My son Matthew, a freshman political science student at Western Maryland, called last night as he has several times in recent weeks to discuss the Tower nomination. "Isn't this wasting a lot of time that President Bush could be spending getting his administration going?" he asked. Yes and no, was my reply. What we're seeing is the essence of our democratic process, a power struggle between the Democratic Congress and the Republican President. In a totalitarian regime, we might have the illusion that government moves at a swifter pace, because we wouldn't see such messy, public, knockdown, drag-out fights. Such regimes, though, make repeated errors that we avoid by getting the power struggles over and done with. It's likely the Bush administration will move faster and more effectively in the remainder of its term because of the President's willingness to hash this out.
I'd wondered, at first, I reminded him, if the issues raised against Tower did not constitute reason to deny him confirmation. The President, though, has seen all the reports on Tower's personal conduct and is satisfied there is no fundamental problem, and Tower has taken an oath not to drink, which he could not do if he knew he was not sufficiently disciplined. This, to me, clears away any doubt that the struggle is purely political, I told my son.
What we're seeing is the result of the Democratic Party losing the White House again and again by landslide margins, while controlling the Congress. Bob Novak has put his finger on it when he observes that the Party has just about made up its mind that it will not win the Presidency back in this century, that the Electoral College "lock" of the GOP will prevail in 1992 unless we see a major recession, and Bush will win re-election. Insofar as this may be true, the Party is thus attempting to assert itself as a ruling Party on Capitol Hill. The Tower fight is a manifestation of this phenomenon. Senator Nunn does not want John Tower to be Defense Secretary, and if Tower is not confirmed, the next four years will be different no matter who replaces him.
The high-water mark of the Democrats, I suggested, came last weekend, when Tower seemed a broken man. Tower's oath of sobriety, though, cut through the debate, and when Nunn dismissed the oath as irrelevant, the tide turned, not so much in favor of Tower, but in favor of the President. The smoke had cleared and we could see the contestants were Nunn, in black trunks representing the legislative branch, and Bush, in white trunks, representing the executive. GOP support for Tower's confirmation, which had been flaking, immediately firmed, and serious and concerned discussion began among Democrats, suddenly not sure they were where they wanted to be.
"Will Tower make it?" Matthew asked. In a way, I said, it doesn't matter as much now. The President has won the struggle in the sense that he has demonstrated a willingness to fight to the bitter end, "wasting" as much time and spilling as much blood as necessary to defend his prerogatives as President and at the same time standing by Tower when many around him, no doubt including other Cabinet members, were hoping he'd cut his losses in the interests of preserving "bipartisanship." Had he done so, it seems clear enough now, his Presidency would have weakened and never been the same. As it is, he seems a better and stronger leader now than he did before he was presented with this problem and opportunity. Having tested the new President early in this fundamental way, Congress will have less need to do so again. Chances are, Bush's relations with Capitol Hill will be improved as a result. Not a waste of time at all.