Bolton From the Blue

About halfway through Senator Richard Lugar's droning opening statement in the May 12 confirmation hearing of John Bolton to become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a yawn made its way around the press table. And it lingered -- until Lugar ceded the floor to the incalculable senator from Ohio, George Voinovich, when our listless eyes turned lively and the laptops fired to life. Would Voinovich break ranks and vote with the Democrats? Or would he duplicitously express his reservations before buckling to the administration's will?

As we now know, it was something in between. Voinovich may have enabled Bolton to scrape his way through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and move to the full Senate for a floor vote, but he nevertheless made himself an ally of those seeking to defeat Bolton's nomination. “Once we lost [Lincoln] Chaffee and [Chuck] Hagel, there was never a possibility of killing it in committee,” said Don Kraus of Citizens for Global Solutions, a membership organization that provided key grass-roots opposition to the nomination. “I think what Voinovich did took guts. Sending it to the Senate floor without a recommendation means we can still fight it.”

At press time, Bolton's fate was unclear. But even if he passes, progressive Washington accomplished several things in this fight. Democrats who were initially reluctant to go to the mat on the Bolton nomination were forced to do so via pressure exerted by an extremely active private and public grass-roots campaign. Once Democrats chose to fight, they did it effectively. And finally, the ensuing controversy has badly damaged the nominee and, by extension, the hard-line elements within the administration that he represents.

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On March 7, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first announced Bolton's nomination, progressives and moderates let out a collective groan. Almost immediately, a group of civic-minded intellectuals and activists decided to dig in. At the center was a close-knit group -- which managed to stay out of the newspapers the entire time -- of about seven individuals who, by their professions or experience, were in a position to get in contact with a bipartisan cadre of former cabinet members, ambassadors, and other high-ranking officials concerned with the damage Bolton could inflict on U.S. interests at the UN. Just before the committee vote, I spoke to one, who described to me how the group quickly mapped out a congressional strategy that paired individual senators on the committee with influential ex-officials whose opinions the senators were known to trust.

Complementing that inside strategy was an outside strategy led by a large network of organizations such as Citizens for Global Solutions and MoveOn. They began staging weekly meetings to mobilize grass-roots pressure against the nomination. On the front lines of that battle from the very beginning was Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the proprietor of The Washington Note blog. From Bolton's nomination onward, Clemons ran a one-man whip operation, relentlessly pressuring Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to state their opposition to Bolton for the record.

But Democrats were initially reluctant. “At first, no one on the Hill thought that this was a battle worth fighting,” Clemons told me. “It was as if the Democratic political class was on this autopilot function where if the White House wanted something, they would simply roll over and let the White House have its way.” A former government official who also made early contact with Democrats on the Hill to gauge their readiness for a fight lodged a similar complaint. “[Senator Joseph] Biden had to be pushed to take on the Bolton nomination,” she complains. “We asked high-level people in Biden's office, ‘Are you guys going to do something about the Bolton nomination?' And we were told they were not going to touch it.”

Slowly, the grass-roots strategy started to pay dividends. According to one Senate source, Barbara Boxer was particularly buoyed by the show of concern from the grass roots and decided that there was nothing to be lost in confronting the nominee full force. Still, most of her fellow Democratic committee members were less receptive to grass-roots pressure. Then, the minority staff's phone rang. It was Carl W. Ford.

Ford, the former chief of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), clearly wanted to vent his frustrations over Bolton's behavior toward INR professionals. And just as the minority staff learned of Bolton's bizarre actions against individual analysts at the INR from Ford, the Senate Intelligence Committee forwarded information to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that had been drawn from an inquiry into bureaucratic browbeating of career intelligence analysts. Bolton's name emerged. “At that point, chips started falling into place,” a Senate source told me.

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Even if Bolton assumes his post at Turtle Bay, the battle over his nomination has irreparably undermined any radical agenda he would have brought there; as Dick Cheney's hard-line proxy at the UN, he's been effectively neutered. The moment that Bolton reverts to his abusive managerial style or advances an agenda independent of his erstwhile supervisors at Foggy Bottom, Clemons will collect more leaks than my old bathtub. As has been the case throughout the nomination saga, they'll quickly spread from his blog to the traditional media outlets.

“One of the great things about the Bolton fight is that it reminds the Democrats that political struggle is not always about the win,” a Senate Democratic aide told me, “but about fighting the good fight.” To their credit, the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee tried as best they could to fight this nomination on its merits and keep the partisan rancor to a minimum; for each interview conducted by the minority staff, Biden requested the presence of a Lugar staffer. It was the White House, from a defensive posture, that sought to turn this nomination into a referendum on raw presidential power, spending enormous political capital on a fight that may end up as technically successful but that has come at a high price.

“Our battle sends a strong message to the White House not to put extremists forward,” a senior Senate aide told me following the vote. And if or when it does, its hand will only be weakened by the Bolton battle.

Thus, it may have taken some prodding from friendly groups off the Hill, but the Senate Democrats seem poised to adopt a new fighting faith. Another Senate aide gleefully waxed poetic: “Even when you face the analytic judgment that Bolton may prevail, the mark of your character is whether you accommodate, lay down, and resign yourself to the inevitable, or do you pull a Dylan Thomas and ‘Rage, rage against the [dying] of the light.'”

This time, at least, the Democrats did not go gently.

Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.

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