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Nancy Pelosi’s Syria Head Scarf Controversy

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria has sparked controversy, not just because it is in defiance of White House foreign policy but because of her decision to wear a head scarf and abaya while visiting a mosque.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mingled with Syrians in a market and made the sign of the cross at a Christian tomb Tuesday during a visit to pursue dialogue with the country’s leader. President Bush denounced the trip, saying it sends mixed signals to Syria’s government.

Nancy Pelosi Wearing Head Scarf in Syria Mosque Visit Pelosi’s visit to Syria was the latest challenge to the White House by congressional Democrats, who are taking a more assertive role in influencing policy in the Middle East and the Iraq war. The Bush administration, which accuses President Bashar Assad’s government of supporting terrorism, has resisted calls for direct talks to help ease the crisis in Iraq and make progress in the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Soon after Pelosi’s arrival in Damascus, Bush criticized her visit. “A lot of people have gone to see President Assad … and yet we haven’t seen action. He hasn’t responded,” he told reporters at a Rose Garden news conference. “Sending delegations doesn’t work. It’s simply been counterproductive.”

Wearing a flowered head scarf and a black abaya robe, Pelosi visited the 8th-century Omayyad Mosque, shaking hands with Syrian women inside and watching men in a religion class sitting cross-legged on the floor.

Glenn Reynolds, AllahPundit, Charles Johnson, and a host of others are in varying stages of outrage over the wear of the hajib. Steve Benen is right, though, that the wear of the head scarf as a deference to the host’s culture is a proper sign of respect for a guest, noting that Laura Bush, Condi Rice, and others have made the same gesture.

Much more problematic, however, is the Speaker of the House contravening American foreign policy by legitimating a hostile government. While the president does not have plenary power over foreign affairs, he both constitutionally and traditionally sets the agenda.

Congress’ role is one of oversight–setting budget parameters, holding executive officials accountable, considering treaties, and the like–not competition. Mark Kleiman rightly notes that, with the majority, that power is substantial.

Greg Djerejian may well be right that the Bush policy of not holding talks with the Assad regime amounts to “bungling amateurism and fake machismo.” At very least, my instincts are that one always talks with other countries, especially hostile ones; after all, we hold negotiations with our enemies during war. Still, that’s not Pelosi’s call to make. If she wants to direct American foreign policy, let her run for president.

UPDATE: Commenter Jeff B and others note a recent trip to Syria by Republican Members and wonder why that’s different.

My views are much closer to John Burgess‘ than Dave Schuler‘s as to the legitimacy and desirability of Members going overseas per se. I have no problem with Nancy Pelosi or other Members taking junkets to inform their legislation, although I do share Shuler’s sense that they are usually taken for less noble purposes.

My specific qualm here is with Pelosi meeting with a foreign head of government despite the request of the nation’s Chief Diplomat not to do so. The United States withdrew its ambassador two years ago to protest the Assad government’s role in murdering former Lebanese Prime Rafik al-Hariri. Meeting with Assad under these circumstances, without the blessing of the president, weakens our negotiating stance and sends the message that the United States government does not speak with a single voice in foreign affairs. That is a dangerous signal.

UPDATE: Steven Taylor is similarly unconcerned about Pelosi’s sporting the hijab, has “never been a big fan of members of the legislative branch making big state visits outside of cooperation with the executive branch,” but concedes “members of Congress have every right to make such visits should they choose to.” That’s about right.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more, etc.

    This is a responsibility of a guest.

    The outrage is misplaced; it should be directed at our Muslim guests from the Middle East when they refuse to honor our customs when visiting here.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I completely agree with you on the matter of Ms. Pelosi’s meeting with Syrian officials, however. IMO there should be an ethical ban on all overseas travel by members of Congress.

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  3. Alex Knapp says:

    While the president does not have plenary power over foreign affairs, he both constitutionally and traditionally sets the agenda.

