WASHINGTON — There are hard issues confronting this city's governing class in 2005. There's the question of Social Security's solvency. There are the looming and growing budget deficits. There are debates about how best to protect America from terrorists. There's the question of what do to in Iraq.
These are the kinds of issues that not only stir deep emotions, but how they're approached has the potential to profoundly shape the future of this nation.
And then, several notches below all of that, there is the issue dominating this city right now. That is the fate of the gray- mustachioed undersecretary of State for arms control and international security. You may know him better as John Bolton, the man President Bush wants as his ambassador to the United Nations.
As Congress prepares for recess at the end of this week, the simple question around Bolton is this: Who is being sillier, the Senate Democrats, who refuse to let the Bolton nomination come to a vote, or the president, who insists on appointing a man who seems to have little respect for the organization where he would be working?
For the record, my answer to that question is the Democrats, who at this point are largely making mischief by holding up the nomination to embarrass the president while his poll numbers are down.
To be honest though, it's difficult to understand how this nomination became such a high-stakes game to begin with. And both sides are now throwing out so much hyperbole (even by Washington standards) it's hard not to shake one's head as the opposing sides lay out their cases.
The Senate Democrats say they won't let the vote go forward until the White House releases information relating to secret national security documents that Bolton requested and received. Ostensibly they say it's about the Bush White House hiding information from them. But the bigger issues that first caused the Senate Dems to raise questions about Bolton were the reports that Bolton has a history of sometimes clashing with subordinates and his publicly questioning the legitimacy of the UN itself. What kind of ambassador is that? they ask.
For its part, the administration has countered that the secret intercepts Bolton received should remain just that, secret. National security is at stake. And, furthermore, the president argues that Bolton's tough persona is precisely what the UN needs. Bolton will "shake up" the UN.
Framed that way, in those words, it seems as though there is a lot on the line here. But look just a little deeper.
If the Democrats are really upset that the president is not being forthcoming with them, aren't there a whole host of issues - from Vice President Cheney's energy task-force meetings to the details around a sweetheart aircraft leasing deal the administration inked with Boeing in 2002 - that are more serious? As for his bullying of subordinates, is anyone in the Senate really interested in launching an investigation into how Hill staffers are sometimes treated by their superiors?
Even the most compelling argument against the appointment, that Bolton will say or do something that offends the UN and somehow undermines US credibility, seems weak when you think about it. Other countries understand that whatever foreign policy and diplomatic moves are made by the US right now - good or bad - come from the Bush administration and are subject to change under a new administration. That's what happens in democracies. One side wins and calls the shots.
The administration's claims are pretty weak as well, though. Is the administration really concerned that giving the senators the information they requested will somehow harm national security? It has already shared the information with two senators. Couldn't the information be put in some safe location so that senators, and only senators, could look at the data if they wanted?
And then there's the idea that Bolton will "shake up" the UN - an idea that administration supporters are all atwitter about on the Internet. The number of times one person was brought in to shake up and fix any big bureaucracy - the FBI, the CIA, General Motors - are countless. The number of times they actually did it can probably be tallied on one hand - and even fewer did it in three years, which is about how long Bolton's job would last.
So what do we have here? Two sides desperate to win mostly because they just don't want to lose.
But ultimately it's hard not to side with the president on this one. Is Bolton really the bad guy some say he is? Who knows? Will he really shake up the UN? Probably not, or at least not more than any other appointee would. Appointees generally do what they are told.
This isn't about a seat on the judiciary, it's about whom the president wants to install to carry out his agenda. Provided that the guy didn't break any laws, aren't there more pressing issues for Congress to wrestle over?
• Dante Chinni, a Washington-based journalist, writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.