Send in the Subpoenas

By Ron Suskind
Sunday, November 19, 2006

Senate Foreign Relations Committee aides debated last Tuesday whether to call deposed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to the hearing table for a public flogging. The decision was no -- at least for now. Later that day, I bumped into the incoming committee chairman, presidential hopeful Joseph R. Biden Jr. He said that while there was "extraordinary malfeasance" born of the Iraq crisis, he was planning to stay clear of all that. "That's looking backward," he said. "I'm in the 'action plan' department."

Biden expressed concern about the inquisitorial zeal of some of his "friends in the House," stressing that the key for both chambers will be "attaching all investigations to the broadest public purpose."

The new Democratic Congress may well come down to a series of confrontations between the competing urges to investigate and to lead. Between delving into past wrongdoings and building consensus on how to proceed in Iraq. Between, in a sense, the Democratic Party's show horses and its pit bulls.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the soon-to-be chairman of the Government Reform Committee, is a classic pit bull. He has dreamed of subpoenas -- issuing them, and placing witnesses under oath -- for

12 years. Biden, meanwhile, is an unabashed show horse. The Delaware Democrat has dreamed of the Oval Office even longer. Both must exist within the new, mandate-infused Democratic Congress, and must figure out a way to survive together.

It's not as easy as it may seem, especially for Democrats. They say they've learned from the long run of Republican rule, but their efforts to adopt the GOP playbook may propel them into an identity crisis. Republicans, after all, are all about hierarchy and top-down decision-making. If everyone on the field uses a different playbook, they like to say, then you lose.

Democrats should be able to both investigate and lead, but it will take an embrace of Republican-style discipline (hardly a Democratic strong suit), an appreciation for deferred gratification (think inauguration day, January 2009) and a shrewd division of labor between pit bulls and show horses.

Here, then, is a playbook for the Democrats -- one that keeps the show horses preening, lets the pit bulls attack, helps the party figure out how to use its new subpoena power to maximum effect and encourages the sort of reality-based disclosures that all citizens, regardless of party, deserve.

First, the Democrats must broker a separation of powers. The show horses are their putative candidates for president, especially in the Senate, and the party's leadership in both chambers. Keep them above the fray, focusing on proposals for the future and the new "action plans," especially in foreign policy. But unleash the pit bulls: the committee chairs, their seconds and investigators who will dig relentlessly, identify targets and thus, inevitably, leave themselves vulnerable in their next reelection campaigns.

I've spent the past several years investigating various aspects of the Bush administration -- including economic policy and the battle against terrorism -- so I know there are so very many targets for the Democrats to choose from. However, there is not unlimited public patience for such efforts. The Democrats should therefore start with the freshest data: Exit polls from the midterm elections showed that concern about Iraq was matched by broader concerns about terrorism and, surprisingly, government corruption.

Indeed, the Bush administration's ability to remain scandal-free until last year's meltdown over lobbyist Jack Abramoff was, in large measure, a triumph of one-party rule over congressional oversight. While lobbyists for energy, health care and the automotive industry have walked through the Bush years in a state of near bliss, congressional watchdogs were defunded and career inspectors general of various departments were replaced by political appointees.

The vast U.S. energy industry may be the ripest target for a corruption investigation. When Vice President Cheney's energy task force was meeting in early 2001 -- meetings whose secrecy Cheney has managed to protect against legal challenge -- the goal of U.S. energy independence was barely an afterthought. Now, with the United States mired in the affairs of petro-dictatorships in the Middle East, even the president has emphasized the need to cure our addiction to oil.

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