    Perhaps my copy of the Constitution is missing a few pages, but I don’t see anywhere where the President specifically is authorized to set the agenda for foreign policy. Indeed, one could probably make an excellent case for the idea that Congress should set the agenda for the President to execute.

    To be sure, this has traditionally not been the case, especially in the past century, but the idea that the President and President alone should set a foreign policy agenda is not really legally justified.

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  4. Ugh says:

    Not to mention the various Republicans meeting with Assad.

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  5. John Burgess says:

    Alex Knapp: Perhaps pages are missing from your copy. You can take a look at Cornell Univ. Law School’s Annoted Constitution to find the missing bits.

    Dave Schuler: I can’t agree with you on a ban on Congressional travel. Congress is already too ignorant of foreign realities that increasingly play critical parts in daily American life. If there were some way to permit only ‘good and useful’ travel, that’d be nice, but I don’t know where you’d find that filter.

    In some of the places I served, a Congressional visit could be a very big deal–good or bad–depending on the issues and the Congressperson involved. In others, like London, the Embassy would essentially send the Congressional Delegation a map of the city and an invitation to stop by if they were in the neighborhood.

    If nothing else, a Congressional visit was always useful in demonstrating that the USG could not be omnipotent when it was in the hands of morons like these. But maybe that’s personal opinion leaking in…

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  6. jeff b says:

    If Pelosi is undermining foreign policy, what were Joe Pitts (R-PA), Frank Wolf (R-VA), and Robert Aderholt (R-AL) doing the day before Pelosi arrived? Were those three Republicans also undermining foreign policy?

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  7. Triumph says:

    Much more problematic, however, is the Speaker of the House contravening American foreign policy by legitimating a hostile government. While the president does not have plenary power over foreign affairs, he both constitutionally and traditionally sets the agenda.

    Congress’ role is one of oversight—setting budget parameters, holding executive officials accountable, considering treaties, and the like—not competition.

    Im not sure how this is “problematic.”

    Congress gets involved in foreign policy all the time–take a look at the Cuban Democracy Act which codifies the embargo.

    Hell, even the Bush administration doesnt take this view. When Republican Jeff Flake went to meet with Castro’s government, the State Dept spokesman replied thusly:

    This is our government. There are three branches of the government. They represent a branch of the government. The Executive Branch is responsible for the foreign policy of the United States. Senators and congressmen will travel overseas. We encourage them to do that to get an appreciation for what the situation is on the ground. And of course we hear back from them. That’s a positive thing.

    In the case of Republican Rep. Joe Pitts, the administration actually encouraged him to meet with Assad.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    Alex,

    The Constitution lists these foreign-policy related powers for the Congress:

    • To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations
    • To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;
    • To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

    These for the President:

    • The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America…
    • He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors….
    • …he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers…

    It seems rather clear from the language of the document, the historical understanding of what constituted “executive powers” in 1789, and the practice going back to George Washington’s administration, that the president has the dominant role in foreign affairs whereas Congress’ is one of checking and balancing.

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  9. Anderson says:

    JJ really needs to address Jeff B’s point, in the main body of the post IMHO: how are the visits of Republican legislators to be distinguished?

    Without acknowledging that issue, it’s hard to treat the post as analysis rather than partisanship. As it stands, one would think that only Democratic legislators went to Syria.

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  10. Dave Schuler says:

    John, if visits by Congressmen to other countries while in office made them wise in matters of foreign realities, I’d be all for it. But I think the conditions and circumstances of such visits render it all but impossible that they’ll depart with anything more than they arrived with.

    I also think there’s the possibility of real harm being done. In my experience even very educated and well-informed people in other countries don’t understand our system of government very well—it’s quite sui generis by world standards.

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  11. Pelosi dismisses criticism of Syria trip

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Syria on Tuesday, the highest-ranking American politician to v…

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  12. Alex Knapp says:

    James,

    While I agree that the President is the “public face” of the country when dealing with foreign powers, I think that the Constitution is much more ambiguous on actual AGENDA SETTING.

