A Fire-Breather in Congress

By David Swanson

Rep. Robert Wexler (Dem., Florida) has written a book, soon to be released, that is as different from most congress members’ books as Wexler is from most congress members. He’s titled it “Fire-Breathing Liberal: How I Learned to Survive (and Thrive) in the Contact Sport of Congress.” Wexler is depicted on the cover with the Capitol in the background and his fists in the air.

Wexler is a fighter and a liberal, and – yes – one CAN be both. But Wexler, I think, is more of a fighter than a liberal. He’s unusually willing to speak up and fight for controversial positions. He does so loudly and articulately, and he goes for the jugular. But I don’t find in his book any passionate or deep liberal world view. In fact, at times, Wexler expresses viewpoints that I find disturbingly illiberal.

I would have titled the book “Fire-Breathing democrat.” I made the ‘d’ lowercase on purpose. Wexler, far more than most members of Congress, appears to take the positions supported by his constituents. It is his constituents who turn out, more often than not, to be liberal. That Wexler listens to them so extensively and carefully and then acts on their wishes with a resolve and determination that can singe your eyebrows is what makes Wexler that rarest of Congress Members, a Democrat with a spine.

Wexler is not the only aggressive progressive in Congress. His most daring positions – on impeachment, on Iraq, on elections – are a step behind someone like Dennis Kucinich, who also pulls no punches. But Wexler has a voice in the media that is unique, I think, because his positions are not so far opposed to those of the corporate media that he’s shut out, and because he likes a fight. In his book, he’s smart enough to quote right-wing media attacks on himself rather then running from them. More Democrats do the wrong thing, more often, because they’re afraid of media attacks, which would actually benefit them, than for any other reason.

Wexler’s book is not an outline of his view for our political future. And it’s not a campaign book laying out positions. While it is an autobiographical account of Wexler’s years, thus far (since 1996), in Congress and a brief account of how he got there in the first place, the book’s larger aim seems to be civic education. Wexler explains to readers how elections are won and lost, how positions are advanced, how compromises are made, and how bills actually become what nowadays passes for “law.” This is an education that every American needs. “I want,” Wexler writes, “to bring you inside the system in the hope that we can begin to change it together.”

Some may recall seeing Wexler passionately defending against the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, or demanding a full recount of the 2000 election in Florida. Wexler represents the district with the butterfly ballots and the mythical “Jews for Buchanan” votes. Others may know of Wexler as the House Judiciary Committee Member who began pushing last year for Chairman John Conyers to take up the impeachment of Dick Cheney. Wexler did that, in large part, because his constituents asked him to, because he listens to them, and because he knows how to think in terms of offense. A Democratic Party that played offense would be holding impeachment hearings and forcing John McCain to defend every impeachable offense.

Others may recall seeing Wexler in recent months grill various Bush witnesses in committee hearings. Since Wexler came out for impeachment, his questioning of witnesses has out-shown most other representatives’. Just go to Youtube and look up Robert Wexler.

Wexler voted to authorize Bush to attack Iraq, and now says he regrets having done so. He claims to have believed the White House lies about Iraq, something I think could only be true if Wexler were far less intelligent than he is. In fact, Wexler claims that those who said there were no “weapons of mass destruction” prior to the invasion were just guessing and explains that it only became clear the White House was lying when no weapons were found. Actually, of course, that would only prove that the White House had been mistaken. While the evidence that Bush and Cheney and gang were lying has piled up over the years, it was abundant prior to the vote. Kucinich circulated an analysis of it to his colleagues. Here’s the evidence, old and new:

Wexler also claims not to have known that his constituents would disapprove of that vote. That seems possible. But Wexler now knows that his constituents want out of Iraq, and yet he has voted over and over again to fund the occupation, and he is not leading a fire-breathing charge against the funding bill now under consideration. I suspect that nonsensical “Don’t defund the troops” sound-bytes and a misguided notion that militarism goes very well with a fighting image are weighing on Wexler more heavily than the opinions of his constituents this time (except perhaps the opinions of some campaign donors — somehow these books manage to avoid the whole topic of donors).

Wexler was one of three Democrats to vote for immediate withdrawal when the Republicans proposed a parody of Rep. John Murtha’s withdrawal proposal as a political stunt. Wexler is not afraid to stand alone or lead the way, but that doesn’t mean he always does so when liberals might wish he would. Wexler likes to talk about withdrawal proposals as a way to “put pressure on the Iraqis,” as if 80% of them don’t want full withdrawal and haven’t wanted it for years. Wexler writes of how much he loves “The Star Spangled Banner,” a war song.

