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PORTSIDE  June 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE June 2011, Week 1

Subject:

Real Political Courage

From:

Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>

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Date:

Thu, 2 Jun 2011 22:11:22 -0400

Content-Type:

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text/plain (147 lines)

Real Political Courage

by Katrina vanden Heuvel

Washington Post
June 1, 2011

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/real-political-courage/2011/05/30/AGnbNSFH_story.html

In August of 1964, President Johnson went to Congress to ask
for sweeping authority to conduct military action in
Vietnam. The "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution," as this authority
was called, would give the president broad power to engage
in a war of any size, for any length of time, without the
need for a formal declaration of war from Congress. It was
popular within Congress and throughout the country, and
Johnson rightly expected it to pass without much opposition.

Out of that uncritical unity, Sen. Wayne Morse (D-Ore.) and
Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska) rose to give a scathing and
extraordinarily prescient critique of the resolution, and of
our involvement in Vietnam. "Mr. President," said Morse, on
the Senate floor, "criticism has not prevented, and will not
prevent, me from saying that, in my judgment, we cannot
justify the shedding of American blood in that kind of war
in southeast Asia. I do not believe that any number of
American conventional forces in South Vietnam .?.?. can win
a war, if the test of winning a war is establishing peace."
He called the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution "an undated
declaration of war" and urged his colleagues to join him in
opposing it.

They did not. Ninety-eight senators voted in support of the
resolution. Only Morse and Gruening (who had been a longtime
editor at the Nation) opposed it. Four years later, Morse's
opposition to the war would become the central issue in his
reelection campaign, a campaign he would lose by just half a
percent of the vote. Gruening was defeated that same year in
a Democratic primary.

There was a time when this is how we defined political
courage in America: a politician standing up for deeply held
principles, in opposition to his party and a popular
president, regardless of consequence. But today, we have
adopted a new and distorted definition of political courage,
one that rewards those who claim to be making hard choices,
when in truth there is nothing hard about what they've
chosen.

Case in point: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan has been called
courageous, a hero of sorts, by members of his party, by
members of the media and even by some Democrats. And what is
it that Ryan so bravely did in order to receive the outsized
praise heaped upon him these past two months?

He proposed a federal budget that, in every respect,
articulated extremist Republican ideology. He balanced the
budget using faulty assumptions that no respected economist
outside the Heritage Foundation has called reasonable. And
he did it by slashing health-care benefits for the elderly
and the poor, for children and the disabled, all while
giving $4 trillion in tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.
For this, he has become a hero within his own party (someone
Dick Cheney claims to "worship"), even though he made his
proposal from a perfectly safe congressional district, where
he has no reason to expect political consequences at the
ballot box. While his proposal may cost his party control of
Congress, it will cost him nothing.

Despite the pomp and circumstance, despite the laudatory
columns and glowing testimony from D.C. elites, what Ryan
did is not, nor will it ever be, a true measure of political
courage.

Real political courage means bucking party orthodoxy when
the leadership has strayed. It could be seen in Russ
Feingold's vocal opposition to the Patriot Act and the bank
bailouts, or in John McCain's scathing critique of those in
his party who advocate torture. It could be seen in Gary
Johnson's impassioned plea to end the war on drugs or in his
support for gay marriage, which he calls a "civil rights
issue." It can be seen in Dennis Kucinich's demands that
President Obama seek authorization for military efforts in
Libya. And it could be seen in Rep. Barbara Lee's brave
decision to stand alone, among both parties and both houses
of Congress, as the sole vote against the far-reaching
Authorization for Use of Military Force in the aftermath of
Sept. 11.

Real political courage also means standing up for those
whose voices carry least in Washington, not for those who
least need a voice. Such courage can be seen today in the
House Progressive Caucus's attempt to pass "The People's
Budget," a budget that will create jobs and economic growth
and will bring down deficits, not by stripping benefits from
the poor and middle class, but by making the wealthiest
Americans pay their fair share of taxes.

And political courage means a willingness to sacrifice for
the sake of principle, to put the obligations of office
ahead of reelection to office. That could be seen on full
display last March, when members of Congress such as Betsy
Markey (D-Colo.), Tim Bishop (D- N.Y.) and Tom Perriello (D-
Va.) voted to extend health- care access to 30 million
people, knowing that it would almost certainly lead to their
defeat (as it did) in the fall.

That is what true political courage looks like. But too
often, too much of the media fails to portray it that way.
John McCain is more likely to be called courageous for his
vote for the Ryan budget than for his stance against
torture. He's more likely to be called courageous for
standing with his party than for breaking with it. The
Progressive Caucus was not called brave for defending the
poorest among us; they were virtually ignored. Russ Feingold
was not called brave for being one of the few Democrats to
stand up to a popular president, in opposition to the
Patriot Act; he was called brazen.

If we applaud false courage, we'll only get more of it, and
less of the real thing, at a time when we need real courage
more than ever. Solving this problem, then, must be a shared
responsibility. It is the media's obligation, as much as it
is our own as citizens, to highlight genuine political
courage for what it is, and to reject Ryan-style courage for
what it isn't.

c The Washington Post Company

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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