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Acrid Tone Reflects Trend for Nominations

Government: In an era of divided political control, the once-civil Senate has become more polarized.

March 19, 1997|DOYLE McMANUS and ROBERT SHOGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — "Washington has gone haywire," Anthony Lake complained as he gave up his fight for confirmation as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Others, mostly Democrats, but some Republicans too, echoed the charge. "Why would anyone volunteer for a high appointment these days?" asked Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio). Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) complained that his Republican colleagues were simply "investigating Lake . . . to see what shows up."

The Senate Intelligence Committee's tough scrutiny of Lake was not unprecedented. Two other nominees for the same CIA job also failed to be confirmed in the past decade.

But the bitter tone of the struggle over Lake's nomination reflects a larger, long-term trend that has made the process of appointing high officials more painful than at any time in this century.

In an era when control of the White House and Congress is divided between Democrats and Republicans, the once-civil Senate--which has a constitutional duty to consider presidential nominees--has become more partisan and polarized.

At the same time, with neither political party holding a clear popular mandate, ideological interest groups have stepped into nomination battles as a new way to advance their agendas. This year, conservative groups organized a campaign to oppose Lake; in 1987, liberal groups organized equally fierce opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork.

"Electoral politics don't really define where we are going anymore," said Mark Silverstein of Boston University, a scholar of the nominating process. "It's more a case of: 'You win the election, OK, but if you want to get somebody confirmed, I'll stop it.' "

President Clinton, in comments Tuesday, bluntly expressed his own dismay about this tendency. "For too long, we have allowed ordinary political processes . . . to descend into political sniping, then into political revenge, and too often that results in political destruction," he said.

Most nominations don't run into trouble. All but a handful of Clinton's appointments have sailed through the Senate unhindered by the Republicans who put an unending series of obstacles in Lake's way.

But Lake, who headed the National Security Council in Clinton's first term, walked into the polarized Capitol with some significant vulnerabilities, such as his failure to notify Congress about a decision to allow Iranian arms shipments to Bosnia in 1994.

More important, perhaps, was the apparently implacable hostility of the intelligence committee's chairman, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). When new questions arose about the handling by the NSC staff of information about donors to the Democratic National Committee, Shelby seemed intent on making Lake the first victim of the campaign finance issue. In the end, he succeeded.

"Tony Lake faced special circumstances," argued former Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), who once served on the intelligence committee. "The chairman didn't like him, the campaign finance issue came up . . . Tony's confirmation certainly went haywire. But that doesn't mean the system has gone haywire."

Still, Rudman acknowledged, it used to be easier. "Back before television, a president could get anyone through," he said.

It isn't just a matter of playing to the cameras, however. Ever since Democrats went after two of President Nixon's Supreme Court nominees, Clement F. Haynesworth in 1969 and G. Harrold Carswell in 1970, the confirmation process has sometimes been used by both parties as a form of political warfare.

One scholar of the process, G. Calvin Mackenzie of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has calculated that the time needed to win confirmation has lengthened steadily for every president since John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy's nominees were confirmed in less than three months, on average, Mackenzie found. The average increased to 5.3 months for President Reagan's nominees, 8.13 for President Bush's selections and 8.53 months for Clinton's.

And the purpose of the struggle seems less to ensure that nominees are fit than to cripple the chief executive's political leadership. A defeated nomination can embarrass a president, demoralize his supporters and reduce public confidence in his judgment.

Reagan's command of the public agenda was hurt by his 1987 nomination of Bork, a rallying point for liberal groups that had spent years in retreat.

Bush ran into opposition not only from liberals, but also conservatives with his 1989 nomination of former Sen. John Tower (R-Texas) as secretary of Defense.

Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, testified in Senate hearings that Tower had a drinking problem and was a womanizer--setting the stage for the Texan's downfall.

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