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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The need for a political soul

(updated below)

Brad Friedman of BradBlog informally interviewed Russ Feingold several days ago at a dinner at which Feingold spoke, and Freidman recounted Feingold's answers on various topics of interest. The most revealing was Feingold's answer as to why he did not consult with the Democratic Senate caucas before announcing his intention to introduce his Censure Resolution:

First, he made clear that, contrary to the general impression out there, there is no rule or requirement for a Senator to confer with anybody before proposing something on the floor of the Senate. Thus, he simply proposed the Censure Resolution having decided that "it was the right thing to do."

That decision came, he said, after the end of the year. He had been encouraged by the tough stance the Democrats had taken concerning renewal of the Patriot Act before the session ended, but found that during the break their resolve seemed to have disappeared and they returned to their "foxholes"."Foxholes?" I interrupted..."Yes, I said, foxholes," he answered back quickly, with a clear inference that he had chosen the words quite deliberately.

Once he'd felt the Dems had again lost their resolve to fight, and once the information concerning the warrantless NSA spying had come to light, he'd decided the right thing to do was to simply take action. And he did."Yes," I followed up, "and don't get me wrong, I strongly support your effort there, but might you have gotten more support from your Democratic colleagues had you consulted with them first before announcing the Resolution publicly?"

He explained that had he done that, the matter would have then been vetted by "Democratic consultants" who would have decided to kill the idea entirely before it could even be proposed on the floor. "Our party," he said, "is too beholden to Democratic consultants."

Initially, it should be noted that I have been waiting for some time to hear Feingold explain: (a) whether he did provide any advance warning to other Senators before announcing his Censure Resolution and (b) if not, as seemed to be the case, what the reasons were for not doing so. This is the first time I have seen anyone ask him this. That the truly probing questions are being asked by bloggers rather than by national journalists is becoming increasingly commonplace.

As for Feingold's explanation, it is easy to see exatly what he is describing. Democratic consultants attacked and tried to kill his resolution even after it was announced and had been widely publicized. Is there any doubt at all that had he consulted in advance with Democrats, all that he would have confronted would be efforts to dissuade him from doing anything?

As Crashing the Gate chronicles, and as Feingold implied, the Democratic Party has all but turned itself over to highly risk-adverse, overly calculating political consultants who have drained the party of ideals, passion, energy and life. Almost all of them inspire nobody, because they so transparently lack any governing principles or passion about anything. They embrace only those ideas which are guaranteed in advance to be popular, and they run from ideas they believe in and that are right whenever they are told -- by the bookish, soul-less consultants who dominate them -- that those ideas are risky or unpopular. And everyone sees this and knows this.

Say what you will about the Bush movement, but it is difficult to accuse it of lacking passion and conviction. Indeed, the deep emotional fulfillment it provides to its adherents is one of its greatest strengths. Democrats never throw caution to the wind or take a real stand -- one that might be unpopular or risky -- for anything, including their core convictions, to the extent such a thing exists any more. The Swift Boat attacks in the 2004 election were so effective mostly because they provoked no reaction from Kerry -- no fury, no aggression, no unrestrained human conviction. When a response finally did come, it was pre-scripted, contrived and transparently empty, and that became the hallmark of the campaign.

Feingold's Censure Resolution had such resonance because it was something which came -- finally -- from conviction, from principle, from a political soul. Here is how Feingold described it, as summarized by Friedman:

Whether supported or passed or not, Feingold said, it's important for the history books. When people look back to see what happened here, and wonder if anybody stood up for our Constitution in the face of unprecedented disregard for it, via the illegal practice of spying without a warrant on American citizens on U.S. soil, it'll be right there that at least he and about five others in the Senate had the courage to stand up and say, "No, this is wrong."

Jane Hamsher wrote yesterday about an American Prospect article by John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira on closing the "identity gap" for Democrats, and as Jane argued, the central problem for the Democrats is not that independent and swing voters think that Democrats stand for nothing, but that core Democrats like Jane think that, too.

The desire, by itself, to put a stop to an administration that is plainly out of control will carry a political party only so far. At the moment, this Presidency is collapsing so fast and furiously that it is probably unnecessary, from a strategic perspective, for Democrats to articulate some overarching "vision." And even if they wanted to, their long-standing stagnation and belief in nothing would render them unable to formulate such a vision by November. Political principles aren't just cooked up overnight by some consultants, which is the point.

But what is critically important is that Democrats stand for something. It almost matters less what that "something" is than that they demonstrate they are capable of taking a stand even in the face of whiny, fearful warnings from their consultants. The Censure Resolution is still pending. The administration's blatant lawlessness -- exacerbated greatly by their recently intensified efforts to quash dissent, intimidate investigative journalists, and prevent disclosure of their wrongdoing -- is a serious threat to our country, and it is very difficult to see what possible justification exists for having Democrats continue to stand by, quiet and invisible, while all of this unfolds. More than anything else, that's what Democrats have become -- quiet and invisible.

UPDATE: The conservative group, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances -- along with the libertarian group Liberty Coalition and the ACLU -- is sponsoring a press briefing tomorrow demanding that Congress take seriously the president's lawbreaking as part of the NSA scandal. According to the e-mail I received:

Is the NSA Spying Program Constitutional?

The National Security Agency’s program of warrantless wiretapping deserves a full and thorough inquiry by Congress. Please join the Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances and the Liberty Coalition in a conversation about the warrantless NSA spying program as well as current legislative proposals.

The speakers include:

Bob Barr
Former Republican Member of Congress Chairman of Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances

Bruce Fein
Constitutional Scholar- Former Associate Deputy Attorney General for President Reagan

Michael Ostrolenk
Co-Founder/National Director of the Liberty Coalition

Lisa Graves
ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel for Legislative Strategy
Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy under Attorneys General Ashcroft and Reno

When: Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Where: Rayburn 2226
Time: 2:15-3:15pm

If you have any questions please call Tsoghig Marieann Hekimian at 202-675-2337

As the President's approval ratings plummet towards truly embarrassing depths, and as the scandals mount, the administration is experiencing difficulty in sweeping the NSA scandal under the rug. Many predicted it would all be wrapped up and disposed of long ago. The fact that opposition continues to come from ideologically diverse groups reflects that what is at stake are not any ideological precepts or partisan interests, but the most basic American principles of government.

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