Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Jurek Martin

Financial Times

Published: May 14 2005

I will shed no personal tears if Tom DeLay, the Republican House majority leader, comes to grief, but I will if the consequences of his downfall are to make members of Congress even less likely to venture out beyond America’s shores than they are now.

I doubt DeLay learned much of the world talking to Margaret Thatcher, unless on how to beat up on liberals, or round the links of St Andrews, unless he had an unusually loquacious Scottish caddie. But at least he was out there, which is what his 534 legislative colleagues, half of whom are said not even to possess passports, do not do enough of.

If Congress runs true to form and if others from both parties are fingered for having taken foreign junkets financed by lobbyists, it will inevitably go into an ethical frenzy that will end up with no senator or congressman ever going overseas, unless in the company of the Marines or a cabinet secretary.

This would seriously hurt the pursuit of rational and informed American foreign policy, over which Congress has some say and has in the past done its constitutional job, not always well but enough to make real differences

For example, Arthur Vandenberg was the isolationist senator from Michigan whom Harry Truman artfully co-opted into supporting the creation of Nato. William Fulbright was the senator from Arkansas, the quintessential Middle American state, who made his accommodations on local issues, like race, but who became a giant in the foreign policy arena.

In the 1970s, Dick Clark, from farming Iowa, opened American eyes to what was happening in distant Africa – and was voted out of office by a neanderthal Republican partly financed by the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Today, the Republican senator Chuck Hagel was not elected in heartland Nebraska to become a foreign policy expert, but he has worked hard at it. Sam Brownback, from the same party, has shown an interest in refugees and asylum seekers, not an issue of obvious concern in his native Kansas.

Hagel, who may be running for president, does not always toe the party line on foreign policy. The more conservative Brownback, also clearly ambitious, is much motivated by his deep religious convictions. And both, it is sad to observe, are now regularly being hammered by the forces of the righteous right.

Hagel was on the receiving end of an onslaught this week by Rush Limbaugh, the radio ranter, for daring to question conservative orthodoxy, on external affairs, including the nomination of John Bolton to be US ambassador to the UN, and judicial appointments.

The Brownback offence is two-fold. First he is suspected of pro-immigrant sympathies, which are increasingly unpopular inside the Republican party (and not alien to Democrats either). Second, he has worked closely in the Senate on refugee issues with Ted Kennedy, which, in the rightwing book, is akin to supping with the devil.

Vandenberg and Fulbright, if not Clark, were secure enough in their state bases to shrug off criticism, but conservative lobbies are now much more powerful and well organised than they were. They may well determine who wins critical party primary elections, now so much more important for political candidates than any general vote in November.

In a recent speech, former Democratic Senator Tim Wirth from Colorado, now head of the United Nations Foundation, outlined how conservative philanthropists had stolen all the thunder from their liberal predecessors, too many of them too tired and/or lazy to compete, in establishing networks of think-tanks, media outlets and general proselytizers of the faith.

Wirth should know. He was an early target of the Coors brewing family while defending his House seat in the 1970s. It went on to underwrite the Heritage Foundation and has now been joined by a small army of conservative philanthropists – Olin, Scaife, Earhart, Bradley and Smith Richardson – and a plethora of rightwing institutes. By contrast, he noted, progressive philanthropy has become “scattered and risk averse” and therefore much less effective in public policy debates

George Soros, the financier, is a conspicuous recent exception, but, then, he is foreign born and, in the current climate, inherently suspect. So, in a different way, was the unexpected multi-million dollar bequest by the widow of Ray Kroc, who started McDonald’s, to National Public Radio, certainly not conservative and now boasting correspondents round the world it could not afford before.

But these are relative drops in the ocean and other signs are not encouraging. Air America, the progressive radio network modelled on Limbaugh and his ilk, does not seem to be cutting it in most local markets. The Wirth solution, though, is to “get our hands dirty”, learning from Joe Coors etc much as he learned from his liberal philanthropic predecessors.

Meanwhile, that leaves the likes of Hagel, Brownback and, if perversely, DeLay, out on a bit of a limb. I will not say this is a “know nothing” Congress, but what it knows, or cares, about complex external issues such as refugees and the causes of immigration is often frighteningly little.

After all, not every junket goes to St Andrews. And if some congressman or senator learns something on one, we might all be better off.