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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.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Why the Beltway class can't comprehend the Russ Feingolds of the world

(updated below)

When Russ Feingold announced in March that he would introduce a resolution to censure President Bush for breaking the law by eavesdropping on Americans without warrants, a clear two-pronged consensus immediately arose among Beltway pundits and politicians -- including Republicans and many Democrats as well:

(1) Feingold had just disastrously handed a huge "gift" to Republicans, because opposition to Bush's warrantless eavesdropping would doom the Democrats politically, and,

(2) Feingold had introduced this resolution not because he really believed anything he was saying about it, but only as a "political stunt," selfishly designed to advance his own political interests (at the expense of his party) by shoring up the "liberal base" for his 2008 presidential run.

As for premise (1), Democrats spent all year opposing warrantless eavesdropping (mostly mild and reluctant opposition, though in some cases passionate). That opposition culminated in a House vote just 6 weeks before the election where 85% of Democrats voted against a bill to legalize warrantless eavesdropping.

Thereafter, Republicans did everything possible to make that an issue in the campaign, and Democrats just crushed Republicans in the election. As but one example, 12-term GOP incumbent Nancy Johnson made her support for warrantless eavesdropping (and her challenger's opposition to it) a centerpiece of her campaign. She was easily defeated.

As for premise (2), Russ Feingold announced today, definitively, that he is not running for President in 2008.

It is hard to overstate how ignorant and wrong Beltway pundits are about everything, and how barren and corrupt inside-Washington conventional wisdom is.

Russ Feingold has spent his entire idiosyncratic political career espousing views because he believes them, even when those views are so plainly contrary to his political interests. He infuriated his entire party by being the only Democratic Senator to vote against dismissal of the Clinton impeachment charges prior to the Senate trial. He pursued campaign finance reform hated by incumbents in both parties.

And in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he seemed to be the only elected official immune from irrational pressures, as he not only was the only Senator to vote against the "Patriot Act," but was also the only Senator who refused to blindly pledge his loyalty to limitless presidential power, emphasizing on the Senate floor as early as September 14, 2001:

Like any legislation, this resolution [authorizing military force in Afghanistan and against Al Qaeda] is not perfect. I have some concern that readers may misinterpret the preamble language that the President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism as a new grant of power; rather it is merely a statement that the President has existing constitutional powers . . . .

Congress owns the war power. But by this resolution, Congress loans it to the President in this emergency. In so doing, we demonstrate our respect and confidence in both our Commander in Chief and our Constitution. . . .

Our response will be judged by friends and foes, by history, and by ourselves. It must stand up to the highest level of scrutiny: It must be appropriate and constitutional.

Within this confusing scenario, it will be easy to point fingers at an ever increasing number of enemies, to believe that the ``the enemy'' is all around us, that the enemy may even be our neighbor. The target can seem to grow larger and larger every day, before the first strike even occurs. And this, of course, is exactly what the terrorists want. They seek to inflate their numbers and their influence by retreating into the shadows. They seek to turn us against each other, and to turn us against our friends and allies across the world, but we will not allow this to happen.

Despite all of that, when Feingold stood up and advocated censure -- based on the truly radical and crazy, far leftist premise that when the President is caught red-handed breaking the law, the Congress should actually do something about that -- the soul-less, oh-so-sophisticated Beltway geniuses could not even contemplate the possibility that he was doing that because he believed what he was saying. Beltway pundits and the leaders of the Beltway political and consulting classes all, in unison, immediately began casting aspersions on Feingold's motives and laughed away -- really never considered -- the idea that he was motivated by actual belief, let alone the merits of his proposal.

That's because they believe in nothing. They have no passion about anything. And they thus assume that everyone else suffers from the same emptiness of character and ossified cynicism that plagues them. And all of their punditry and analysis and political strategizing flows from this corrupt root.

Not only do they believe in nothing, they think that a Belief in Nothing is a mark of sophistication and wisdom. Those who believe in things too much -- who display political passion or who take their convictions and ideals seriously (Feingold, Howard Dean) -- are either naive or, worse, are the crazy, irrational, loudmouth masses and radicals who disrupt the elevated, measured world of the high-level, dispassionate Beltway sophisticates (James Carville, David Broder, Fred Hiatt). They are interested in, even obsessed with, every aspect of the political process except for deeply held political beliefs -- the only part that really matters or that has any real worth.

For that reason, when Feingold announced his censure resolution, the merits of it were virtually ignored (i.e., should something actually be done about the President's deliberate lawbreaking? What are the consequences for our country for doing nothing?). Instead, Feingold's announcement was immediately cast as a disingenuous political maneuver and discussed only in cynical terms of how it would politically harm the Democrats.

This was the first line of the AP article on Feingold's resolution:

While only two Democrats in the Senate have embraced Sen. Russ Feingold's call for censuring President Bush, the idea is increasing his standing among many Democratic voters as he ponders a bid for the party's presidential nomination in 2008. . . .

And as is so often the case, Beltway Republicans and Democrats worked in tandem with this cynical, substance-less storyline -- because it's how they all really think. Thus, the Post reported that Republicans "denounced the censure resolution as a political stunt by an ambitious lawmaker positioning himself to run for president in 2008."

Many Democrats (though not all), petrified by Feingold's stand, made the same accusation. As David Limbaugh gleefully recounted:

Feingold's move is not one of moral courage, but raw political ambition. In the words of Democratic senator Mark Dayton, Feingold's move is "an overreaching step by someone who is grandstanding and running for president at the expense of his own party and his own country."

