By E.J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- Last week the Bush administration was finally forced out of its own pre-9/11 worldview -- and yes you read that right. It happened because some brave Republicans stared the president down and said: Stop.
Of course, it is the administration that is always accusing its opponents of pre-9/11 thinking. But for the last five years, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Karl Rove have been willing to put the national unity required to fight terrorism in second place behind their goals of aggrandizing presidential power and winning elections. Can you get more pre-9/11 than that?
Instead of seeking broad agreement on the measures required for our nations safety, they preferred to pick fights designed to make the Democrats look soft and to claim the president could do pretty much anything he wanted.
Thats why the White House made sure that Rove trumpeted the surveillance issue before the Republican National Committee last month. A president who cared more about national security than politics wouldnt send out his top political lieutenant to make sure everyone knew that the GOP planned to use a matter of such grave importance to bash Democrats.
And its why Vice President Cheney, when asked last week by Jim Lehrer if Bush were willing to work with Congress on the issue, barely entertained the question. We believe, Jim, that we have all the legal authority we need, Cheney replied immediately. Congress could make any suggestions it wanted, but -- I add the italics to underscore the point -- the White House would ignore whatever it chose to ignore. Wed have to make a decision as an administration whether or not we think it would help and would enhance our capabilities.
Translation -- Cheney to Congress: Buzz off.
But this time, some important members of the presidents own party -- led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter -- decided that enough is enough. As stewards of Congress constitutional authority, they could not stand by while the president claimed the power to decide for himself what the law said and whether he needed to follow it without any concern for what those meddlesome members of Congress or judges might say.
And its wonderful to see what a few brave politicians can achieve. On Thursday, the administration agreed to brief the Senate Intelligence Committee on the program after having offered a similar briefing to the comparable House committee the day before.
It was a small crack in the wall, and Specter and his allies will have to remain vigilant. Still, until last week, the White House had flatly refused to offer such briefings. The winds are changing.
Whats heartening is how broad the Republican dissent from the administration has been -- a sign that many Republicans have calculated that theyll be better off in this falls elections if they do their jobs, even if this means challenging Bush and Cheney.
Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who faces a tough re-election battle and has shown streaks of independence in the past, demanded the briefings for reasons straight out of a good civics textbook. The checks and balances in our system of government are very important, she said, noting that our constitutional structure has kept us safe and free and the strongest country in the world for a very long time. Yes, lets wave a flag for this Air Force veteran.
Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who also is up for re-election, said the this country would be stronger and the president would be stronger if Bush accepted the idea that Congress might actually have a role in lawmaking on the surveillance issue.
And Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the administration was making a very dangerous argument in claiming that it got the authority to wiretap without supervision when Congress passed its use-of-force resolution against terrorism. Graham said he never envisioned that he was giving Bush -- or any other president -- carte blanche on surveillance.
Focus for a moment on Grahams reference to any other president. Its instructive to imagine what Republicans in Congress (let alone Rush Limbaugh or Bill OReilly) would say if a President Hillary Rodham Clinton were to claim the sweeping authority Bush and Cheney say they have. Is there any doubt that the entire Republican Party would -- to cite a recent comment by Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman -- have a lot of anger and denounce Clinton for arrogance, overreaching and power lust?
The president should have all the tools he needs to fight terrorism, Specter said, but we also want to maintain our civil liberties. Now there is a perfect expression of patriotic, post-9/11 thinking.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group