James Baker has joined his nemesis from the 2000 Bush v Gore battle, Warren Christopher, in recommending a stunning new piece of federal legislation: a law designed to rein in presidents who want to go to war half-cocked.
Gee, anybody we know?
The bipartisan National War Powers Commission, which Baker and Christopher co-chaired, announced their recommendation Tuesday: a law supplanting the War Powers Resolution, passed 35 years ago in the wake of Vietnam.
A principal reason for the resolution in the first place was that while the Constitution gave the legislative branch sole responsibility for declaring war (Article 1, Section 8), presidents over time began considering their own constitutional title of "commander in chief" (Article 2, Section 2) as a de facto right to engage in a foreign military action without congressional declaration.
The existing law, from 1973, allows a president to do so for up to 90 days before any meaningful consultation with Congress -- if that -- and allows them to waffle regardless. Each end of Pennsylvania Avenue has grown to abuse or ignore it.
Proposed replacement legislation, outlined by Baker and Christopher in a July 8 NY Times guest op-ed, cuts the military time down to one week and then requires a congressional "resolution of approval" on the matter, subject to veto and override.
Both men demurred when asked at a press briefing if their plan is in response to the most recent seven years, saying they don't want to judge past history. Yeah, right.
Longtime Bush family consigliere Baker said similar things when the Baker-Hamilton "Iraq Study Group" came up with its recommendations. That exercise was clearly a case of trying to lure George W. Bush back in from the ledge. In some ways it worked; Dick Cheney's influence certainly seems to have waned in the years since the report came out.
Baker has quite a personal history here, of course. He's pulled little George out of the fire on behalf of the Bush family several times before, starting when he cajoled a lifelong college buddy from Princeton into bailing out 35 year-old W's near-worthless oil company in the early 80's.
This beneficence led directly to investors who later purchased the Texas Rangers baseball team. Bush, by now the son of America's new president, was installed as the public face. Although initially just a 2% owner, his marquee role became the launch pad for a governor's race against the incumbent Democrat Ann Richards in 1994.
Little wonder Baker the Rainmaker was tapped by the clan when W found himself behind the Florida eight ball on election night 2000.
The Republican Party's dwindling hardcore fan base can keep their heads buried if they want, but there's no way James Baker would be part of this latest endeavor unless he feels strongly that what's happened with U.S. foreign policy has been a disaster.
After all, Baker was Secretary of State under Bush the Elder, a position first held by Thomas Jefferson. W, as we know, basically beheaded that cabinet post when he came to power, an act Colin Powell would realize too late.
This has to gall a man of such formality as Baker, a man who was deeply involved in American/Middle Eastern geopolitics, a man who remains the very definition of "standing on ceremony."
I say better late than never. Not only for those close to Poppy Bush who are turned off (Baker, Scowcroft, etc.). But also those close to Bush the Lesser's contemporary White House who have felt the pangs of 11th hour honor, like Scott McClellan. Righting wrongs requires admitting wrongs, even if it comes with a book deal.
Bush, Cheney, Rove et al can't and won't admit wrong, so this new proposal speaks volumes. It adds a layer of protection to guard against an unqualified dolt -- regardless of political affiliation -- getting the keys to the Oval Office.
Speaking of admitting: since Congress is apparently unable to admit that the Founders gave it the job of declaring war, will it at least acknowledge that its spine needs surgical enhancement?
What about chief executives? As a breed, they are genetically loathe to cede power that has accrued to their office, even if ill-gotten by a predecessor. Will Barack Obama and John McCain speak out in support of this new idea?
Postscript: Timothy Noah has a July 9 piece at slate.com positing that Congress doesn't really want a backbone when it comes to declaring war, and therefore Baker-Christopher is "an empty exercise in high-mindedness for its own sake." That's probably true. Besides, there's no way such a plan would get serious consideration in the heat of an election year. My principal point is that the mere attachment of Jim Baker -- of all people -- is indicative of the massive gulf between the crowd that surrounded the elder Bush, and the son who has so besmirched the nation....not to mention his family name.