    For example, if Congress were to pass a law forbidding entrance of Finnish diplomats into the United States, and forbidding any diplomatic outreach to Finland, that seems to be completely within its purview. Moreover, I don’t think that the President would be able to, constitutionally, override that control.

    John:

    Even the annotations you provided seem to note that Presidential purview is largely the result of laws passed by the Congress, not the Constitution itself.

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  13. JohnG says:

    Right, the Congressional power to set foreign policy is in its law making power. Not in going abroad and meeting with foreign governments. That would be the Executive power to set foreign policy.

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  14. Covering one’s head…

    Nancy Pelosi may have her head covered with a scarf, but some bloggers out there got paper bags over their heads. Again….

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  15. James Joyner says:

    if Congress were to pass a law forbidding entrance of Finnish diplomats into the United States, and forbidding any diplomatic outreach to Finland, that seems to be completely within its purview.

    Presuming they could override a veto, it would still seem to be a constitutionally dubious law.

    For one thing, Article II gives the president what would seem plenary power to “receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers.” There is no “advise and consent” provision.

    I’m not sure the “no diplomatic outreach” provision would withstand judicial scrutiny, either. That seems, again, totally within the purview of presidential power outlined in Article II.

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  16. [...] James Joyner writes- Much more problematic, however, is the Speaker of the House contravening American foreign policy by legitimating a hostile government. While the president does not have plenary power over foreign affairs, he both constitutionally and traditionally sets the agenda. [...]

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  17. DR says:

    No mention of the similar conduct by Mrs. Bush or Ms. Rice?

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  18. Tano says:

    “IMO there should be an ethical ban on all overseas travel by members of Congress”

    I think Dave is a valuable contriubtor to this site, usually making interesting and intelligent points. But this I find downright loony.

    The very last thing that we need is a Congress that is even less aware of, and engaged with the rest of the world than what we have now. The sentiments expressed here are downright exasperating – it almost leads one to embrace the notion that Republicans really are people who are committed to an authoritarian executive, and in pursuit of that, have an interest in keeping everyone else off the stage, and as ignorant as possible.

    The notion that foreign policy is exclusivly, or even primarily a concern only of the executive is ludicrous. The Cuban example has already been mentioned. Shall we recall Senate For. Rel. chairman Jesse Helms speaking to the UN, and being the point man for financing some of the most repulsive terrorist groups in the world, in Central America, and the Lords Resistance Army in Africa? Did I hear any Republicans denouncing him at the time for meddling in foreign affiars? No I did not.

    Foreign leaders understand perfectly well how power works in Washington. Assad understands the power that Pelosi has, and doesnt have. I think Pelosi has probably done a lot of good by sitting down with him. From our perspective, we see Pelosi and Bush as two extremes, on our own political spectrum. But in the larger, global perspective, the distance between them is much smaller. They may have different views on how to advance American interests, but they both are committed to those interests.

    When foreign leaders sense that an American president is not popular, they may begin to fantasize that the American opposition would pursue some radically different policy. In such cases, it is very beneficial for our opposition leaders to let those leaders know that their fantasies are just that. Just for an example, I am sure Pelosi told Assad that the US, left and right, is committed to standing with Israel, and though she may wish for peace negotiations to be a higher priority, the end game of those negotiations are not going to be any different.

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  19. James Joyner says:

    No mention of the similar conduct by Mrs. Bush or Ms. Rice?

    Read the post rather than pasting the same talking point all over the Internets.

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  20. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    DR, Mrs Bush and C. Rice are not screaming feminists, Representing the, arguably, most liberal district in the nation. They go at the behest of the President of the United States, Speaker of the House does not have that authority. I believe she is still subject to the Logan act. If so, because she was instructed not to go, she has violated Federal law.

