THE only thing harder to find in the U.S. Senate these days than a Democrat with a conscience is a Republican with a spine.
Democrats may have been waxed at the polls last November, but they're running rings around Republicans in the public relations battles so far this year. Consider:
●Polls indicate a majority of Americans agree with President Bush that reform of Social Security is needed, and about half of Americans favor his plan to permit workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts. But in the most recent poll (taken for CBS April 13-16), only 25 percent of respondents indicated they were "confident" Mr. Bush would make the right decisions about Social Security, while 70 percent were "uneasy."
●The President's nomination of Undersecretary of State John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is in trouble after waffling by GOP Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio forced postponement until May 12 of a vote in the Foreign Relations Committee. Nominees rarely gain strength while they twist in the wind.
●In a poll taken by Ayres-McHenry (a Republican firm) on April 4, 78 percent of respondents said senators have a constitutional duty to vote on judicial nominees. Yet in a recent poll taken for Senate Republicans, 51 percent of respondents opposed ending the Democratic filibuster that has been blocking votes on Mr. Bush's nominees for federal appeals courts.
Only ordinary incompetence is required to lose the high ground on any one of these issues, but extraordinary incompetence is required to lag so far behind on all of them.
Take the Bolton nomination. The credibility of the United Nations has fallen below that of the current Canadian government. There is the Iraq oil-for-food program scandal, which has just gotten bigger in the wake of the resignation of two investigators from the Volcker commission in protest of Mr. Volcker's see-no-evil approach to Secretary-General Kofi Annan's role in it.
There are the sex scandals involving U.N. peacekeepers, and the unwillingness of senior U.N. officials to do anything about them. There was the lame U.N. response to the tsunami in Asia last December, and the United Nations' continuing failure to do anything about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.
President Bush, through the blunt-spoken Mr. Bolton, wants to give the United Nations a dose of tough love. Yet Republicans have permitted the debate to focus on whether Mr. Bolton was mean to subordinates, charges which would be irrelevant if true, and which appear not to be true.
If Mr. Bolton is defeated, Mr. Bush will receive a black eye, and bureaucrats at the State Department and elsewhere will be encouraged to resist administration policy.
This will be almost entirely a self-inflicted wound. The principal blame would fall on the shoulders of George Voinovich. But there is still blame aplenty for Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who did nothing to keep Mr. Voinovich up to speed and next to nothing to defend Mr. Bolton from spurious charges.
Blame falls also on the White House. You'd think the President's men would be counting votes and keeping Mr. Voinovich and the others in the loop.
The filibuster is an extra-constitutional obstructionist tactic that has been used mostly to block civil rights legislation. Many of the Democrats defending it now tried to end it a decade ago. Yet dithering by Senate Majority Waffler Bill Frist of Tennessee has permitted Democrats to gain the upper hand in the public relations battle.
Credit for the Republican victory last fall goes to Republican voters, not GOP officeholders. If Republican "leaders" want to maintain their allegiance, they'd better start showing some leadership, pronto.