The Good Fight

Outside the National Press Club on the morning of August 3, the Washington summer was as hot and oppressive as ever. But inside, Warren Rudman and Lee Hamilton, two grizzled veterans of the national-security world, called for cool at the launch event for a new group dedicated to ending “the partisan rancor in Washington” on foreign-policy issues.

Their new group, the Partnership for a Secure America (PSA), will be run by Jamie Metzl, a former Clinton State Department official and aide to Democratic Senator Joe Biden, and Chip Andreae, formerly chief of staff to Senator Richard Lugar, Biden's Republican opposite number on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The event packed a room with reporters offering polite skepticism about the prospects of bringing calm to a polarized nation, Rudman, a former senator, asserted that “nothing that's worth doing is necessarily easy.”

Bipartisanship was the watchword of the day. Rudman says the group's hope is “to issue a number of papers on specific issues” in the manner of the blue-ribbon commissions on which he and Hamilton have both repeatedly been called to serve over the years. Andreae told me that in his experience, “bringing people together from different points of view” can help create a “process that leads to the best idea.”

Bipartisanship is all well and good, and certainly the town needs an organization of heavyweights that can provide a counterweight to neoconservatism. The PSA will advance the former cause. And while it's not likely, with this many Republicans aboard, that the PSA will issue scorching denunciations of the Bush administration, it could help shift the center of gravity in the foreign-policy debate.

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The group is prepared to focus on seven issues: bolstering the commitment to justice and civil liberties around the world; reforming the United Nations and re-engaging with allies; halting the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons material; enhancing homeland-security preparedness; reducing the national debt; gaining energy independence; and addressing global poverty, disease, and underdevelopment.

Good ideas all. So good, in fact, that it begins to make one wonder where the bipartisanship comes in. Anyone familiar with liberal thinking on national-security policy will immediately recognize that these are precisely the questions Democrats think the country needs to answer. A look at the list is a reminder of the basic reality that bipartisanship is not an agenda.

The point was proven about a year ago, when a structurally similar group, whose membership is likewise “limited to those in private life” and whose Web site forswears “ties or obligations to any administration or political party,” announced its formation. Like the PSA, the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) deliberately harkened back to the forging of a bipartisan consensus in the early days of the Cold War. The CPD is dominated by neoconservatives, with a few hawkish Democrats like Joe Lieberman and former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey providing token bipartisanship. This form of bipartisanship -- in essence, Democrats getting rolled -- has become depressingly familiar throughout the Bush years (think of the “bipartisan support” for George W. Bush's tax cuts, tort “reform,” and so on).

The PSA, by contrast, reverses that cosmology: Now, it's Republicans who've signed on to an essentially Democratic agenda. The PSA advisory board is, as Metzl observed, “evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans,” featuring people like Rudman and moderate Republican elder statesmen Howard Baker, John Danforth, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Thomas Kean, who represent the realist orientation traditionally adhered to by American conservatives.

On the Democratic side, the PSA's advisory board includes Samuel Berger and Richard Holbrooke, the two most likely contenders for secretary of state in a future Democratic administration, along with Warren Christopher, one of the two living Democrats to have held the job. The PSA's also got former Clinton administration Secretary of Defense William Perry.

Bipartisanship on these terms is something liberals can embrace. Thus, a certain element of partisanship would seem inevitably to sneak in through the back door. Bolstering this interpretation, the only attention paid to the project by the right after its launch was a dismissive cartoon by militant hawk Chris Muir, while the PSA's main source of funding is the nonpartisan but liberal Century Foundation (note: Century also provides some funding to the Prospect).

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For public consumption, at least, talk of any such sub-rosa agenda is denied. Rudman wouldn't answer my question on the subject of neoconservatism, going so far as to refuse either to accept or reject the notion that the Bush foreign policy shows heavy neocon influence. Metzl observed that the group's ideas would likely alienate some people on the left as well as the right -- which is true, but ignores the reality that left-wing views are marginal in the Democratic Party while more right-wing ones dominate today's GOP.

A muted tone is the price that needs to be paid to get some prominent Republicans on board. The price, however, may prove to be a high one. “I don't think the motivating factor behind what Warren and I are doing here is to sharply criticize the Bush administration or any particular action the Bush administration has taken,” Hamilton said. But how is one to change the status quo without criticizing the people responsible for creating it?

Take one of the items on the group's list, energy independence. Hamilton said at the press conference that we have not solved that problem in part “because of the extent of the partisan divide.” But this is mistaken. Energy legislation recently passed the Congress and was signed by the president. It does nothing to move the country away from reliance on fossil fuels -- not because of a partisan divide but because the Republican leadership doesn't want those things.

Up and down the PSA agenda, the landscape looks similar. The trouble is not a failure of will or technical know-how but the absence of a genuine desire on the part of the Bush administration to act on these issues. Under the circumstances, a reduction in the level of partisan rancor, while a laudable long-term goal, seems unlikely to provide much of a short-term cure. The country needs, if not more rancor, then at least a more robust opposition party.

Rudman said such worries ignore the PSA's emphasis on helping “bring the parties together over the long term.” A source involved in forming the group says he was pleasantly surprised by the Republican members' willingness to get on board, and their participation may embolden Democrats and moderate Republicans alike to offer the voters a more robust debate on national security than the country has seen in years. Former State Department official Richard Haass has already published a book critical of the Iraq War. Colin Powell, where are you?

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

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