The real liberals in the House, on the other hand, don’t know how to breathe fire. The current war funding bill has been arranged to include separate votes on the war money and on other matters. The Blue Dog (rightwing) Democrats joined with the Republicans last week to block a vote on the Rule to bring the whole thing up, because they opposed spending money on things like helping veterans and wanted to proceed only with creating more veterans. The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), of which Wexler is a member, has many more members than the Blue Dogs and could easily block the Rule in opposition to the war money if Speaker Pelosi finds a way to buy off the Blue Dogs. But CPC Co-Chairs Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, and Out of Iraq Caucus Chair Maxine Waters won’t do it, and won’t persuade enough progressives to fall in line if they do. They’re not breathing enough fire.

Social Security is a topic where Wexler has breathed liberal fire. Of course, he bought into the pretense that Social Security is broken and in danger of collapsing, because outside of that frame one couldn’t be part of the debate. But once he’d done that, he made the best move possible by releasing a detailed study of how Social Security could be fixed by eliminating the cap on payroll taxes that currently makes income above $90,000 tax free. And Wexler helped win the debate, holding off the destruction of Social Security, while the cap on taxes still remains.

Wexler’s fire breathing also breathed new life into the impeachment movement last year, which has only stalled (though it’s far from over) because too many Democrats on the Judiciary Committee refuse to listen to their constituents the way Wexler does. Publicly lobbying your colleagues and the chairman of your committee to do something that has been publicly opposed by your party’s leaders, the other party’s leaders, and the corporate media is almost unheard of. But Wexler did it when he asked his colleagues and ordinary citizens to join him in pushing for the start of impeachment hearings. Wexler made new and brilliant arguments for impeachment and presented a case that won over some congress members and a lot of other people. Thus far, 235,000 people have signed his petition at

Wexler has received a Backbone Award for his efforts:

Wexler is also rare in his willingness to talk about the stolen 2000 election as stolen and to openly admit the high probability that other elections have been stolen since the advent of DRE (electronic) voting machines and the misnamed Help America Vote Act. Yet, Wexler seems to believe that machines with “paper trails” or paper ballots scanned by optical machines solves the matter. In fact, collecting paper ballots or receipts is only valuable if they are counted, and optical scan machines have resulted in as many highly questionable elections as have DRE machines. I expect that when Wexler realizes this, or realizes that his constituents realize it, he’ll advance the fight.

Wexler’s book defends his positions and his past work, but it is not pretentious, and he includes plenty of accounts of failed efforts and questionable decisions as part of the civic education process. He also admits to compromising his positions under pressure. President Clinton persuaded Wexler to back a corporate trade measure (“fast track” negotiating) that he knew his constituents opposed and that he says he opposed. In return, Clinton gave Wexler opportunities to participate in foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

Wexler’s district is heavily Jewish, and he is Jewish. Throughout his book he never makes a distinction between the needs of the Israeli people, the plans of the Israeli government, and the desires of his Jewish constituents. All would appear to be one, had Wexler not already told us that his constituents opposed the war. Never does Wexler suggest that the Israeli government may be doing what is not in the best interests of the Israeli people, although the bulk of his book is a denunciation of a Republican-run U.S. government radically resisting the will of the American people. Perhaps Wexler’s listening to his constituents could sometimes benefit from a finer grained analysis.

Wexler recounts his foreign travels on U.S. diplomatic business, including a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad. He writes that Assad asked him whether Bush was crazy enough to attack Syria. Wexler said yes, and writes that he was grateful, in this instance, that such a thing was true. Fire breathing, yes. Liberal, no. Likely in the long run to improve the chances of peace? Of course not.

But Wexler also writes at some length about his involvement in efforts to aid Indonesians following the recent tsunami, and how aid and friendship build peace:

“I remember seeing a sign, a white bed sheet on which someone had written by hand in paint and magic marker, ‘America is here. Where is Bin Laden?'”

Wexler understood this to be an expression of gratitude for American assistance. Wexler also worked with and nominated the President of Indonesia for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Wexler’s book contains positions I don’t like, but many more that I do, and it is a remarkably open and honest book for a politician to have put into the light of day.

If you want to know how Washington works, read this book.

If you want some hope that it can work better, watch what Robert Wexler does next.

If you want a representative who listens to you, retire to Palm Beach, Florida.

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