Baker Cleans Up His Own Mess

Iraq Study Group chairs James Baker and Lee Hamilton at a briefing at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, Sept. 19, 2006.
This column was written by Peter Dreier.
The war in Iraq may be a disaster for George W. Bush, but for James Baker III it has become an opportunity to seal his reputation as a statesman rather than a political fixer — which is how he's spent much of his career. Baker is already getting kudos as a skilled diplomat who engineered a "bipartisan consensus" — the highest honor that can be bestowed by the political punditry — among the 10-member blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group, laying the groundwork for a possible U.S. withdrawal from an unpopular war.

As a nation, we seem to be suffering from short-term memory loss. After all, if it weren't for James Baker, we wouldn't be in Iraq in the first place.

Let's connect the dots. Baker was the ringmaster who orchestrated the Bush campaign's strategy for the controversial Florida recount in 2000 that turned his popular vote loss into a Supreme Court-imposed victory and a rent-free home in the White House. Without Baker, there'd have been no President George W. Without George W., no war in Iraq. And without Iraq, no need for a Baker-led blue-chip panel to help the president untangle himself from the mess he and his neocon cronies got the country into.

Recall: When it became clear that the outcome of the controversial Florida vote would determine the winner of the presidential sweepstakes, Bush 41 drafted his old friend Baker to use his lifetime of political deal-making and connections to bail out his son. Baker led the Republican team that challenged the Gore campaign's efforts to get an accurate recount of votes in counties with confusing "butterfly" ballots, hanging chads, broken vote machines, and obvious undercounts that clearly would have given the state's Electoral College votes, and the presidency, to Al Gore.

Baker played brilliant hardball, completely outmaneuvering his Democratic counterpart — former Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher — in the legal and political battle. Under Baker's guidance, and with the full cooperation of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the GOP brought phalanxes of party hacks from around the country to Florida to intimidate county election officials, mau-mau the media, and stall the recount until it could be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, packed with Reagan and Bush 41 political appointees, to intervene in the Florida vote recount.

If ever there was an example of unadulterated partisan hackery, Baker's Florida goon squad was it. At the time, it looked like Baker's crowning achievement following a long career as a Republican operative, Bush family consigliere and corporate fixer. A partner in a politically-connected Texas law firm, Baker managed his friend and tennis partner George H. W Bush's unsuccessful Senate campaign in 1970, served as Undersecretary of Commerce under President Gerald Ford and then ran Ford's unsuccessful re-election campaign in 1976. In 1980 he was Bush's campaign manager in the Republican primaries, and when Bush was named Reagan's Vice President, Reagan appointed Baker his chief of staff, then Treasury Secretary. After Bush 41 won the presidency in 1988, he named Baker his Secretary of State and then White House chief of staff.

When Clinton beat Bush in 1992, Baker left government but continued his role as a political insider — as senior partner at Baker Botts law firm and senior counsel to the Carlyle Group. Baker Botts' clients included Exxon-Mobil and the Saudi Arabian government; the Carlyle Group was a powerful investment firm whose members, mostly former GOP bigwigs (including George H.W. Bush), used their political contacts to snare military contracts and other lucrative deals, especially in the Middle East.