May 31, 2011

In August 1964, President Johnson went to Congress to ask for far-reaching 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 percentage point 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; it was 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.