulf issue for political gain, only hindsight will be able to say, months from now, which policy would have been politically smart.
“Anyone who plays politics with this on the basis of how they think it’s going to turn out is likely to be surprised,” Shrum says.
The second aspect of the strategy has been to put off for as long as possible an actual vote that would force members of Congress to go on record.
Had Congress voted shortly after Bush’s Nov. 8 surprise decision to double the U.S. deployment, Democrats might well have forced the Administration to change course.
Now, however, with the deadline approaching and the polls showing the public increasingly convinced that Bush has given diplomacy a fair try, both congressional and Administration vote-counters are virtually certain that Bush will win.
Effectively, Mitchell and Foley “put the debate off until it doesn’t matter,” says William Schneider, a political analyst for The Times. “They’re allowing it to come to a vote when the outcome is a foregone conclusion.”
In another paradox, many analysts contend that that outcome may be the best possible one for the Democrats. The debate will allow opponents of the Bush policy to go on record but, because lawmakers are unlikely to be able to muster the votes to block Bush’s plans, they will not be vulnerable to an acrimonious battle in the future over whether Democratic opposition to Bush “lost Kuwait.”
But the delay has angered many party liberals. At least one prominent liberal Democratic senator has sharply attacked Mitchell in private, lambasting him for helping lead the country into a potential disaster in the gulf.
Such attacks have a familiar ring. In the slightly more than two years since Mitchell became majority leader, party activists repeatedly have complained that both he and Foley are too mild, too cooperative, too nonpartisan in their approach to Bush and the Republicans. A popular joke on Capitol Hill compares the pair to movie reviewers Siskel and Ebert. The only difference, the joke goes, is that instead of the trademark thumbs up-thumbs down used by the movie reviewers, Mitchell and Foley routinely point their thumbs sideways.
Mitchell prefers to see his style as “judicious” and “lawyerly.”
“I try very hard not to make a decision” until both sides are heard, Mitchell says. “I was a judge. . . . I don’t like to make decisions until I hear the entire case.”
In meetings, Billings says, Mitchell “listens very well and gives you the sense that he is understanding of your problems and that he’s sympathetic.” But when the meeting ends, “it is highly unlikely that you will know what he’ll do about it.”
That style, which critics find remote, sometimes even arrogant, is in marked contrast to Byrd, his touchy, mercurial--and sometimes petulant--predecessor. So far, it has served him well, winning Mitchell the admiration of Republican adversaries, who call him fair, and the praise of fellow Democrats who seem pleased with his attention to detail.