Democrats Snatching Defeat from Victory’s Jaws


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

a project of the Nation Institute
compiled and edited by Tom Engelhardt

Tomgram: Grandin, Democrats Snatching Defeat from Victory's Jaws

Presidential approval polling figures, so ripe and upward moving in September, 
are as off-a-cliff-steeply in the first half of October. The likes of the 
polling gap between Americans likely to cast a generic Democratic and a generic 
Republican vote in the upcoming midterm elections hasn't been seen since 1994 --
and then in reverse, of course. The intensity gap (think: throw-the-bums-out 
mood) between Democrats and Republicans, when it comes to this election has a 
similar look to it. The Republican Party is reportedly pulling money out of 
races previously considered winnable and throwing money into last-stand bulwarks
in Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia (where its Senate candidate is nonetheless 
surprisingly embattled), while the Democrats are calling up polls and 
considering dropping money into races nationwide that previously were imagined 
as unwinnable. Republican "sure bets" in states like Florida, Ohio, and Indiana 
are now no such thing. You are starting to see possibly over-optimistic online 
election-day maps of a Democratic Senate; the respectable Rasmussen polling 
organization is already suggesting nearly as much; and the respected National 
Journal has just enlarged its House competitive races, only a few months ago in 
the 25-30 range (out of 435 supposedly available seats), to 60 with this 
tagline: "At this point at least that many are in play and, frankly, we could 
have gone to 75."

Like those famed sugar plums, visions of a Democratic House, and even Senate, 
are dancing in the heads of Party activists; while, for so many other Americans,
simple hopes are rising for what the power of Congressional "oversight," the 
power to investigate, the power of a subpoena, might do to Bush administration 
dreams of endless domination. But sometimes -- even assuming all this came true 
-- a little dash of cold history in the face is a salutary thing. So let Greg 
Grandin, Latin American expert and author of the superb Empire's Workshop: Latin
America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, bring back to 
life the last time the Democrats found themselves in such a mood. Let him take 
you back to a previous, scandal-ridden era when another formidable President 
over-reached himself with off-the-books ventures of every sort. Tom

Still Dancing to Ollie's Tune
Will the Democrats Blow It Again as They Did in 1986?
By Greg Grandin

A Republican Party on the ropes, bloodied by a mid-second-term scandal; a 
resurrected Democratic opposition, sure it can capitalize on public outrage to 
prove that it is still, in the American heart of hearts, the majority party.

But before House Democrats start divvying up committee assignments and convening
special investigations, they should consider that they've been here before, and 
things didn't turn out exactly the way they hoped.

It was twenty years ago this November 3rd -- exactly one day after the Democrats
regained control of the Senate after six years in the minority -- that the 
Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa reported on the Reagan administration's secret, 
high-tech missile sale to Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, which violated an arms 
embargo against that country and contradicted President Ronald Reagan's personal
pledge never to deal with governments that sponsored terrorism.

Democrats couldn't believe their luck. After years of banging their heads on 
Reagan's popularity and failing to derail his legislative agenda, they had not 
only taken back the Senate, but follow-up investigations soon uncovered a 
scandal of epic proportions, arguably the most consequential in American 
history, one that seemed sure to disgrace every single constituency that had 
fueled the upstart conservative movement. The Reagan Revolution, it appeared, 
had finally been thrown into reverse.

The New York Times reported that the National Security Council was running an 
extensive "foreign policy initiative largely in private hands," made up of rogue
intelligence agents, mercenaries, neoconservative intellectuals, Arab sheiks, 
drug runners, anticommunist businessmen, even the Moonies. Profits from the 
missile sale to Iran, brokered by a National Security Council staffer named 
Oliver North, went to the Nicaraguan Contras, breaking yet another law, this one
banning military aid to the anti-Sandinista guerrillas.

The ultimate goal of this shadow government, said a congressional investigation,
was to create a "worldwide private covert operation organization" whose 
"income-generating capacity came almost entirely from its access to U.S. 
government resources and connections" -- either from trading arms to Iran or 
from contributions requested by administration officials. Joseph Coors and H. 
Ross Perot kicked in, as did the Sultan of Brunei, whose $10,000,000 gift, 
solicited by Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, went missing after it 
was deposited into the wrong Swiss bank account.

The Democrats, now the majority in both congressional chambers, gleefully 
convened multiple inquiries into the scandal. From May to August 1987, TV 
viewers tuned in to congressional hearings on the affair. They got a rare 
glimpse into the cabalistic world of spooks, bagmen, and mercenaries, with their
code words, encryption machines, offshore holding companies, unregistered fleets
of boats and planes, and furtive cash transfers. Fawn Hall, Oliver North's 
secret shredder, told of smuggling evidence out of the Old Executive Office 
Building in her boots, and lectured Representative Thomas Foley that "sometimes 
you have to go above the written law."