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  21. davod says:

    You all need to view this in the most simple terms – Do you want one foreign policy or 635 foreign policies.

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  22. anselm says:

    I agree that congressional trips to hostile countries sans presidential blessing are not and should not be commonplace. But what is checks and balances, other than a safeguard against being held (politically) hostage by a misguided executive (or other branch)?

    It is not possible to make a black-letter as to when Ms. Pelosi’s trip would or would not be acceptable. However, the administration particularly belligerent brand of diplomatic paralysis calls for some choice intervention. The news that Ms. Pelosi may have been bearing Israeli assurances against an Israeli attack on Syria further adds legitimacy to her trip.

    In any case, instapundit and others go way overboard with their myopic shrieking – junket, headscarf and all.

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  23. Triumph says:

    My specific qualm here is with Pelosi meeting with a foreign head of government despite the request of the nation’s Chief Diplomatic not to do so.

    This brings up the question as to why the White House would ACTIVELY COORDINATE a meeting between an obscure Republican Congressman while at the same time publicly criticizing the Speaker.

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  24. Triumph says:

    Clarification–White House actively coordinating a meeting between Assad and the Pennsylvania Republican.

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  25. DR says:

    My bad. I read it several times looking for it, but missed the comment under the picture.

    Next time, I’ll use the browser search function to make sure I don’t miss it.

    My apologies, although I’m pretty sure I haven’t been posting “all over the internet”.

    While I agree that our elected officials have too many of these junkets, I don’t think it is reasonable to assume that she is negotiating with Syria.

    When did our chief diplomat request her not to meet with them? You dedicate a significant amount of space to a picture of Pelosi with her hair covered, but not to any evidence that anybody requested her not to go. Sure, they complained afterwards, but that isn’t a surprise.

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  26. Dave Schuler says:

    Note that I didn’t write “forbidden by law”. I wrote “ethical ban”.

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  27. Tano says:

    More on the mind-numbing hyporcrisy of the GOP.

    From an article from 1997, (that would be a Democratic president in office, for those who need reminding), dug up by ThinkProgress:

    “…a congressional delegation led by Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) which met with Colombian military officials, promising to “remove conditions on assistance” and complaining about “leftist-dominated” U.S. congresses of years past that “used human rights as an excuse to aid the left in other countries.” Hastert said he would to correct this situation and expedite aid to countries allied in the war on drugs and also encouraged Colombian military officials to “bypass the U.S. executive branch and communicate directly with Congress.” ”

    I think the lesson here is clear. One cannot believe, for one moment, ANY talking point put out by the GOP, or the RW punditocracy, at least not at face value. Doing ones homework is always a good idea.

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  28. I’ve quoted you and linked to you here.

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  29. Tlaloc says:

    I look at this way-

    It’s like the line from The Man with Two Brains

    Police: You’re playing God.
    Steve Martin: Well somebody has to!

    The president should set the US foreign policy, but if he abrogates that duty somebody has to step up. It won’t be “Greeted with flowers/dead enders/last throes” Cheney. That makes Pelosi the next logical choice.

    If Bush wants to actually formulate a real foreign policy that’s one thing but if he’s just going to spend the next two years the way hespent the last six, that is pretending to be a cowboy back on his ranch, then I’m glad there’s an adult somewhere in DC to take over.

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  30. James Joyner says:

    From an article from 1997, (that would be a Democratic president in office, for those who need reminding), dug up by ThinkProgress:

    I didn’t have a blog in 1997 and was ten years younger. Not sure why what Hastert did then has any bearing on this post.

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  31. Nancy Pelosi’s Scarf….

    It all hinges on whether she was in a house of worship, which I can’t tell from the photo. If she was, it was totally legitimate to cover her head, just as a gentile man would if he went to……

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  32. floyd says:

    Forget the ban on foreign travel, let’s ban members of congress from speaking or showing their faces in public! This would save us from being reminded that the American people have become too stupid for self government!
    As for foreign travel, couldn’t we make exceptions for ONE-WAY tickets??

