Losing the Senate
Carl Levin's retirement is the latest blow to a smart foreign policy.
In 1947, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican from Michigan, famously declared that "politics stops at the water’s edge" as he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Vandenberg was not just talking; he was a critical player in helping Harry Truman shepherd the Marshall Plan through a Republican Congress, a stunning achievement that transformed the postwar world and reverberates even today.
But even then, Vandenberg’s comment was at best a shaky aphorism. He himself had been a strong isolationist going into the fierce debate over America’s entry into the Second World War. He had bitterly opposed the extension of the draft in 1941, a bill that barely passed and was signed by Franklin Roosevelt months before Pearl Harbor. Although he converted back to internationalism after December 1941, Vandenberg was not uniformly followed by his colleagues. The McCarthy era, after all, emerged soon after the "water’s edge" comment, and deep and bitter political differences over presidential positions on foreign policy, often but not always along partisan lines, were commonplace in the 1950s and every decade thereafter — with the 1960s and early ‘70s especially reflecting bitter conflict because of Vietnam.
Still, after Vietnam and for most of the Cold War era, partisanship and ideology were relatively constrained on foreign policy, with some exceptions. (Senator Jesse Helms sending staffers to London to interfere in the delicate negotiations over Rhodesian independence in 1979 — which led to complaints from the British and severe heartburn in the Carter administration — comes to mind.) But by and large, lawmakers and other partisans were careful not to interfere with diplomacy or to criticize the United States when they went abroad.
The combination of the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the kind of tribal politics Tom Mann and I describe in our book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks changed all that. No one epitomized the intensification of partisan politics more than Tom DeLay (R-TX), who during his tenure as House Majority Whip bitterly opposed Bill Clinton on all fronts, including foreign policy. When a congressional leader says things like "You can support the troops but not the president" or "I cannot support a failed foreign policy," one can safely say the political atmosphere is not very Vanderbergian. That was in the Clinton years; tribalism, of course, has for the most part gotten worse in the Bush and Obama presidencies.
All this is prelude to reflecting on the recently announced retirement of Carl Levin, another senator from Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, after what will be 36 years of service in the body. If Levin does not meet the casting director’s image of a senator — he is not tall, silver-haired, dressed for pin-striped success — he is without question one of the best senators to have served over the past half-century, widely respected and liked by his colleagues and by those of us who study the Senate for a living.
Levin generates that respect because he is a workhorse, respectful of the Senate and its traditions, as smart as anybody in the body, and a mensch. But he also is respected because while he is a proud liberal, he is driven by facts, a realistic assessment of threats from abroad, and America’s genuine defense needs. He is a straight-shooter who does not demagogue or posture for narrow political considerations. He can be, and has been, sharply critical of presidential actions on foreign and defense policy, but he has done so within reasonable bounds of propriety. On foreign and defense policy, Levin has managed to build alliances across party lines without alienating his adversaries, whether on worldview or partisan dimensions. In other words, he is a proud inheritor of the Vandenberg tradition, and the anti-DeLay.
The cause of comity and consensus on America’s role in the world was dealt a sharp blow with the defeats in the 2012 elections of Rep. Howard Berman and Sen. Richard Lugar. Berman was as respected in the House over his 30 years of service as Levin; he served as chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and built a comparable reputation for insight, fairness, hard work, and all-round decency. The House has been more poisonous in its partisan divisions than the Senate, which made Berman’s high standing among his Republican colleagues even more of an anomaly — and even more impressive since he was among the most popular and respected members among his fellow Democrats as well.
Lugar, of course, was legendary in the Senate for his knowledge of and attention to the details of foreign policy, for his mentorship of Barack Obama, for his leadership on "loose nukes," and for his close working relationships with the likes of Joe Biden and John Kerry during their tenures at the helm of Senate Foreign Relations. Put together the impending retirement of Levin, the losses of Berman and Lugar, the departures of Biden and Kerry, and it is clear that Congress has lost a huge amount of brainpower, intellectual integrity, and expertise on foreign and defense policy.
Of course, there are still plenty of smart senators, including the next most senior Democrat on Armed Services, Jack Reed, also universally respected, and the ranking Republican on Foreign Relations, Bob Corker. And there are plenty of impressive junior members with expertise and interest in foreign and defense policy, like Bob Casey, Chris Coons, and Mark and Tom Udall.
But the challenges to finding common ground and comity are growing, especially as a new generation of less internationalist and more isolationist members from both parties have become emboldened by the shrinking budgets to cut defense programs and development and diplomatic efforts that have been the linchpin of foreign policy consensus. Perhaps there are no indispensable men and women, but the Senate and House have lost and are losing a lot of people who come close.