Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle set two firsts with one comment late last week. In questioning the focus and direction of the war on terrorism, Daschle sounded the first major challenges to President George W. Bush’s administration’s use of military force abroad.
“The Congress has a constitutional responsibility to ask questions,” he said. “We are not a rubber stamp to this president or to anybody else.” This is also the first sign of Daschle separating himself from the pack in order to gain recognition to help his 2004 presidential bid. White House press secretary Ari Fleisher put it well, saying, “Some people may want to run for president someday.”
It’s possible Daschle had the nation’s best interests in mind – he certainly had his own – but more important, he has begun something desperately needed: criticism.
Following Sept. 11, our nation needed to react with unity as we dealt with a newly exposed threat. But time moves on, and we can no longer let one man or one man’s administration hold the reins alone. Our government was established on a check and balance system divided among the three branches of government, and that power needs to remain equally allocated.
No politician will be perfect and altruistic all the time. And who better within politics to denounce bad public policy than the person who has the most to gain from speaking out: the opponent. Adam Smith might have called this the political “invisible hand,” where every politician has an opponent who forces him or her to remain honest, work harder and be accountable. It is the opponent who asks, “What is the goal of this war? How do we define success? Who are terrorists? Will allies we fund today be terrorists tomorrow?”
Yet some politicians aren’t welcoming the opponent’s return. House Republican Whip Tom Delay of Texas called Daschle’s comments “disgusting.” Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott also rebuked Daschle, saying, “How dare Sen. Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field? He should not be trying to divide our country while we are united.”
Of course this is the same senator who in 1998, when U.S. pilots were “in the field” over Iraq, said, “I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time.” In 1998, Lott was the opponent. Today it’s Daschle.
An opponent provides criticism. And criticism serves as a check and a balance. Without it, you wouldn’t have the United States and there wouldn’t be any thing to defend.