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  33. bains says:

    What is off-putting is that the Speaker of the House showed more deference to a sub-culture of a sovereign state openly hostile to her own country, than she shows to the sub-cultures within her own country.

    Additionally, as you suggested yet not fully noted, when others donned head-scarves, they were there as representatives of the executive, who last time I checked still has primary authority over foreign affairs.

    As a side note, it doesn’t speak highly of Pelosi’s intellect that she wouldn’t recognize how her political opponents would use these images.

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  34. John Burgess says:

    I can note one categorical difference between the visits by the Rep. and Pelosi’s party: profile. Would you have even noticed the Rep. visit without the high relief provided by press coverage of Pelosi?

    I’ve seen congressmen come to Syria carrying particular messages for the White House. I’ve also seem them come, muddy the waters, and leave a mess that needed to be explained both back to Washington and to the Syrian government and publics.

    I’ve also seen Congressmen come into a country, learn something very new to them, and act on the basis of that new knowledge. Sen. Lieberman’s first visit to Saudi Arabia stands out, but I’ve witnessed others.

    Of course there are jerks in Congress, like the Senator who stiffed a Damascus merchant for upwards of $5,000 in goods because he ‘didn’t realize he couldn’t sign his name on his wife’s check’. Damascus seems to be a place where congressional delegations like to kite checks. Good souk, I guess. And the US Embassy there has had to hire trucks (reimbursable by Congress) to haul their loot to airplanes.

    The US and Syria still do have diplomatic relations. Pelosi could deliver a message to the Syrian government by paying a call on the Syrian Ambassador. His office is just off Dupont Circle. Instead, she puts on a show.

    Let’s not pretend it’s anything but a show, right? Other than eyeballing various leaders (any of whom she could have met in DC or NYC at some point), I don’t see that her visit’s accomplishing much. The Israelis are complaining that she botched the message they asked her to carry to Assad.

    I’m watching to see what she does in Saudi Arabia.

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  35. susie says:

    The Head Scarf – … it’s not logical, it’s an emotional reaction.

    The problem with the head scarf is that it comes in the same week in which a British marine being held captive by Iranians was subjected to wearing the hijab. The wearing of the hijab has become a political statement.

    I wish Nancy Pelosi, as a Catholic, had reached into her closet and pulled out a mantilla – after all she was visiting the Shrine of St. John the Baptist in the week between Palm Sunday and Easter.

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  36. anjin-san says:

    bains,

    Are you referring to the use of the images by Pelosi’s political enemies to show that they are ignorant AND hypocritical?

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  37. bob in fl says:

    IMHO, how else can you expect Members of Congress to discover facts pertaining to the countries they visit? Are they supposed to take the word of the Executive Branch on faith, especially this one? Do you suppose that maybe Members of Congress also have the brains to try determine the facts of the issues? Do you really think they will take every thing Assad says as Gospel truth?

    Give me a break. At this point, I don’t see how they can do any more damage than the White House has. One of them may well have been to withdraw America’s Ambassador to Syria.

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  38. bains says:

    Not very clever anjin-san. You may want to believe that the reactions to the specific photos prove your preconceptions that those who wonder why in heck the likely champion of the newly resurrected ERA are ignorant and hypocritical. Many others however wonder why the heir-apparent champion of woman’s rights so willingly subjugates herself to a misogynist sub-culture.

    And insinuating that your opposition is both ignorant and hypocritical is not going to win you any converts.

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  39. Tano says:

    “As a side note, it doesn’t speak highly of Pelosi’s intellect that she wouldn’t recognize how her political opponents would use these images.”

    What I think you fail to realize is that Dems no longer care how their political opponents react. They have been hit with everything the right can throw at them, and they now have taken the Congress. And may well soon take the WH. The right is a spent force in America. To quote a distinguished American “bring it on”.

