THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
A moderate Republican faces a liberal Democratic tide.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, August 5, 2006
BRIDGEPORT, Conn.--Voters in this state have a clear choice. The centrist incumbent is a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq, which is unpopular in Connecticut. His Democratic challenger strongly opposes the war. Oh, and the incumbent's name isn't Lieberman. Meet Christopher Shays, Republican representative from the Nutmeg State's Fourth District. I visited him one sunny morning last week for an hourlong chat over coffee in his tidy third-floor home-office, which overlooks a boat harbor in Long Island Sound.
If you're neither a Connecticuter nor a political junkie and the name sounds familiar, you're probably remembering 1998, when Mr. Shays gained a modicum of prominence as one of only four House Republicans to oppose all four articles of impeachment against President Clinton--a position he thinks history has vindicated. "We lost our way," he says of his fellow Republicans. "We lost our ideas. And it was, we're going to win by just killing George--you know, Bill Clinton." His slip of the tongue prompts the obvious question: Are anti-Bush Democrats falling into a similar trap today? "Yes, absolutely. . . . I believe you can't overturn an election unless there is an extraordinary high standard." A lower standard, he maintains, will yield a cycle of payback: "They'll get you, you'll get them."
Partisan divisions have become more pronounced since Mr. Shays entered Congress in 1987. He won his first full term in 1988, also the year Joseph Lieberman was elected to the Senate and the last year a Republican presidential candidate carried Connecticut. Mr. Shays, like Mr. Lieberman, is a moderate at a time when both parties have moved away from the center. He is a Republican at a time when his state has become far more Democratic.
Suddenly his seat is competitive. He easily dispatched Democratic challengers in every election until 2002, but in 2004 he only narrowly defeated First Selectman Diane Farrell of Westport, 52% to 48%. Mr. Shays ran well ahead of President Bush, who managed only 46% of the district's vote. But this November he faces Ms. Farrell again, in what may be a more hostile climate for Republicans. Both the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato rate the race a "toss-up."
Mr. Shays's views on social issues fit well with his liberal constituency. Last month alone he cast "no" votes on constitutional amendments against flag burning and same-sex marriage and on a measure to stop federal courts from rewriting the Pledge of Allegiance, and he voted in favor of expanded federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. In 2005 he was one of only five Republicans to vote against federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.
So I'm surprised when I ask his biggest point of disagreement with conservative Republicans, and he answers by reproving them for being untrue to their free-market principles. He faults Mr. Bush for imposing steel quotas early in his term: "I probably had 1,000 people put out of work in Bridgeport"--a shipbuilding center--"because . . . the steel cost them more after quotas than what their finished product [was worth]." And he criticizes the GOP Congress for enacting "a major manipulation of the farm market--subsidies--after Bush won. . . . I have some contempt--quotes--for being lectured by archconservatives who carry their principle, but it disappears when it comes to farm aid."
I can see why the Almanac of American Politics says that some of Mr. Shays's colleagues "view him as a sanctimonious troublemaker." As a journalist who agrees with Mr. Shays on steel quotas and farm subsidies, I am of course delighted with his forthrightness and quotability. And his openness isn't just a shtick; his business card lists his home phone number, inviting constituents to call if his staff fails to respond to their queries. But if I were a Midwestern lawmaker on the receiving end of such stinging criticism, I'm sure I'd find it indecorous.
Mr. Shays's righteous attitude suits him well on the Government Reform Committee, whose role is purely investigative. In 1999, when Dennis Hastert ascended to the speakership, Mr. Shays became chairman of the National Security Subcommittee. He quickly made terrorism its top priority. "[Mr. Hastert's] focus was on the world drug trade, and I wanted it to be on terrorism. I believed that we were blinded to this." Mr. Shays gives me a list of 87 hearings and briefings his subcommittee has held on terrorism, 22 of which predated the 9/11 attacks. "When I saw the first twin tower come down, I literally fell to my knees. . . . I think I did more than anyone else, but I wish I'd done more."
At a June 2000 briefing, the subcommittee heard from Richard Clarke, the Clinton administration's antiterror czar, whose 2004 book, "Against All Enemies," made him a hero of the Bush-hating left. The czar made a poor impression on the chairman. "[He] was the most arrogant man who's ever come before my committee. It was a closed-door hearing. We said, 'What's our strategy?' We were so excited. . . . He said, 'We don't have a strategy. . . . We don't need a strategy. We know who the bad guys are, we just hunt 'em down.' . . . We were so shocked by it, we wrote him a letter . . . and we asked him to give us a strategy. He never got back to us."
