Friday, November 18, 2005

Blogging the Senate 

The view from S-219
The Senate Republican Conference, now chaired by Senator Santorum, invited a group of us to hear what several leading Republican Senators had to say on matters of moment great and small. The Conference staff has been working hard to build its relationship with bloggers, and devoted the event entirely to citizen journalism. No MSM invited, and the SRC itself made no attempt to ballyhoo the gathering to anybody but the Fifty-Five.

We were called to room S-219 in the Capitol at 1:30 yesterday afternoon. The view from the room is at right, and you can get a feeling for the setting itself from these pictures at Right Side Redux. See if you can pick me out.

In any case, the basic format gave us front-and-center access to the Republican leadership, including Senators Allen, Frist, Brownback, Santorum, Chambliss, Allard, Thomas and Thune. Suitably Flip was there and has links to their individual sites.

Some of the bloggers present tapped into the Capitol's fairly flimsy wireless network and blogged real-time, but I concentrated on taking notes and pictures. Rather than uploading the notes indiscriminately, I thought I would concentrate on two or three of the Senators who presented, including my observations.

Senator George Allen

George Allen is on everybody's short list of possible contenders for the Republican nomination in 2008, and was recently the subject of a cover story by Rich Lowry in the National Review. For further evidence of Allen's ambitions, look no further than the goofy pictures (scroll down through the Freeper thread) of Allen -- a Virginian -- trying to look real in cowboy attire. No Virginian would do that if he weren't running for president.

The official TigerHawk photo of Allen is at left.

In his opening remarks, Allen called for "less taxation, less regulation, less litigation." Like several of the Senators, Allen called for more "energy independence," which he thought we could accomplish through new and better technology. He and Senator Santorum were specifically focused on the question of energy security, and both were ambitious to do something about it beyond drilling in ANWAR (which they both want to do). Both reached for the magic of technological solutions, which for them offered the magic prospect of greater energy production and conservation without higher prices. I specifically asked Senator Allen whether he thought higher prices or moral suasion were the best methods to promote conservation, and he responded by denouncing regulation (such as corporate average fuel economy requirements). Allen instead talked about "incentives," the details of which were unclear but which I took to mean "subsides."

Obviously, if the Republicans are going to talk energy policy with bloggers, they are going to have to learn to explain how we can achieve energy independence without higher energy prices or more regulation. For my own part, I believe that higher energy prices would and will work like magic to reduce our dependence on imported fuel, but that is, apparently, a politically toxic admission.

Senator Allen also hammered on the importance of a restrained judiciary, and quite specifically campaigned against the Kelo decision: “The Supreme Court actually amended the Bill of Rights by judicial degree by allowing the commissars in New London, CT to take the people’s property.” TigerHawk loves the "commissars" reference, which is exactly what they are. If Allen's staff reads this, may I suggest that he use the line again, at least in gatherings of red-meat conservatives. "Commissars," indeed. Sent shivers down my spine.

Gerard Vanderleun asked Senator Allen to tell us "the three items on your must-do list" for America. Senator Allen raised "energy" to the top priority, followed by securing "our borders" and controlling federal spending. Much to my relief, Allen declared that we do not want to "lower our deficits by increasing taxes." I did not get a chance to ask him how he was going to achieve "energy independence" with subsidies and cut spending and avoid new taxes.

I liked George Allen as a personality -- frankly, who wouldn't? -- but it was extremely difficult even in this intimate setting to get a sense for how thoughtful he is. He had a chance, I think, to communicate the depth of his thinking for a very smart and critical group, and he largely resorted to canned talking points. If I were to offer his staff a bit of advice, it would be this: Give Senator Allen some extended time with a small group of non-partisan but generally sympathetic bloggers (TigerHawk comes to mind!) under ground rules that are sufficiently restrictive to allow him to take some risks. Let them see what is really going on inside his brain.

Senator Rick Santorum

Heading in to the session, I confess that I had thought of Rick Santorum as something of a lightweight. I am by no means a social conservative (generally speaking, I'm against "family values"), and Santorum is tough on those issues, especially for a Senator from east of the Mississippi and north of the Maxon-Dixon line. However, notwithstanding a minor gaff (of which more below), I came away extremely impressed with Rick Santorum and will pay much closer attention to him in the future. He spoke candidly, passionately and seriously. If I were to beat his performance to death with a cliche, I would say that he was a breath of fresh air.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Senator Santorum seemed to understand the difference between the bloggers with whom he was meeting and his typical audiences -- we later learned that he has been a driving force behind the Senate Republican Conference's web strategy, which is impressive.

Senator Santorum began with a "quick wrap" of the session, arguing that the press had inadquately covered many of the "successes" of this Congress. Suffice it to say that I do not think that the legislation he enumerated necessarily qualifies, but I have the luxury of being a purist and Senator Santorum makes sausage for a living. By Senator Santorum's lights, the successes included the comprehensive energy bill, liability reform for gun manufacturers, the new bankruptcy bill, a budget with "zero increase in domestic discretionary spending," and a "fiscally responsible highway bill." One might take issue with at least some of his adjectives.

The fun began with a question from Orin Kerr, who said (very MSMishly, I might add), that "2079 of our boys have been killed in Iraq. What is your reaction?" A fair question, to be sure, that all Senators should be able to answer forthrightly and without embarrassment. Senator Santorum rose to the occasion, saying (rough quote):
We can’t fail to recognize each one of their important sacrifices, but we must remember what they are accomplishing and what they are fighting for. We don’t tell this story, we don’t tell this side. The mainstream media does not report this stuff. The Iraqis are sacrificing their lives for their freedom in much greater numbers than we are. The focus of the media on the loss of American lives does not go unnoticed by the terrorists – they work very hard to make sure that that reporting continues.