Foreign enemies were not the only targets set in North's crosshairs, as later 
investigations described what was in effect a covert operation run on domestic 
soil, with the White House mobilizing conservative grassroots organizations to 
plant disinformation in the press and harass legislators and reporters who 
opposed or criticized President Reagan's Contra policy.

Reagan's poll numbers plummeted and talk of impeachment was rampant. Democratics
thought they had found in Iran-Contra a sequel to Watergate, another tutorial 
about the imperial presidency that would enable them to consolidate the power 
Congress had assumed over foreign policy in the 1970s.

But just a year after the hearings, Iran-Contra was a dead issue. When Congress 
released its final report on the matter in November 1988, Reagan breezily 
dismissed it. "They labored," he said, "and brought forth a mouse." Vice 
President George H.W. Bush was elected president that month, despite being 
implicated in the scandal.

Ollie's Song

How could the Democrats have failed to inflict serious damage on an 
administration that had sold sophisticated weaponry to a sworn enemy of the 
United States? How could they have botched the job of transforming a conspiracy 
of self-righteous renegades, many of whom not only admitted their crimes but 
unrepentantly declared themselves to be above the law, into a defense of 
constitutional checks and balances in the realm of foreign affairs?

One reason is that the congressional hearings they called backfired on them. In 
the early months of those hearings, Congress methodically gathered damning 
testimony and documentary evidence of what many believed amounted to treason by 
high-level administration officials, if not the President himself.

But then in marched Oliver North -- the crisp Marine, with his hard-rock jaw and
chest full of medals. Ronald Reagan may have once been an actor, but it was 
North's dramatic chops that rescued his presidency.

For six days, the Marine fended off the questions of politicians and their 
lawyers. His answers were contradictory and self-serving, but his performance 
was virtuoso. Many viewers viscerally connected with the loyalty and courage so 
artfully on display. "If the commander in chief tells this lieutenant colonel to
go stand in the corner and stand on his head," North said, "I will do so." Never
mind that, as Senator Daniel Inouye, a maimed WWII veteran, pointed out, the 
U.S. Military Code stipulates that only legal orders are to be followed. 
Ollie-mania swept the heartland and Hollywood. Even liberal TV producer Norman 
Lear admitted he couldn't "take [his] eyes off" the colonel.

North's luster may not have rubbed off on Reagan, but his standoff with Congress
allowed the president's defenders to take control of the storyline, reducing the
scandal's cacophony to the simple chords of patriotism and anticommunism. 
Conservative activist Richard Viguerie compared the hearings to a song: 
"Liberals are listening to the words, but the guy in the street hears the music.
The music is about men and women who are prepared to die for their country."

At the heart of the Democrats disaster was their unwillingness ever to question 
North's militarism or Reagan's support for the Contras, whose human-rights 
atrocities were well-documented. Rather than attacking Reagan's restoration of 
anticommunism as the guiding principle of U.S. policy, they focused on procedure
-- such as the White House's failure to oversee the National Security Council --
or on proving that top officials had prior knowledge of the crimes.

Much as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry today focus on this administration's 
"incompetence" and "mishandling" of the Iraq War, Democrats twenty years ago 
were scathing in their descriptions of an administration steeped in "confusion, 
secrecy and deception" as well as of the White House's "pervasive dishonesty" 
and "disarray." But as today, so then, these criticisms seemed like mere cavils 
when the security of the United States -- of the "Free World" -- was at stake.

In 1988, when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, in his first 
debate with Vice President Bush, brought up the scandal, Bush responded that he 
would take "all the blame" for Iran-Contra if he got "half the credit for all 
the good things that have happened in world peace since Ronald Reagan and I took
over." Dukakis quietly took the deal, never again raising the issue. So, when 
Ollie North jibed that Libya's Muammar Qaddafi endorsed Dukakis, there was 
little left for the Massachusetts governor to do but don a helmet, jump in a 
tank, and look famously foolish.

Along with political timidity, there was another factor that led to the 
Democratic collapse on Iran-Contra -- careerism. Far more so than today, 
Washington was then a clubby, small, inbred world. One of the reasons why the 
anger over George H.W. Bush's Christmas Eve 1992 pardon of six indicted 
Iran-Contra figures was so short-lived is that the move was quietly blessed by 
ranking Congressional Democrats, including Wisconsin Representative Les Aspin, 
who huffed and puffed but let the matter die. Aspin, who had supported aid to 
the Contras, was later tapped by Bill Clinton to be Secretary of Defense, easily
winning confirmation with significant Republican support.

