I met Sherrod Brown, the Democratic congressman from Ohio and that state's former secretary of state, at an inconvenient time. It was the last week in July, which meant that Brown, like everyone else in Congress, was busy trying to squeeze every last bit of urgent Washington business in before taking off for August recess.
Moreover, I saw Brown the day before the CAFTA vote, a grueling fiasco that ultimately proved to be a tough 24 hours for everyone with any job connected with Congress. Stories are only now trickling in about Tom Delay, Bill Thomas, Mike Oxley and Jim Kolbe charging down the hallways of the Cannon building shouting threats in all directions, like the Four Horsemen of the Beady-Eyed Apocalypse. Brown, a youngish, gregarious type with a philosophical attitude toward his job and congress in general, was taking one last break before the big nighttime CAFTA square-off; he greeted me at his door in a wrinkled shirt and socks.
I had scheduled an interview with Brown on another subject, but I also wanted to ask about the Ohio electoral scandal, an issue that he's played a significant role in publicizing. Brown, along with fellow Ohio member Stephanie Tubbs-Jones and Michigan Democrat John Conyers, is one of just a handful of congressmen still trying to get the press to take a second look at Ohio. Last week, he didn't sound hopeful.
"The thing is, we're not really free to keep pursuing it," he said. "The reality is that we have too many other things going on. We have more important immediate concerns."
On the eve of the CAFTA vote, Brown sounded like a man who didn't want to use all of his rhetorical bullets on Ohio. When I asked him about Ken Blackwell, the Ohio secretary of state who has come under fire for his conduct during the last election, Brown chose to speak in generalities rather than refer to the specific charges laid out in the report issued by his colleague Conyers.
"Some of the things Blackwell did undoubtedly hurt turnout," he said. "And turnout traditionally aids the Democrats. Part of the Secretary of State's job is to get people to vote. I think what we saw with Blackwell was that he never encouraged more people to vote."
I asked him if he thought anyone would ever be able to tie Blackwell's numerous indiscretions to the Bush campaign.
"I doubt it," he said. "I doubt we'll ever know."
Well, shit, I thought. This is depressing.
I promised in this space last week that I would have an interview with Brown, but I don't want readers to get the wrong idea -- the man really was busy, and my meeting with him was rushed, for a variety of reasons. I had also planned to speak with Conyers, but that didn't pan out, either.
But I get the sense that even if I'd had all the time in the world with those few Democrats still on the record as being interested in the Ohio story, they wouldn't have had much to say. The party in general has been so effectively marginalized that its elected officials now seem to be rationing political capital the way men in lifeboats ration rainwater.
The aforementioned Conyers, the leader of the congressional effort to reopen Ohio, is in the middle of a desperate struggle to preserve his relevancy on the House judiciary committee, where he is the ranking Democrat. Last week, while attending a committee hearing, I watched as Conyers struggled repeatedly to get blimp-shaped committee chairman F. James Sensenbrenner to recognize him. In the hearing I watched, Conyers and other Democrats (especially our own Jerrold Nadler, who appears to inspire Sensenbrenner's particular loathing) had to shout out "Mr. Chairman!" four, five, or even six times before Sensenbrenner would open the floor for their remarks. In the current Congress, Democrats have to fight just to force the Republicans to respect normal legislative procedure.
Things have gotten so crazy in this Congress, and in this political environment in general, that the Democrats now have to watch their backs 24 hours a day, just to make sure they're not being cheated out of something.
In the abovementioned judiciary committee, there was an incident recently that underscored the problem. During the debate over the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (also known as CIANA; this was a bill designed to prevent minors from traveling across state lines to circumvent parental-notification regulations for abortions in their own states), representative Nadler introduced a series of proposed amendments. But Sensenbrenner, in the official committee report, took it upon himself to rewrite the amendments in his own language. Nadler's amendments had to do with exempting from prosecution certain people (relatives, taxi drivers, etc.) who may have assisted the minors in crossing state lines; Sensenbrenner rewrote them in a way that implies that these people were all sexual predators. An example of the rewrites:
DEMOCRAT VERSION: a Nadler amendment allows an adult who could be prosecuted under the bill to go to a Federal district court and seek a waiver to the state's parental notice laws if this remedy is not available in the state court.
GOP REWRITE: Mr. Nadler offered an amendment that would have created an additional layer of Federal court review that could be used by sexual predators to escape conviction under the bill.
The bill had nothing to do with sexual predators.
I bring this up because ideology is increasingly not the defining characteristic of this Republican party. What distinguishes this party is its cheating. In CAFTA, in defiance of House rules, they hold the floor open for as long as it takes to get their vote. They not only do this, they proudly announce that they're doing this. In the House, they have made a habit out of disallowing Democratic witnesses, shutting off debate, conveniently miscounting votes and committing brazen acts of slander and libel, like this Sensenbrenner business.
The party routinely refuses compliance with FOIA requests, as well as requests from the Inspector General and the General Accounting Office. It lied and continues to lie outrageously with regard to the Iraq war. It has convinced the country and even themselves that there is something immensely clever, and even principled, about the way that it lies, cheats and bends laws and rules to get what it wants.
In recent years it has been fashionable to compare these current Republicans with the Nazis and other totalitarian monsters. I've tended to resist those comparisons, but we've reached a point where it's looking more and more appropriate to describe the neoconservative attitude toward the rule of law as having many things in common with those other revolutionaries. These neocons may not have the authoritarian bent of the German fascists or the Russian communists. They're far more interested in stealing and deregulating than in controlling, censoring and governing. But it is more and more clear that, like these other notorious movements, they view adherence to rules and to the law as a failure of will and a political weakness.
That is why we in the media need to reexamine the 2004 election. If they really did steal it, we can't just let it slide. Because they'll do it again. And forget about the Democrats being able to do anything about it. They have their own problems.