In March 2004, after Mr. Clark published his book, Mr. Shays released that letter to the press, along with a letter he had sent then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice two days after Mr. Bush's inauguration. The letter to Ms. Rice faulted Mr. Clarke's "lack of leadership" and urged the new administration to develop a comprehensive antiterror strategy. The letters got little attention in the debate over Mr. Clarke's book. The administration did not seize on them in its own defense, Mr. Shays believes, because the one to Ms. Rice was double-edged. "My theory is this: The reason they didn't want to share this information with anyone is, we also disclosed to them what the three commissions [on terrorism] had done. They were duly warned about the terrorist threat."
Mr. Shays is a strong supporter of the Iraq war effort, which he calls "the tip of the spear in fighting terrorism." He has visited Iraq 13 times--the most, he says, of any congressman--and he is unsparing in his criticism of the conduct of the war, especially in the early days. He draws a fever chart to illustrate his view of the war's progress; it shows things going sharply downhill starting with the liberation of Baghdad in April 2003. "We allowed the looting. We disbanded their army, their police and their border patrol. We didn't guard the munitions."
Things began to look up in June 2004, according to Mr. Shays, when Iraq formally regained its sovereignty. "What started to turn us around was we started to train their police, their border patrol. . . . In 2005 they had the elections and training of troops." The line goes gradually up until February 2006, when it flattens. "The reason it's going in this direction and not up is, you had the [Golden] Mosque [in Samarra] blown up, and you had five months with no leader. . . . We hope it goes like this"--he draws a line sloping upward into the future--"with a strong leader."
Mr. Shays has little patience with those, like Rep. John Murtha, who insist that America's presence is only causing harm: "John Murtha knows that we left them with no army, no police, no border patrol. Now we've got about 40% of the country able to handle itself with new police, new border patrol, new army. . . . The [Iraqi] army is hungry to go into Baghdad and clean it up." Mr. Shays puts the case against immediate withdrawal in stark terms: "What is the message about America's resolve? If you kill 2,000 to 3,000 of our troops, we're out of there. That's a target that any terrorist can reach."
Not that Mr. Shays thinks success is a sure thing. "The new prime minister has to empower the army to go after the militia, and the militia is some of the very people who supported him. If he's not willing to do that, then he's decided to go civil war. If he goes civil war, then Murtha's right--we should get out. . . . My problem is, when he spoke out, he said we just need to leave. In my view, that's trying to be the majority leader"--which, of course, presupposes that a cut-and-run message is the way to win a majority.
With the pro-war Sen. Lieberman facing a tough challenge from antiwar millionaire Ned Lamont in next week's Democratic primary, Connecticut has become a central battleground in the war over the war. Mr. Shays admires Mr. Lieberman for casting a "conscience vote" in favor of the war and says he plans to cross party lines to vote for him in November, whether he is the Democratic nominee or running as an independent. Mr. Lieberman is not returning the favor. He backs Ms. Farrell, who in turn is supporting him over Mr. Lamont, at least in the primary. Last month she appeared at a Lieberman rally that featured Bill Clinton.
Mr. Shays emphasizes that "I am not going to have a formal endorsement" of Mr. Lieberman. "In fact," he quips, "if that would help him lose the primary, I might think about it. . . . I would love him not to win the Democratic primary." Later in the day he phones me, worried that this remark will be misconstrued. He would hate to do anything to hurt Mr. Lieberman's chances, he stresses. (He probably needn't worry--Mr. Lieberman seems quite capable of losing the primary on his own.) His point was that he thinks his own re-election prospects will be better if Mr. Lieberman is an independent and the Democratic Party is divided.
I'm not so sure. A Lieberman-Lamont race in November would draw great interest, and Mr. Lamont's backers would surely vote overwhelmingly Democratic on down-ballot races. By contrast, if Mr. Lieberman wins the nomination, the statewide races will be a yawn. Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican, is expected to win easily in any case, and Lamont backers may show their disgust for Mr. Lieberman by staying home, especially since there's no danger of his losing to a Republican.
As I arrived at Mr. Shays's house, I noticed one bit of anecdotal evidence to bolster my theory: The house across the street has a Lamont lawn sign, and another for a local candidate--but none for Diane Farrell.
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