“It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning,” Tweeted Senator Bob Corker, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in response to a negative Tweet from President Donald Trump. “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him,” Corker followed up his criticism in an interview.
Was Corker being courageous in his declarations? In the 1957 Pulitzer-Prize winning volume Profiles in Courage, Senator John Kennedy described acts of political courage by eight United States senators. Each of the senators defied their party to do what they felt was right. Corker obviously did not defy his party; he went public with what other Republicans were thinking. In addition, each of the senators profiled in Kennedy’s book suffered political setbacks; Corker has announced he is not running for re-election. So, according to Kennedy’s criteria, Corker was not courageous in defying his party or suffering political consequences.
But, again, was Corker courageous? If the situation in the White House is as bad as Corker described it – a president being held in check by the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, the triumvirate who “separate our country from chaos” – then his public statements are meant to encourage others to follow suit. Corker is not taking an individual stand against the crowd. He is pointing to a situation that he feels is dangerous for the country. (Corker said that Trump’s reckless threats toward other countries could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”)
Corker has been known as a middle-of-the-road conservative Republican. Until this moment, there has been nothing outstanding or flashy about his Senate career. I witnessed a press conference of his in Ukraine where he repeated the usual U.S. position about support for Ukraine democracy and rebuked Russian intervention. The only thing memorable during the meeting was his impeccable suit. There was nothing more than met the eye.
Corker’s current declarations could have consequences for Trump’s legislative agenda. Republicans have a very slim majority in the Senate. Any defection could doom possible changes to the tax code or a new health bill. In addition, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker could hold up diplomatic appointments or foreign policy legislation. For the remainder of his term - 15 months - Corker could be extremely negative for Trump’s agenda.
Will other Republicans follow Corker’s lead? Will that depend on whether they are up for re-election and if so how they see Trump effecting their chances? The answers to both questions are far from Kennedy’s understanding of courageous.
In modern U.S. politics, the signs of courage have been rare. How many senators voted against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution leading to the Vietnam War? Only two: Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska. Both lost their bids for re-election. How many members of both houses of Congress voted against The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) of September 14, 2001, authorizing the use of armed forces against those responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001, and any "associated forces". Barbara Lee, Congresswoman from California, was the only member of either chamber to vote against the open-ended bill.
In the legislation leading to the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq, only three members of Congress saw fit to reject the emotional moments to justify unchecked uses of force. In retrospect, Morse, Gruening and Lee have been celebrated by many for their acts of courage.
While Corker’s statements do not compare to these acts of courage or Kennedy’s profiles, we do not dismiss what he has done. He has taken a public stance that is noteworthy. And given the political climate in the United States today, it is a welcome addition to informing the public of what insiders are witnessing and what those on the outside can only surmise. While not courageous, Corker’s comments are educational, but also terrifying.