HOW DID THE THEME SONG from the great TV show of my youth go? "There's a hold-up in the Bronx, / Brooklyn's broken out in fights. / There's a traffic jam in Harlem, / That's backed up to Jackson Heights. / There's a scout troop short a child, / Khrushchev's due at Idlewild / . . . Car 54, where are you?"
That's basically the situation of Republicans in Washington. Tom DeLay's under investigation; Bill Frist probably doesn't have the votes to break the judicial filibusters; the Bush administration is going around the country trumpeting its plan to cut Social Security benefits for the middle class; and a hitherto-unproblematic Republican senator from Ohio is denouncing Bush's nominee for U.N. Ambassador, and, indeed, Bush's overall foreign policy. Car 54, where are you?
The answer: Right here, with John Bolton in the back seat. The way for the administration and the Republican Congress to deal with the impression--and the reality--of disarray is by winning a quick and decisive victory. Taking the Bolton nomination to the floor, and pushing for his confirmation before Congress's Memorial Day recess, offers the best bet for that right now.
There are two weeks until the recess. As I write (on Friday the 13th!) Senate Majority Leader Frist apparently intends to begin debate on the judicial filibuster, putting off consideration of Bolton for at least a week--but, in all likelihood, until after the recess. Barbara Boxer has put a "hold" on Bolton, and other Democrats such as Chris Dodd have said they would do the same if Boxer releases hers. So if Frist proceeds as planned, Senate Democrats will be seen as having faced down the administration and the GOP majority, while buying time to produce more pseudo-incriminating smears of Bolton and allowing their allies to replay over and over "mainstream" Republican senator George Voinovich's harsh words about the president's nominee.
The Senate leadership correctly understands that judges are the preeminent issue of the session. But that issue can wait for June, when it will set the stage for the forthcoming Supreme Court nomination. The time for the debate over Bolton, and the United Nations, is now. Thursday's Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Bolton suggested why. Chairman Richard Lugar definitively discredited the charges against Bolton's fitness for the job--not that this deterred Voinovich from repeating the bogus charges. But if this debate is repeated on the floor of the Senate, the fact that Lugar had the best of this argument will become abundantly clear. More important, the fact that Republicans have the better of the arguments on U.S. foreign policy, and on the United Nations, will also become clear. The nation will especially enjoy watching Bolton's Democratic critics join with Voinovich in explaining that we do not want a representative with--gasp!--"sharp elbows" at the U.N. and that the U.N.--and its member dictators--needs to be treated with kid gloves.
As we've argued before on this page, Republican senators should challenge their Democratic counterparts to debate John Bolton's record, and the U.N.'s record, every day, for as long as the Democrats want. The Bush administration should put senior spokesmen on TV every night to ask whether the U.N. is just fine as it is, or requires tough-minded reform. After one week of such debate, I suspect Democratic senators with competitive races looming in 2006--especially in states that Bush carried in 2004--might lose their enthusiasm for stalling Bolton. Frist could probably pull off a vote before Memorial Day. Bolton would win. Republicans would be out of the doldrums. And we would have a good U.N. ambassador, an ambassador who knows how that institution works--and doesn't work--and is knowledgeable about the very issues (North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs) that are likely to dominate its agenda in the coming months.
It is true that moving ahead smartly in this direction would require bold and decisive leadership. But Bill Frist is surely capable of that. It is true that it would put a burden on Republican senators to make the case for Bolton, for Bush's foreign policy, and for aggressive U.N. reform--but senators like Norm Coleman, George Allen, John McCain, and Jon Kyl are more than capable of that. And it is true that it would require the White House to take an occasional break from digging a deeper hole on Social Security in order to make the case for Bolton and Bush's foreign policy. They might even find it an enjoyable and politically profitable enterprise, once they try it.
So let's have two weeks of debate on the floor of the Senate on John Bolton, U.S. foreign policy, and the United Nations. It will prove a valuable tonic for a White House and a Republican Congress that need a pick-me-up--and it will produce a result that will be good for the country.