Conscientious Objector: When a GOP Senator Breaks Ranks

Article excerpt

          I love and respect the president. He knows my heart.
                        I don't think he questions my motives.
                      --U.S. Senator George Voinovich (R-Ohio)
                                                  May 25, 2005

Senator George Voinovich has served the Republican Party loyally for twenty-five years, as mayor of Cleveland, governor of Ohio, and now as junior senator from that state. His conservative credentials are hard to dispute; he routinely receives high marks from the Christian Coalition and the John Birch Society. Yet in June, Voinovich found himself at the center of a conservative feeding frenzy. What was his crime? As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he suggested that the nomination of John Bolton for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations go to the Senate floor for a vote without a positive recommendation from the committee. In other words, he was willing to let the democratic process take its course and allow each individual senator to make up his or her own mind about Bolton. With the chamber divided at 55-45 in favor of the Republicans, this should have been a minor inconvenience at most. Yet for Voinovich's sins, Rush Limbaugh has accused him of "slander," party loyalists screamed for his ouster, and a few vitriolic conservative bloggers called him a "traitor" and a "coward."

One can understand why Bolton's candidacy gave Voinovich pause. Bolton, who was recently given a "recess appointment" as UN ambassador by President George W. Bush when the Senate went into its summer break, has publicly dismissed the importance of the United Nations and, as under secretary for arms control and international security, he was instrumental in keeping the United States from signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Why Bush chose someone so opposed to international cooperation for a post devoted precisely to that task is a puzzle.

The episode serves as a fascinating case study in Republican attitudes toward loyalty. For the president's political guru Karl Rove and company, loyalty is both the first virtue and the last. Given that premium on loyalty, we might ask what price a conscientious objector in the Republican Party has to pay for bucking the president's wishes--in other words, what is the cost of "disloyalty"? There are several good candidates for exploring this question. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, is one. His recent flip flop on stem-cell research caused consternation in the White House. But the Bolton nomination produced perhaps the most heart-wrenching example in the person of George Voinovich.

For those unfamiliar with the second-term senator, Voinovich is a longtime Republican politician whose first big political win came in 1979 at the expense of the staunch Democrat, Dennis Kucinich, whom he defeated for mayor of Cleveland. After serving in that post for ten years and revitalizing the city, Voinovich was elected lieutenant governor and subsequently governor. Governor Voinovich was widely rumored to be on Bob Dole's short-short list for vice president in 1996. In 1998, he replaced four-term Senator John Glenn, a Democrat, who had chosen not to seek reelection. Voinovich was reelected in 2004 with widespread support and well over 60 percent of the vote.

Before the Bolton controversy, Voinovich was probably best know for his ultra-conservative fiscal philosophy. He received high ratings from several conservative groups, including the Christian Coalition (100), the Eagle Forum (also 100), the American Conservative Union (76), and the John Birch Society (80). In addition, Voinovich has consistently scored 100 on the National Right to Life Committee's annual scorecard and recently received a score of 0 from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

On a recent broadcast of PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Voinovich explained his reservations about the Bolton nomination. …