Delaware State Junior President
Two decades with four US senators from both parties has led me to the conclusion that there are three types of members of the Senate. They come regardless of party, ideology, gender or age. First, there are the very few principled rules that we ignore at our peril; next are the most successful party hacks, and the third is a large herd roaming the vast desert.
The best senators, the ones we need to listen to, can reach a decisive moment by putting their convictions ahead of individual or party gain, vendetta or fleeting popular favor. For example, in 1964 two otherwise unremarkable Democrats, Wayne Morse (D-OR) and Ernest Greuning (D-AK), were the only senators to vote against President Lyndon Johnson’s fraudulent claims that North Vietnam was instigating the war off its coast. By a vote of 88 to 2, the Senate passed the infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing ten years of American war in Indochina. Similarly, early in the Watergate scandals, two Republicans, Edward Brooke (R-MA) and Lowell Weicker (R-CT), attacked the Nixon administration for its lies. Subsequent events proved all four right – morally and factually – and yet they never achieved the popular adulation that the latecomers seized upon.
The most successful party hacks get into the Senate pushing party or ideological agendas, but little else. Nothing is more important than gaining an advantage – no matter how small – while ensuring that the hated “other” gets no gain. An early example I observed was Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) who worked to defeat not only Democrats but also Republicans who did not toe his line. A loathsome figure to many of his own colleagues, Helms never rose to high office in the party, but he achieved a widespread national position among hard-right wingers seeking to purge the Republican Party of nonbelievers. (They’ve been very successful.) A highly functional contemporary party hack is Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has defended his position on the filibuster, Supreme Court nominations and more. again depending on the advantages of his party’s power. Should he become Majority Leader after the 2022 election, watch him roll over to the filibuster for the third time when the tactical situation makes him advantageous.
Democrats in the Senate have no equal to McConnell, but in the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is a full equivalent. Her extreme partisanship, amply demonstrated by her rejection of broad Republican support for censorship of Donald Trump after January 6, 2021 in lieu of immediate impeachment, made it clear – to me at least – that she preferred to lead a unitary Democratic caucus even if that meant an almost equally united Republican faction that opposes it. Republicans were forced to support either Pelosi’s personally chosen impeachment or Donald Trump; given that Hobson’s choice, Trump the most selected. Pelosi was okay with that.
The rest – in my opinion the vast majority – constitute a herd. Aspiring leaders who choose an already popular issue to pretend to be ahead of – by virtue of outspoken rhetoric or strident positioning. It’s the five hundred senators: the ones hovering, stepping in when something happens – being sure to be in the camera’s line of sight – with nothing real to show for it except a press release. These B lists rank celebrity being a senator, but they don’t make much of a difference, and a lot of people in the Senate all know that.
Joe Biden was a B-list senator. One of multiple instances occurred in late 2002 when President George W. Bush was pushing America for an invasion of Iraq. Biden was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but he was not a player in Senate decision-making. The hearings he held in the Committee were inconsequential and failed to probe speculation at the time that the arguments for war were fraudulent. When the bill his committee presented to the Senate in favor of the war was debated there, he literally arrived late to the House, declared himself undecided, and finally formulated confused reasons for supporting the invasion. No Wayne Morse or Ernest Greuning here.
Serving as vice president between 2009 and 2017, the post of vice president John Nance Gardner described in the 1930s as “not worth a bucket of hot piss,” Biden can be excused for being as insignificant as any other vice president. President. However, we see no real change in Biden as president on the war in Ukraine.
This is not the penned lemming we saw in the Gulf War II debate; it’s quite the opposite: a fast mouth that is positioned at the front of the existing parade. In January 2022, before Russia’s invasion when diplomacy was still somewhat alive, Biden publicly felt that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine might not elicit a full Western response. His own White House mistook it for a “blunder,” but Biden’s actual wording sounded much more like an offer to defuse the crisis, albeit impromptu.
Once the shooting began, Biden went from ad hoc negotiator to vocal cheerleader: Putin is a “war criminal”; Putin should be deposed; Putin “commits genocide”. Putin’s aggressive multi-pronged invasion has rendered any hint of a deal politically incorrect; the headwinds made the rhetoric outraged rigor. While Biden staff generally tried to quash statements, they kept coming. Biden knew exactly what he was doing: keeping himself on top of the news, allowing few others to be more visibly outraged — although some certainly tried.
That’s what senators do, not what presidents do: issue what amounts to press releases about the issue, get into the news, a bit more; failing to show the country, allies and even opponents a path to an end to the killing.
It seems the only strategy is to keep saying something new. Now the rhetoric is to “weaken Russia”, maybe even break it. She plays the daily political game, more and more each day. This evolving rhetoric makes more extreme positions seem acceptable to the media and the public and a trivial strategy. This all leads to a bad place. When we get there, Senator Biden will want to know how it happened and demand accountability. And who would that be, senator?