Collectively, Congressional Republicans resemble nothing so much as a composite character from the Wizard of Oz. In that tale, it will be recalled, the Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Woodman wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion wants courage. Too often, Republicans in the House and Senate appear to be lacking in all three departments. For example, the lack of a brain and the lack of a heart were both displayed in the clumsy attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare. Though there is abundant evidence that the Affordable Care Act was poorly designed and administered, Republicans managed the remarkable feat of proposing alternatives that would have been even worse. But the most conspicuous deficiency of Congressional Republicans may be in the last category—an absence of courage to stand up to President Trump.
There is, for a start, his personal conduct, epitomized by his incessant whining about “Fake News,” which is Trump’s term for any account in the media that he finds critical of him or his administration. The media, to be sure, makes mistakes from time to time and anonymous sources are not always reliable. On the whole, however, any errors or distortions in the media pale in comparison to Trump’s relentless disregard for fact and reality. Readers who entertain any doubts on that score might consult the Fact Checker in the Washington Post who reported on October 10 that “President Trump has made 1,318 false or misleading claims over a period of 263 days.”
Other matters on which Congressional Republicans have turned a blind eye were recently enumerated by the indispensable Jennifer Rubin, the conservative blogger of the Washington Post:
Elected Republicans will eventually be judged, not so much for what they have believed, but for what many have tolerated. They have tolerated Trump’s irritable narcissism and rule by ridicule. They have tolerated nepotism, incompetence and malice on a grand scale. They have tolerated Trump’s unique brand of disaster management — divisive, self-serving, conspiratorial (in attributing Puerto Rico’s desperate pleas for help to a Democratic plot) and more concerned with discrediting critics than demonstrating competence. And they have tolerated a string of presidential reactions — including to the Charlottesville protests and murder and to the sincere sideline activism led by African American athletes — that amount to a racially charged pattern.
In terms of policy, the Congressional lack of courage is nowhere more alarming than in Trump’s conduct of foreign affairs generally and with respect to North Korea in particular. The point was painfully apparent in a recent New York Times interview with Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to the Times, Corker said that “Trump was treating his office like ‘a reality show,’ with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation ‘on the path to World War III.’ Corker told the Times that he was alarmed about a president who acts ‘like he’s doing The Apprentice or something. He concerns me. He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.’”
Most significantly, Corker indicated that his view of Trump was widely shared on Capitol Hill:
All but inviting his colleagues to join him in speaking out about the president, Mr. Corker said his concerns about Mr. Trump were shared by nearly every Senate Republican.
“Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we’re dealing with here,” he said, adding that “of course they understand the volatility that we’re dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road.”
After the report of the interview, none of Corker’s colleagues rose to endorse his comments, but no one rose to challenge or rebut them either. Trump quite characteristically lashed out against Corker in a series of tweets and drew a tart reproach from the Wall Street Journal. The Journal is generally captivated by the heady aroma of anticipated tax cuts (styled as “pro-growth tax reform”) and struggles to find positive things about Trump whenever it can. Here, however, it acknowledged with unusual candor that Corker had a point, and a serious one at that:
Mr. Corker was expressing views that are widely held on Capitol Hill and even within the Trump Administration. These men and women support the President’s policies, or at least most of them, and they remain in their jobs for the good of the cause and country. What they fear, and want to contain, are the President’s lack of discipline, short fuse, narcissism and habit of treating even foreign heads of state as if they are Rosie O’Donnell.
Some observers, including James Fallows in the Atlantic, asked what Corker would do to translate his concerns into action. Fallows suggested hearings and draft legislation “about the procedure, the grounds, and the justifications before the U.S. commits troops to war.” He did not, however, refer to legislation that was introduced in the House and the Senate by Congressman Ted Lieu and Senator Ed Markey in January. The bills are entitled “Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017,” and provide that:
The President may not use the Armed Forces of the United States to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a declaration of war by Congress that expressly authorizes such strike.
The Lieu bill in the House has 58 co-sponsors, including only one Republican, Walter Jones of North Carolina, and in the Senate, the Markey bill has 9 co-sponsors, all Democrats. No action has been taken on either bill and none is scheduled.
An October 11 editorial in the New York Times addressed the dangers of a nuclear strike and without mentioning the Markey/Lieu bills by name, asserted that “Congress has been sufficiently alarmed to consider legislation that would bar the president from launching a first nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress.” It is an overstatement to indicate that the Markey/Lieu bills are under active consideration, but there is no reason why they should not be. As the Times accurately noted:
As things stand now, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, passed when there was more concern about trigger-happy generals than elected civilian leaders, gives the president sole control. He could unleash the apocalyptic force of the American nuclear arsenal by his word alone, and within minutes.
It is time for Senator Corker to step up and address the issue forthrightly and to bring his colleagues out of hiding. Perhaps he will play the role of Dorothy and lead them along the Yellow Brick Road to discover not Oz, but their Constitutional responsibilities.