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Courage Reconsidered

“You have to quit confusing a madness with a mission.” 
― Flannery O'ConnorThe Violent Bear it Away

In September, Connecticut’s Junior U.S. Senator Chris Murphy traveled to New Haven to asperse New Haven mayoralty hopeful Toni Harp with his precious endorsement. Mr. Murphy followed in the trek of Governor Dannel Malloy, who earlier had endorsed Mrs. Harp, whose deceased husband was New Haven’s premier tax scofflaw.

Upon Mr. Harp’s leave-taking, his mountainous tax debt, along with his valuable assets, was passed along to his son. Mrs. Harp has disclaimed any responsibility for the tax debt, arguing that her affairs and those of her husband were separated by a Berlin Wall. But there are some in New Haven who think Mrs. Harp is at least morally responsible for the debt to Mr. Malloy’s government.

There was at the time a hotly contested primary underway in New Haven. Given these circumstances, it was a mark of pluck for Mr. Malloy to endorse Mrs. Harp. Ditto Mr. Murphy. Not every day does a U.S. Senator or a governor summon the intestinal fortitude to make an endorsement in what has turned out to be in New Haven a political snake pit. The endorsements might be characterized as courageous because, as some commentators and editorialists have observed, those making them may lose some political ground by sticking their heads bravely into a Democratic Party primary mouse trap.

Some political watchers may think such profiles in courage strain the bounds of prudence, and it is true that prudence is on occasion the better part of valor. But generally, we associate courage with some bold and personally reckless act. Teddy Roosevelt stormed Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill into the White House. He was praised for his courage because he had something valuable to lose in Cuba -- namely, his life.  Teddy led the charge at a time when his Rough Riders were being picked off from the heights.

When one thinks of Teddy storming San Juan Hill and Mr. Malloy storming Nica’s Gourmet Market and Deli in New Haven, surrounded by a corps of sign waving union rank and file members all of whom were supporting Ms. Harp, one cannot deny Mr. Malloy’s awesome bravery. A single woman who confronted Mr. Malloy on that valorous occasion and asked the governor how he could in good conscience support for mayor of New Haven a woman whose husband was a notorious tax scofflaw, it must be admitted, also showed some pluck.  Mr. Malloy bravely tried to shunt the woman aside, but she was persistent. Eventually, Mr. Malloy was able to escape her barrage and fell, like Hector after a battle, into the soft arms of his union battalion, all lustily supporting the wife of the deceased tax scofflaw.

Mr. Malloy’s endorsement of Mrs. Harp was fulsome: He said the people of New Haven should vote for her because a) she was a woman; “New Haven needs a woman mayor,” and b) as a woman mayor, Mrs. Harp would not be averse to arriving at consensus among differing groups; “Consensus is important folks” – except, be it noted, when one is writing a budget as Connecticut’s first Democratic governor in more than 20 years. When Mr. Malloy wrote both his budgets, he sought no input or consensus from Republicans in the General Assembly. Indeed, Mr. Malloy, hammering out his budget behind doors closed to Connecticut’s media, shooed all the Republicans from the room but was careful to seek consensus from SEBAC, the consortium of unions authorized to negotiate state contracts with the governor.

Viewing the Harp endorsements from behind the campaign curtain was Patrick Skully of Skully Communications, newly hired by Mrs. Harp as a campaign consultant. Mr. Skully, once the communications director for state Senate Democrats, no doubt was grateful for Mr. Murphy’s endorsement of Mrs. Harp. And when Mr. Murphy voted against a measure approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that validated President Barack Obama’s military intervention in Syria, Mr. Skully intoned in a blog titled “Murphy’s Profile in Courage:

“Connecticut’s junior US Sen. Chris Murphy recently made what may very well be one of the most crucial decisions of his career -- he voted to buck the president and oppose granting him the authority to strike Syria. Regardless of where one comes down on the issue, it’s safe to say Murphy’s vote was incredibly courageous if risky.”

Let’s see: The resolution that cleared the Foreign Relations Committee by a 10-7 margin the Senate on Friday, September 6 was narrower and more explicit than what Mr. Obama had asked for. The measure explicitly banned combat operations for U.S. ground troops and limited military action in Syria to 60 days, providing one 30-day extension if necessary. Mr. Murphy was one of two Democrats on the panel to have voted down the resolution, the second being Morris Udall of New Mexico. In its present form, the Senate resolution allows Mr. Obama little more than a saving gesture, and the gesture may be insufficient to assure the future of Syria and the Middle East; neither may it secure any legitimate American interest. It would have been a pleasant surprise had Mr. Murphy declined to support the measure on such grounds.

Mr. Skully considers Mr. Murphy’s vote “incredibly courageous, if risky” because Mr. Murphy is a junior senator who has bucked his chief. Mr. Murphy’s vote, however, has no practical consequence, because it was folded into a Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote that approved Mr. Obama’s measure, after the measure had been considerably adjusted by the Senate. And Mr. Obama, in any case, is a lame duck president with very little live political powder in his blunderbuss.

There are a few good reasons – all courageous, all risky – that Mr. Murphy might have offered to support a vote against the measure. The measure is too limited to be effective. The measure cannot effectively restrain a president who had decided, before he threw the ball into Congress’ lap, that he did not need the authority of Congress to support an initial military action more open-ended than that rejected by Mr. Murphy. The path chosen by Mr. Obama is not likely to lead to a repeat of the Iraq experience; it IS likely to lead to a repeat of the Libyan experience.

Does anyone remember Benghazi: a dictator overthrown with the concurrence of  a president leading a popular revolt from behind; limited mission; no boots on the ground; infiltration by terrorists; soul-stirring campaign boasts that  al-Qaida is in retreat; attack on the American consulate; murder of American ambassador and others… That’s how the violent bore victory away. And all this this was recent rather than ancient history.

Benghazi is a very good reason to oppose a feel good engagement in Syria. It would take some courage for a Democratic politician in Connecticut’s all Democratic Congressional Delegation to say so. 


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