Careerism naturally leads to back-room deals. There were rumors that Democratic 
House Majority Leader Tip O'Neill, who unlike Aspin was an outspoken critic of 
Contra funding, toned down his opposition as a quid pro quo to secure federal 
funds for Boston's Big Dig construction project -- another disaster from the 
1980s that we are still living with.

Unleashing the Imperial Presidency

But if the Democrats failed to gain political traction with the scandal, or 
wring a parable out of it, others did far better. Dick Cheney today points to 
Iran-Contra not as a cautionary tale against unchecked executive power but as a 
blueprint for how to obtain it.

It turns out that it was Dick Cheney's current chief of staff David Addington --
the man the press calls "Cheney's Cheney" for his defense of unchecked 
presidential power in matters of foreign policy -- who, as a counsel to the 
Republicans serving on the congressional Iran-Contra committee, wrote the 
controversial 1988 "Minority Report" on the scandal.

At the time, the report, which condemned not the National Security Council for 
its secret dealings but Congress for its "legislative hostage taking," was 
considered out of the mainstream. Today, it reads like a run-of-the-mill Justice
Department memo outlining the legal basis for any of the Bush Administration's 
wartime power grabs. It was this report that Cheney referenced when asked last 
December about his role in strengthening the executive branch. The report, he 
said, was "very good in laying out a robust view of the President's 
prerogatives" to wage war and defend national security.

Cheney and Addington are not the only veterans of the scandal to have found a 
home in the current White House. Other Iran-Contra notables who have resurfaced 
in recent years include Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Otto Reich, John Negroponte,
John Poindexter, neoconservative Michael Ledeen, and even Manucher Ghorbanifar, 
the Iranian arms dealer who brokered one of the first missile sales to the 
Khomeini regime.

This recycling of Iran-Contra personnel to fight the War on Terror points to the
most important reason it has been so difficult to transform the scandal into a 
parable: Iran-Contra wasn't just a crime and a cover-up -- as Watergate was -- 
or a misdemeanor like Monica-Gate. It was rather the first battle in the 
neoconservative campaign against Congress and in defense of the imperial 

Iran-Contra field-tested many of the tactics used by the Bush administration to 
build support for the invasion of Iraq by manipulating intelligence, spinning 
public opinion, and riding roughshod over experts in the CIA and the State 
Department who counseled restraint. While the original Iran-Contra battle might 
be termed a draw -- the eleven convicted conspirators won on appeal or were 
pardoned by George H.W. Bush -- the backlash has become the establishment.

That 80s Show

Today, with that establishment shackled to the most ruinous war in recent U.S. 
history, the Republicans, taking a page out of Oliver North's songbook, decided 
that the best defense was to go on the offensive, to turn the upcoming midterm 
vote into a debate on Iraq and national security. Up until the eve of the recent
Foley IM-sex scandal, the strategy seemed like it just might be working once 
again. The Democrats were losing momentum in the run-up to next month's 
elections, unanimously consenting to a distended military budget, and watching 
silently as Republicans, with significant Democratic support, revoked habeas 
corpus and gave the President the right to torture at will.

Foley-gate, along with a cascade of other scandals, controversies, and bad war 
news, may indeed now give the Democrats the House, and perhaps even the Senate. 
But already there are reports that, if they do take over Congress, their agenda 
will have a remarkably 1986-ish look to it: hearings and calls for more 
congressional "oversight" of foreign policy that leave uncontested the crusading
premises driving the President's extremist foreign policy.

If the Democratic Party wants to halt, or even reverse, its long decline and 
avoid yet again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, it will need to do 
more than investigate the six-year reign of corruption, incompetence, and 
arrogance presided over by Cheney and company. Progressive politicians who 
protest the war in Iraq will have to do more than criticize the way it has been 
fought or demand to have more of a say in how it is waged. They must challenge 
the militarism that justified the invasion and that has made war the option of 
first resort for too many of our foreign-policy makers. Otherwise, no matter how
many tanks they drive or veterans they nominate -- or congressional seats they 
pick up -- the Democrats will always be dancing to Ollie's tune.

Greg Grandin is the author of the other book endorsed by Hugo Chávez on his 
recent New York visit: Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and 
the Rise of the New Imperialism (Metropolitan).

Copyright 2006 Greg Grandin

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
posted October 17, 2006 at 10:33 pm

Escaping the Matrix website
cyberjournal website  
subscribe cyberjournal list     mailto:•••@••.•••
Posting archives      
  cyberjournal forum  
  Achieving real democracy
  for readers of ETM  
  Community Empowerment
  Blogger made easy