U.S. Senate 

Irvin: A vote for Republicans' right to vote

Where is Bob Irvin and what have you done with his body?The last time we checked, Irvin, 53, was a mild-mannered Republican in the "pro-business" mold -- a bright state House member with a reputation for being a little bookish.

This was the guy who was removed as leader of his party caucus a couple of years ago because he didn't raise enough hell with Democrats. The insurgents who led the mini-coup against him charged that Irvin was just too conciliatory (in some quarters, that's called "statesmanlike").

Now, get a load of Bob Irvin, U.S. Senate candidate. Judging by his campaign to snag the Republican nomination from George Bush's golden child, Saxby Chambliss, Irvin's body is possessed by the ghost of Pat Buchanan. The only problem with that explanation is that Buchanan hasn't died yet.

The former McKinsey & Co. corporate consultant, who didn't make a big deal about abortion during his 15 years in the House, has turned into a fire-breathing right-winger -- anti-abortion, anti-income tax, pro-national sales tax, pro-arming pilots and insistent on even more defense spending than House Republicans requested. He begins news releases with "Rep. Bob Irvin, the conservative Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate." Conservative in contrast to whom? Chambliss -- who has a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union?

Of course, we know what this is about. Irvin faces the Herculean task of defeating the White House-based juggernaut that has crowned the Georgia GOP Senate nominee without so much as a nod to voters. Just two weeks ago, Vice President Dick Cheney was in Macon gathering up $600,000 in fat-cat soft money to help Chambliss' campaign. And in an amazing usurpation of the right of Georgia Republicans to choose their own candidate, the Republican National Senatorial Committee was running ads for the Anointed One a month before the primary.

So Irvin desperately needs to make an impression. In the GOP primary, where a conservative bedrock of party activists decides the election, the smartest way to differentiate yourself is to hang a hard right. It's a cynical ploy -- but less cynical than the White House's imperialism.

Even so, there are positive reasons to back Irvin. As minority leader in a chamber run by state House Speaker Tom Murphy, Irvin provided an effective voice for good government. He consistently challenged Democratic leaders on ethics, pork-barrel spending and budget procedures -- all areas where Murphy and his posse could use a mountain of reforming.

Irvin took heat from more combative colleagues in 1998 for Republicans losing ground in state House elections. They thought he didn't draw a sharp enough contrast to Democrats. But those losses actually had more to do with voters viewing Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Mitch Skandalakis as too extreme and antagonistic.

The truth is some goobers in the House GOP Caucus just didn't like Irvin. He's a Roswell-reared, Emory grad who went off to Harvard for an MBA. He's an urbane suburbanite, sometimes unaware that he sets good ol' boys on edge.

Our hope is that Irvin will scrap his newly extreme rhetoric should he join the once-genteel club in the Senate. Instead, he might remember how, down at the state Capitol, his intelligence and tough-but-civil opposition often tugged things in the right direction.

In many ways, Chambliss is the opposite of Irvin. He's a good ol' boy -- well liked even by conservative Democrats down around his hometown of Moultrie.

He's courtly and soft-spoken, and has a reputation for moderation. But Chambliss' voting record shows him to be extreme on everything from tax policy to abortion. Just last year, the American Conservative Union reported that he voted against campaign finance reform, to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, to bar flexibility for the D.C. government on gay partnership issues and to continue our idiotic embargos on Cuba (the ACU didn't call the embargos "idiotic" -- we did).

Chambliss also garnered a big fat "O" from the League of Conservation Voters on 14 votes affecting the environment.

And then there's the USA Patriot Act. As head of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, Chambliss had a real opportunity last fall to hone that flawed legislation and to distinguish himself as a true leader.

The bill passed, 357-66, barely a month after Sept. 11, amid warnings that it went too far in undermining civil liberties. Let's keep in mind that what makes America truly different in the world community is our embrace of those liberties. Attacking those liberties, in the name of security, is just downright un-patriotic, whatever you call the legislation.

The "Patriot" law allows for telephone and e-mail surveillance without probable cause, the very real possibility that legitimate political protest can be characterized as domestic terrorism, and the further concentration of government power in the executive branch. (Doesn't anyone in Congress remember Watergate?) Throughout the debate over such far-reaching legislation, however, Chambliss abdicated his constitutional duty to act as a check on the executive branch. He warned colleagues that he wouldn't support bills opposed by the White House and would support whatever Bush requested.

We're not saying we expected a GOP congressman to pretend he was Patrick Henry to George W.'s George III. But it would have been nice to see Chambliss -- who is an attorney -- raise questions about the scariest aspects of the bill and assist the administration in making them less onerous. We would like our elected leaders to act as, well, leaders. Conservative Rep. Bob Barr did precisely that when he pressed the administration not to go too far on civil liberties issues. In a time that tested congressmen's souls, Chambliss' behavior was sadly hollow.

Irvin offers little reason to believe he would've shown more independence. If elected, however, he'll certainly owe less to Bush and would be more likely to offer loyal critiques to a dangerously imperial presidency.

Ultimately, though, the most compelling reason to pick Irvin is the White House's shameful abuse of democracy. Think of it this way: With the machine behind Chambliss, Irvin stands the slimmest of chances to win the nomination. But a close race would signal to our lords in Washington that Georgia's Republicans believe Georgia politics is the business of Georgians.

But if Irvin wins, it'll be a stroke of luck for the GOP. After all, any candidate who could survive the White House's carpetbagging is sure to stand a good chance against incumbent Democrat Max Cleland.

The Republican nominee takes on Cleland, along with third party candidates in November.

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