Weld vs. Helms

How you look at things.
Aug. 8 1997 3:30 AM

Weld vs. Helms

Weld vs. Helms

Bill Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, wants the Senate to consider his nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Jesse Helms, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wants to stop him. Last week, Weld quit his job to go to Washington to lobby for his cause. Through surrogates, interviews, and press conferences, the two men are waging a war of words. This war isn't bound by strict rules of logic, but it's more intellectual than an arm-twisting match. It's a contest of conceptualization and persuasion. Whichever player successfully frames the questions at stake will capture public opinion and political support, and thereby win. So far, the war has been waged on four fronts:

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1.Drugs vs. "social policy." Helms has stuck doggedly to a single issue: drugs. He points out that Weld favors legalizing marijuana for "medical purposes" (which conservatives place on the slippery slope toward complete legalization), favors providing addicts with clean needles (to prevent the spread of AIDS), and that he prosecuted few drug cases as a U.S. attorney. In short, says Helms, Weld is soft on drugs--the last thing we need in an ambassador to Mexico.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Weld could reply that he had opposed California's medical-marijuana initiative because it was too lax, or that Helms is a pusher for tobacco, or that it might be a good idea to stop treating Mexico's drug problem as a "war." But Weld hasn't touched the drug question. How come? One rule of the frame game is to avoid issues on which you're guaranteed to lose. This isn't an Ivy League debating society, where you can win by ingeniously defending a difficult position. In politics, you're in deep trouble as soon as you question the war on drugs. This is particularly true if you're fighting for a job in the Clinton administration, where insecurity over the drug war runs high. Just ask Joycelyn Elders.

Rather than answer Helms' charge, Weld shifted and broadened the conflict. On July 15, he called a press conference to declare: "Sen. Helms' opposition has nothing whatsoever to do with drug policy. It has everything to do with the future of the Republican Party. In plain language, I am not Sen. Helms' kind of Republican. I do not pass his litmus test on social policy. Nor do I want to." Overnight, the Weld-Helms standoff became a media sensation. This wasn't just about drugs, reporters concluded. It was about Helms' distaste for Weld's "moderate" views on social issues such as abortion. With that, the advantage swung to Weld. While Helms has the more popular position on drugs, Weld has the more popular position on abortion.

Helms spokesman Marc Thiessen resisted this maneuver. He insisted Helms' concern was drugs, not ideology. The evidence backs Thiessen up: Helms supported pro-choice Republican Bill Cohen of Maine for secretary of defense, and has offered to confirm Weld as ambassador to a country without a major marijuana problem, such as India. But in the frame game, such petty facts are easily overwhelmed by larger themes. Weld's spin prevails, for several reasons.

To begin with, Weld's argument fits nicely into the context of recent Republican infighting. Having come apart over foreign policy (trade with China) and fiscal policy (the House leadership coup), the Republicans seem ripe for a civil war over social policy. Furthermore, the Washington press corps never tires of writing about Republican troubles on abortion and gay rights--though Helms hasn't mentioned either issue in connection with Weld since the confirmation fight began.

Above all, the press loves to personalize debates. Drug policy is boring, but a fight between a saucy blue blood and a surly redneck is fun. Helms wasn't even the first member of Congress to oppose Weld's nomination. Others who oppose Weld have pleaded that Helms isn't the point. It's a futile argument. Helms and his famous wedge issues are just too colorful.

2Ideology vs. competence. Congressional Republicans who support Weld's nomination don't want their party torn asunder in the process. Their solution is to separate the question of Weld's ideology from his competence. They point out that he speaks Spanish, knows Mexico, and is smart and accomplished. "This is not about the heart and soul of the Republican Party," argued Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., in a TV debate July 28. "It's about whether this nominee is competent to serve in Mexico."

Helms' supporters accept this distinction, because it subverts Weld's campaign to broaden the ideological confrontation. They argue that Weld's indifference toward the war on drugs has affected his competence as a law enforcer and will do so again if he becomes ambassador to Mexico.

Weld, however, maintains the fight is about the party's soul, even as Republican moderates protest it isn't. The Helms/Shays argument (for a distinction between ideology and competence) is analytically more sophisticated but viscerally less compelling. Which means it will probably prevail in a confirmation hearing but lose in the court of public opinion, vanquished by Weld's campaign for libertarian martyrdom. In the frame game, nuance is almost always a loser. Remember, the last guy to argue for a distinction between ideology and competence was Michael Dukakis.