Shortly after the Second World War, a Republican legislator sought to temper criticism of a Democratic president. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Arthur Vandenberg declared that we should stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge.”
Today, partisan warfare knows no bounds. Democrats and Republicans routinely rationalize placing their own interests ahead of the national interest. Their mutual, unceasing attempts to subvert the other party’s political fortunes are now subverting a comprehensive review of Russian influence in American politics.
Ironically, as allegations of collusion swirl around each of the legacy parties, the incapacity of our government to police itself constitutes inadvertent collusion with the Putin regime.
Rule of Law, Representative Government Under Attack
For many years, the rule of law has been eroded by rising political influence. Our sense of righteous outrage has been dulled by the numbing absence of immediate consequences.
Nonetheless, the widespread influence of Russian interests in American politics should be alarming even to the most jaded among us.
Since the turn of the century, Vladimir Putin has spearheaded a regime manifestly determined to restore national power and prestige lost in the aftermath of the Cold War. As the sole global hegemon, the USA is an unavoidable obstacle to such ambitions.
This is the backdrop against which there are credible allegations of undue Russian involvement in American politics. These range from the 2016 national campaign, to executive-branch decision-making relating to business deals with national security implications.
There is ongoing cyberwarfare. There is jostling in various international hotspots, including Syria and central Europe. Doubtless there is more.
Comprehensive, Unified, Independent, Transparent Investigation Needed
These circumstances call out for a comprehensive, unified, independent, transparent investigation. Only then will our nation be equipped to evaluate the totality of circumstances and undertake appropriate action.
The partisan duopoly is crippling our capacity to achieve this. The result is advancing Putin’s strategic interests far beyond what he might otherwise achieve.
While the authoritarian regime in Moscow unleashes strategic initiatives against American interests, the legacy party politicians jostle for advantage. Republicans are eager to investigate allegations that appear to imperil Democrats. And vice versa.
The result is a morass of political and legal dysfunction. The apparent extent of Russian influence makes a reckoning necessary. Yet it’s very breadth makes it difficult to achieve in our relentlessly polarized political environment.
Current Investigations Compromised
The problem is not a paucity of investigations.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is tasked with uncovering Russian influence in the 2016 campaign. His relevant experience and stature render him well-suited to the task.
Nonetheless, the Mueller investigation is limited by several factors. Its operating directive is expansive, yet may be too limited to reach the full extent of Russian influence in the United States in recent years. Focusing on 2016 is likely an artificial time constraint.
In addition, there is concern about the appearance, if not the reality, of conflict of interest from Mr. Mueller’s prior service as director of the FBI.
Perhaps most importantly, even the best legal inquiry is inherently limited in grappling with a transcendent compromise of political institutions. Transparency is intermittent. Judicial procedures intended to safeguard individual rights may preclude the public revelation of important information.
Ultimately, to paraphrase journalist Michael Kinsley, the worst aspects of what is uncovered may not be what is illegal, but what is legal.
In theory, congressional investigations could transcend such practical limitations. Several are underway. More may be proposed. Thus far their primary product is partisan skirmishing.
The Department of Justice, like the FBI, has failed to earn public confidence as an objective, non-partisan institution under the Obama and Trump administrations.
Meanwhile, the citizenry sees only bits and pieces of the big picture. Mainstream and new media outlets reinforce the narratives of their audiences. Social media intensifies tribal and partisan division, as people seek encouragement and comfort from the like-minded.
If things continue along their current path, it’s likely that Russian interests will be advanced; American interests subverted; Russian influence will elude accountability; Americans will be ill-informed, yet intensely divided amid our ignorance.
For a Putin regime fighting far above its weight, this would be a striking victory. Ominously, it could also embolden Putin—and others—to further probing at known points of weakness in the American system.
The Independent Opportunity
Just as the partisan duopoly is exacerbating the problem, an independent approach can make it possible to identify and respond appropriately.
At least two alternatives come to mind.
One is a joint congressional committee, comprising House and Senate members of both parties, as well as independents.
Its seriousness of purpose could be instilled by modeling it on the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack (1945-46). Congressional latitude in crafting such an enterprise is great. Non-members of Congress could serve not only as staff, but as witnesses and even as members. Such a committee could select a private citizen to chair its work.
A second approach would be an independent commission, such as that adopted after the 9/11 attacks. This could include current officeholders, but need not be limited to them. The details would set by the president and the Congress.
In whatever format, it’s vital that the investigative body be relentlessly non-partisan; granted extensive jurisdiction, empowered to follow the facts wherever they lead; operated with maximal, unprecedented transparency; and open to citizen participation via social media and other digital tools.
Getting There from Here
The entire Washington establishment is arrayed against a comprehensive, independent accounting of the Putin regime’s influence in American politics.
Consider the revelations of Republican, Trump campaign official Paul Manafort’s joint enterprises with Democrat, Clinton campaign supporter Tony Podesta. Manafort and Podesta may be nominal opponents in politics, but they are entirely aligned in seeking to protect themselves by maintaining the Special Interest State in Washington.
Many areas familiar to reformers are already implicated in the Russia-related activities. These include the roles of foundations and think tanks that are funded and operated in the dark. Political campaigns and parties are likewise sustained by webs of hidden influence.
Law firms deploy legal privileges to cloak financial transactions, enabling political actors to elude legal or voter accountability.
The forces of the status quo that stymie reformers at home are now enabling a hostile foreign power to threaten our rule of law and representative government.
There’s a new beast loose in the Washington jungle. The Putin regime is an entirely different animal from the corporate and union and other special interests who increasingly commandeer the levers of power.
Thus far, the Russian bear is camouflaging itself quite effectively. One can only wonder what other, similar creatures may be at large—or on the way.
How can we break through the intransigence of the status quo in Washington?
The close division of the legacy parties in the Senate presents an opening.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, is retiring in 2019. Senator John McCain, chair of the Armed Services Committee, is suffering from a life-threatening condition.
Characteristic of McCain at his best, he’s rediscovering his maverick impulses. Senate Jeff Flake, also of Arizona, has joined Corker in publicly declaring independence from President Trump, announcing his retirement in 2019.
These Republican solons, along with other independent-minded colleagues as such Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Lindsay Graham, Ben Sasse, and Angus King, could come together to demand a comprehensive accounting.
They are in a powerful position to force action by a resistant president and Congress. For example, they could extract an independent commission in return for their support of President Trump’s highest legislative priority: tax reform.
As much as he might initially oppose such a negotiation, President Trump should recognize the art of the deal when he sees it.