My quickly-typed notes do not reveal the intensity in Santorum's voice or the rage in his eyes -- he is clearly on fire over the question of the reporting on the war, particularly the accusation coming from the Democrats that the Bush administration "lied" or otherwise mislead Americans in the run-up to the invasion.

Another blogger asked him whether the Republican response to this charge had been adequate. Santorum admitted that Republicans had been "tardy in responding to the charge that the President lied to the American public. There is no evidence. If anything, if you look at the presidential daily reports, the president understated what he was being told by the intelligence community."

“If we had twenty four hour news services back in 1776 we’d still be singing 'hail to the queen.'” I think he meant "God Save the Queen," but point taken.

Senator Santorum did make a couple of claims that he may want to tweak in future presentations. He alleged at one point in his otherwise passionate rant that "most" of the enemy in Iraq were "foreign fighters," which does not seem to be true. No matter, it need not be true.

Vanderleun asked Santorum to define victory in Iraq: "Would you say that victory in your eyes would involve the establishment and stability and democratic Iraq solely, or one that would also be a close ally with the United States that would allow basing in that part of the world?"

Santorum was quite blunt:
A would be sufficient, B would be better. It’s a democracy. We’ve got folks in Europe that don’t want our bases there. I’m not concerned about that as long as this government that may not want us there is in secure enough hands to make sure that it does not become a terrorist state or otherwise problematic. Whether we are there or not is of secondary importance.”

Vanderleun and I, by the way, agree on the more likely result: That we substantially withdraw over the next five years, but that formal and informal ties between the United States military and Iraq's new army remain sufficient to give us significant strategic flexibility in the region. The bases we are building will not necessarily be "American" bases, but quite curiously they will be adequate to sustain American military operations if the circumstances so require.

Senator Bill Frist

Senator Frist was very impressive. He spoke very briefly, leaving lots of times for questions, and stepped around the podium in front of us to speak to us very directly and respectfully. He is obviously a man of great interests, knowlege and depth. Whether he has the personality to make a good president remains to be seen, but by my measure he is much better prepared today for the presidency than any of the other Senators who appeared before us.

On the issues, Frist emphasized energy security, border security and economic security, in precisely the same order as George Allen (Frist had not been in the room when Allen spoke with us). Energy security, which means very different things to different people, is obviously a hot political issue when we are financing our enemies with our oil purchases and Americans are paying what they (absurdly) believe are high prices for gasoline.

That both candidates should raise border security, however, as their second most important issue confirms that the "Malkin" wing of the Republican Party is going to be very important in 2007-2008. Nativism has been a recurring Republican theme since the founding of the party in the years before the Civil War (down with "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion!"), and it may well be the key to winning the nomination. But will it cost the Republicans the general election? Will "border" security be to Republicans what national security is to the Democrats -- a defining issue in the primaries that comes back to bite them in November? I think it will be.

Without intending to short-change the other Senators who gave generously of their time, I did want to mention two others. Senator Thune was absolutely effusive about bloggers, to whom he may in fact owe his election. To Thune, "the blogosphere is where the freedom-fighters are." No doubt that is a sentiment with which even lefty bloggers would agree. While that is a bit blogger-triumphalist for my taste, I do consider myself the archtypical lonely pamphleteer, a metaphor I much prefer.

Senator Sam Brownback was also very impressive, and I will be paying much more attention to him in the future. Unlike the others, who touched the big general issues of energy security, border security, national security and economic security, Brownback was passionate on the crisis in the Congo. He is going therre the week after Thanksgiving, "hoping to raise with my colleagues" the "desperate plight of the people there." According to Brownback, the same number of peole die in the eastern Congo every four months as were lost in the great Asian tsunami last year. There is a "nine nation war going on with the Congo being the center, the least reported humanitarian disaster in the world.”

This campaign is part of a broader Republican effort, Brownback says, for which the Republicans in general and the administration in particular have not received fair credit. These humanitarian initiatives include President Bush's funding of programs to fight AIDS in Africa, and the campaign to reduce malaria infection by 50% over the next five years (which Brownback warns will require the indoor spraying of DDT, a policy I strongly support, by the way). Brownback seems to be one of the relatively few social conservatives who has backed his rhetoric with actual work, having visited many of the world's genuine disaster areas in the last several years.

Other bloggers, I'm sure, will have more. Thank you to the Senate Republican Conference for inviting me to participate.

UPDATE: Open Source Media's coverage is here, via Ed Driscoll.


By Blogger Counter Trey, at Fri Nov 18, 12:50:00 PM:

Fantastic job, TH , and congratulations on being invited to the event.

I would have understood it if Senator Allen had confused God Save the Queen with Hail to the Queen, being the son of a Redskins coach--THE George Allen. Senator Santorum must be a Skins fan.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Nov 19, 03:18:00 PM:

Great roundup! I have a question for you, though, regarding "nativism". Do you think that seeking a policy of tighter border controls, in conjunction with belief that certain enforcement and benefit practices need revision, translates to "nativism"?


By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Nov 19, 09:50:00 PM:


No. But we do not seem nearly as concerned about al Qaeda canoeing across the boundary waters in Minnesota. Something tells me that a significant portion of the Republican campaign for better border security is nativism in disguise.

I'm neither a Know Nothing nor an anti-Know Nothing. Just making the point that it is a Republican idea as old as the part itself.  

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