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There they go again

Don’t be fooled: The Republicans are up to their old tricks

POLITICS IN THIS country wouldn’t be politics without partisanship. But what we’re seeing from Republicans now is unusually loathsome, even for them. The GOP is using a national tragedy to push an agenda that was in place before September 11, i.e., drilling for oil in the Arctic and passing more tax breaks for giant corporations.

Even worse, the Justice Department’s October refusal of an FBI request to review its records to see if any of the detainees held after the September 11 terrorist attacks had purchased guns brought partisanship to a new low in this country. Incredibly, the request was denied, in part, because Justice did not want to offend the nation’s powerful gun lobby.

In contrast, the Democrats’ tiptoeing around issues like expanding health and unemployment benefits for those who’ve been laid off this fall seems positively timid.

Consider the following. The president has called for military tribunals that could potentially put defendants to death without ever revealing the evidence against them. The USA Patriot Act broadly expanded the FBI’s ability to spy on US citizens. And many of the 1200 people rounded up after the September 11 attacks were denied basic rights, such as access to legal counsel.

In short, more than 200 years of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties have been assaulted every which way in the massive investigation into the terrorist attacks. And yet, as the New York Times reported last week, the Justice Department balked at providing gun-background-check information to the FBI because it would have violated the law that created the background-check registry.

Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the decision to withhold information gathered during background checks in testimony at a hearing on the government’s war on terror before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, telling senators: "I believe we did the right thing in observing what the law of the United States compels us to observe."

So what about the laws the United States Constitution "compels" us to follow? Well, apparently, Ashcroft doesn’t have the same strong feelings about them. During the same hearing, he vigorously defended the broad expansion of law-enforcement powers: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists." (See "Gag Order," News and Features, page 27.)

This kind of cynicism is breathtaking. As Larry Todd, a member of the firearms committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the head of the Los Gatos, California, police department told the New York Times: "It seems to me like [the decision to withhold background-check information] was made for narrow political reasons based on a right-to-bear-arms mentality." Indeed, New York senator Charles Schumer confronted Ashcroft during the hearing: "You’re looking for new tools in every direction and I support most of those. But when it comes to the area of even illegal immigrants getting guns and finding out if they did, this administration becomes as weak as a wet noodle."

Ashcroft isn’t the only Republican working overtime to turn the war on terror into political gamesmanship. Congressional Republicans have accused Senate majority leader Tom Daschle of stalling the economic-stimulus package and moving forward instead with a railroad retirement bill championed by the AFL-CIO. But as Daschle pointed out December 2 on NBC’s Meet the Press, the railroad bill was passed by the GOP-controlled House. Republicans also criticize Daschle for not supporting a GOP plan to push through additional tax breaks in the stimulus bill. And they oppose Daschle’s plan to expand health and unemployment benefits for laid-off workers — something that could make an immediate difference in the lives of those impacted by the slowing economy, as opposed to granting additional tax breaks to wealthy corporations. In the meantime, Republicans in South Dakota are running ads that pair Daschle with Saddam Hussein and ask what the two men have in common. The answer? Neither wants to see the US drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

If this isn’t a using the war on terrorism for political gain — a truly grotesque tactic — then nothing is. If the Republican administration really wanted to do something concrete to reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, President Bush could deliver an address from the Oval Office asking Americans, during these unprecedented times, to take measures to reduce our dependence on foreign oil: take public transportation to work one day a week. Or to keep their thermostats turned down this winter. Or to support research on making automobiles radically more fuel efficient. But asking Americans, who’ve been largely immature about taking personal responsibility for their role in our country’s dependent relationship on the Middle East, to make sacrifices would take courage. Beyond that, it would mean forgoing an excellent political opportunity to get oil-drilling equipment into Alaska’s wildlife refuge.

The September 11 terrorist attacks supposedly ushered in a new era of bipartisanship. As the Republican attacks on Daschle show, however, that short-lived era is over. Not that it was truly ever here to begin with, given what we now know about the Justice Department’s fast refusal to share gun-background-check information with the FBI.

The Republicans have been playing us for fools. It’s time the Democrats fought back. Not in the spirit of fighting a partisan political war — but to get the country back on track.

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Issue Date: December 13 - 20, 2001

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