Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Can raging moderate make any difference?"

Seattle Times:
It was nearly 10 o'clock on a cold February night when Congressman Adam Smith got his moment in the sun.
Smith was helping manage the House vote against President Bush's planned troop escalation in Iraq when a senior Republican argued that opposing the "surge" was tantamount to retreat — something that George Washington never did.

"Well, as it happens, I just read a biography of Mr. Washington," Smith countered, "and not to go puncturing holes in ... our great nation, but he retreated a fair amount, actually.

"I don't know where we got this idea that the great leaders of our time only went forward," he continued. "It does sort of portray the thinking of the president that the only way is forward, regardless of the details. A little more thought, I think, might help us."

The speech was slightly smug, but off the floor Democrats stopped whispering and nodded at Smith.

After a decade toiling in the minority in Congress, this should be Smith's time to shine. The Tacoma Democrat is in his sixth term, having won re-election in the 9th Congressional District last year with 65 percent of the vote.

With the country at war, he is perfectly perched in the House Armed Services Committee, representing a district that includes Fort Lewis, the largest Army post in the West.

Last fall, his party won both the House and the Senate, and Smith landed a chairmanship of an Armed Services subcommittee this year. He's also a vice chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of 44 moderate House members who champion economic growth and fiscal responsibility.

But Smith's subcommittee on Terrorism and Unconventional Threats doesn't appropriate money, doesn't conduct oversight and isn't a powerful policy board.

And the New Democrats aren't driving the agenda in a Congress that is tilting left and consumed by the war in Iraq.

All of which raises some questions: Can Smith turn his ambition and growing seniority into a more powerful role in the House? Can a raging moderate really make a difference in this Congress?

Earnest and hardworking

Smith recently was rated 174th out of 233 House Democrats in the annual power rankings by, a nonpartisan group that analyzes members' clout.

That puts him behind Washington Democratic Reps. Norm Dicks, Jim McDermott, Jay Inslee and Rick Larsen — even though he has more seniority than both Inslee and Larsen. Only Rep. Brian Baird has lower power rankings among the state's Democratic delegation.

One reason may be his low-key style.

He is earnest and hardworking. But most of his efforts are offstage. Having played straight man to the voluble McDermott for years, the laconic Smith admits he is sometimes perceived as dull.

His voting record is mixed. He supports "fair trade" over "free trade" — aligning him with unions that blame recent trade agreements for sending jobs overseas.

But he's veered to the right on other issues. He was one of a handful of Democrats who opposed importing prescription drugs from Canada in 2003.

McDermott, Seattle's longtime liberal congressman, says he and Smith actually have a lot in common. For instance, Smith has introduced a bill for three years running to stem global poverty — one of McDermott's key issues.

"Adam wants to cultivate an image of not being as far in front on some things as me, but we agree on more than you probably realize," McDermott said.

Still, the National Journal rates Smith's votes as 70 percent liberal, compared with McDermott's 94 percent.

"I always look serious"

Smith was born with a poker face. There's a permanent worry mark near his receding hairline. He seems older than his 41 years, which has led to a few Democrats' references to him as "old sourpuss."

"I know, I always look serious," he said.

Ask Smith or his staff what he is passionate about and they reply, "Bringing people together."

That explains why he leaped onto the Obama-for-president bandwagon in April. Smith says he and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama are a natural fit: They both prefer measured discussion to rhetoric flambé.

"The media looks for flamboyant members; they want to cover the battles, but not consensus-building," Smith said. "That is not how I operate.

"I love the art of the deal. I'm a pragmatist."

He's also driven.

Smith has been writing a book for 13 years. It's called "Youth and Ambition."

"It's about a young man who wants desperately to make a difference, to make his mark on the world, and is desperately afraid he won't be able to," said Smith, explaining the book and himself in one sharp bite.

He is one of the few members whose spouse and children remain back in his district. For most of the past decade, Smith has flown to Tacoma on weekends, missing congressional fact-finding trips and outings that help form bonds.

In D.C., he sleeps on a pull-out bed in a closet in his office.

"Family means something more to me than to some other members, and there's a reason," he said.

His dad, Ben, a union baggage handler at Sea-Tac International Airport, died when Smith was 19.

Smith lived with his mother as he finished law school. She was his cheerleader in 1990 when he decided, at age 25, to run for state Senate.

But just days before the election, she had a stroke and died.

A couple of weeks later, Smith received a letter from his father's sister revealing that he had been adopted.

His aunt was, in fact, his birth mother.

"My aunt placed me in her brother's care," Smith said. "I think that is why my father felt it was so important for him to encourage me to make a difference with my life."

The Iraq challenge

The Iraq war has tested Smith's politics and style.

He voted for the invasion in 2002. Two years later, he was one of only four Democrats who supported expansion of the Patriot Act. After the outcry from constituents and other Democrats, he admitted it was a mistake.

In late 2005, he conceded his vote on the Iraq war itself was wrong.

"I think about it every single day," he said recently. "I feel responsible for it every day."

Now, he's almost as outspoken as McDermott in his opposition.

"We have 160,000 U.S. troops refereeing a civil war," he said in an interview. "It doesn't get worse if we start to withdraw, and we have to."

Now Smith is pushing legislation that can be describe as radical — an adjective not usually associated with him.

In March he introduced a bill to revoke the original 2002 resolution for the Iraq war and make Bush return to Congress for permission to keep fighting. Reps. Jane Harman and Ellen Tauscher, two pro-defense Democrats from California, joined him as co-sponsors.

In typical Smith fashion, he has moved the legislation quietly like a chess piece in the back row, despite a similar proposal a month later by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., that got far more publicity.

Smith said the Democrats' first priority was to pass the supplemental war spending bill, which was approved Thursday, and then tackle the 2008 defense budget package this summer — both with firm benchmarks for drawing down U.S. forces.

His bill to revoke the 2002 war resolution might have a chance later, he said.

"If I push this ... now, it becomes veto-bait and we lose it all," he said.

When frustrated Democrats withdrew benchmarks from the supplemental spending plan last week, it was assumed Smith would join other moderate Democrats and vote for the bill anyway.

But at the end, Smith changed his mind and voted with the losing minority, providing one of the surprises of the roll call on Thursday. He joined McDermott and Inslee as the only members of the state's congressional delegation to oppose the bill.

"I ultimately decided to vote no ... in order to keep the pressure on the president and his Republican supporters in Congress," he said in a statement after the vote.

Then Smith jumped on a flight to Afghanistan, where he would have 18 hours on a plane to think about the perpetual pull between pragmatism and principle.

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