    “And insinuating that your opposition is both ignorant and hypocritical is not going to win you any converts.”

    Good point. Perhaps this is why the right is bleeding support, and winning no new converts.

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  40. anjin-san says:

    woman others however wonder why the heir-apparent champion of woman’s rights so willingly subjugates herself to a misogynist sub-culture.

    Gosh, I hope that’s not the best you can do.

    Pelosi is the #3 person in the US Government. That means that she has to do business with people she may not like or agree with. To suggest that she refuse to deal with Muslim nations because she may not care for the way to treat women is beyond simple. There are a billion Muslimss in the world.

    You can also make a case that women in Syria might look at this very senior US official who is also a woman and get some ideas.

    Mr. Bush, who has killed so many thousands in Iraq in the name of freedom, does business in with the brutal communist tyrants in China every day. Welcome to the real world bud.

    Are there any other straws you care to grasp in your effort to attack the Speaker?

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  41. bains says:

    beautiful Tano…

    Perhaps this is why the right is bleeding support…

    Undoubtedly, but not for reasons the left, and the MSM (apologies for the redundancy) believe.

    …is that Dems GOP no longer care how their political opponents react.

    So true, and so unintentionally insightful. The GOP lost congress because they ignored what what the opposition said – the constituency they needed to hold was primarily those who believed a strong America meant politicians eschewing traditional political and personal proclivities, yet did not exclude the hard-core base who wanted campaign pledges adhered to. Ted Stevens, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Arlene Specter and Bill Frist did as much damage to the GOP as did Mark Foley and Randy Cunningham – as did Prez Bush’s seeming indifference to border security and lackadaisical approach to the war against jihadism. They, to borrow your term Tano, did not care how others would react. They sold out on espoused principle.

    Caring not for the concerns of those who you need to get elected is not the way to stay elected. Just as with the past several election cycles, both parties need the middle. While you apparently approve of the Dems disregard for their ‘opponents concern’, swinging as far left as you would have will likely see your party suffer the same effects you relished in 2006. But perhaps you Dems can learn what the Repubs forgot – namely not insulting my intelligence by pretending what you are proposing is for anything other than your self-aggrandizement.

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  42. bains says:

    Another lame effort anji-san… Speaker of the House is third in the worst case scenario line of succession. It is a quirk of the constitution and does not represent any kind of mandate that you wish to imply. The Speaker is elected by a majority from within majority party of the House of Representatives. (doing the math, that’s 51% of 51%) Up until that catastrophic event, the Speaker has no constitutional powers over foreign affairs – the Speaker is merely a vote in the collective congressional body. A long way of saying that while Pelosi may direct the lower house of Congress, well, she is just Speaker for one half of one third of our government. As much as you may dislike it, SecState Rice still has far more authority regarding international affairs.

    And as I pointed out in my original comment, this is all secondary. Pelosi showed more respect towards a misogynist sub-culture of an antagonistic nation than she shows to sub-cultures within her own nation. Bang your pots all you want, that’s an impression you not change…

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  43. DL says:

    It is simply an end run around the presidency by the left. They have decided to set up a shadow presidency and deal with our enemies as if they were in the oval office. They will continue doing this according to Tom Lanktos. Perhaps the Logan act needs to be invoked and if need be, a constitutional/Supreme Court resolution. I’m not at all in doubt that the Supreme Court will not take lightly the interference of a branch of government by another -lest it also happen to them!

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  44. Anjin-San says:

    bains,

    You must never get bored, you love the sound of your voice so much. At any rate, you do not seem to understand my argument, and I do not have time to explain it to you in simpler terms.

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  45. floyd says:

    “The right is a spent force in America”…Tano

    ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    **Keep thinking that way… That’s right, the left has won over America! You can see the light at the end of the tunnel!!….WOO!!WOO!! CHOOO!!!CHOOO!!!

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