And the AP article also reported this:

"This is such a gift," Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show. The National Review came to the same conclusion. In an online editorial titled, "Feingold's Gift to the GOP," the conservative magazine wrote that Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman would hug Feingold if given the chance.

Marshall Wittmann insisted that Feingold was dooming the Democrats and if Democrats didn't drop the whole issue of warrantless eavesdropping, it would ensure GOP victory:

The Moose avers that Russ Feingold is the GOP's man of the hour. . . . . Here is the bottom line - the American people are not going to penalize the President for being overly zealous in preventing a destruction of an American city. That is what the Republicans know and they are gleeful about a debate on this issue. And they are co-dependent on the Democratic left to keep this issue alive.

And then there was this most wretched column by Eleanor Clift, vividly echoing all of those brilliant Beltway insights with one textbook case study on how our Beltway political class, across the board, "thinks":

Republicans finally had something to celebrate this week when Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold called for censuring George W. Bush. Democrats must have a death wish. Just when the momentum was going against the president, Feingold pops up to toss the GOP a life raft.

It’s brilliant strategy for him, a dark horse presidential candidate carving out a niche to the left of Hillary Clinton. . . . . There is a vacuum in the heart of the party’s base that Feingold fills, but at what cost? . . . .

The broader public sees it as political extremism. Just when the Republicans looked like they were coming unhinged, the Democrats serve up a refresher course on why they can’t be trusted with the keys to the country.

[The same thing happened when Feingold announced that he favors same-sex marriages. He can't possibly be motivated by actual belief, so AP tells us why he really did it: "Sen. Russ Feingold, a potential presidential candidate, said Tuesday he supports giving gays and lesbians the right to marry, again positioning himself to the left of possible 2008 rivals."]

All of this Beltway certainty about the motives of Feingold's Censure Resolution and the political consequences of it could not have been any more wrong. Feingold obviously hadn't decided to run for President and apparently wasn't planning on it. And 2006 saw endless controversy over the NSA program -- from hearings to court cases to Feingold's resolution to a final House vote in which Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the President's NSA program -- and Americans stomped on the Republicans and put the Democrats in power.

The Beltway pundit class and the premises which generate conventional Washington wisdom are corrupt to their core and always wrong. And this Feingold announcement illustrates a major reason why that it so. They operate from a set of completely unexamined, empty premises that reflect their own character and belief system, but nobody else's. They have no core convictions and no passion and think that those attributes are the marks of sober, responsible people. And they project those character flaws onto everyone else and assume that nobody other than unserious lunatics are motivated by real belief.

All of that combines to produce a worldview that is as inaccurate as it is bereft of integrity and principle. The excitement over new politicians like Jim Webb and Jon Tester -- and the passion inspired by Russ Feingold and even Howard Dean -- has nothing to do with long-standing and increasingly obsolete liberal/conservative stereotypes (the only prism through which the media can analyze the election results, which is why they are so confused). Instead, the excitement is due to a widespread hunger for people who are outside of and immune to the entire, soul-less Beltway machinery -- a system which, in every aspect, is broken and empty at its core.

UPDATE: One of the best/worst examples of this emptiness comes, unsurprisingly, from The New Republic, courtesy of Ryan Lizza, who chortled at the political stupidity of Feingold's censure resolution but -- of course -- knew exactly why Feingold was doing it (h/t Michael):

Feingold is mystified by the reaction. Democrats, he said this week, are "cowering with this president's numbers so low." The liberal blogosphere, aghast at how wimpy Democrats are being, has risen up in a chorus of outrage: . . . .

The nature of the split is obvious. Feingold is thinking about 2008. Harry Reid, Charles Schumer, and other Democrats are thinking about 2006. Feingold cares about wooing the anti-Bush donor base on the web and putting some of his '08 rivals--Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Evan Bayh--in uncomfortable positions. Reid and Schumer care about winning the six seats it will take for Democrats to win control of the Senate . . . .

So the partisans on the left cheering Feingold appear to have both the policy and the politics wrong. Censure is meaningless. Changing the FISA law is the way to address Bush's overreach. And the only way for Democrats to change FISA is for them to take back the Senate. This week, Feingold's censure petition has made that goal just a little bit more difficult to achieve. What an ass.

So knowing and sophisticated. So wise and insightful to the hard-core political realities. Always above the lowly impassioned masses and their misguided, simplistic notions (such as the belief that there should be consequences for presidential lawbreaking -- how excitable and stupid that is). TNR is always so cleverly restrained and calculating.

And the stupid liberal blogosphere -- cheering on Feingold's stand against the President. As though that's about anything other than Feingold's '08 presidential run. How "obvious" that is.

And all of that is to say nothing about the complete incoherence of Lizza's "argument." How could "changing FISA" -- what Lizza calls "the way to address Bush's overreach" -- possibly be a solution to the president's lawbreaking when the whole point is that the President claims he has no obligation to comply with FISA because Congress can't limit his eavesdropping activities?

Censure was the only way (short of impeachment) for Congress to force the President to comply with the law and to express its objections to the President's lawbreaking. "Changing FISA" was -- and still is -- a complete non-sequitur to the President's conduct, which is based on the premise that FISA (like all laws that limit the President's conduct concerning national security) is a nullity. But to Lizza, that's the more moderate, passionless and less disruptive course. Therefore, by definition, it's the best one -- the only one that responsible and sophisticated political experts like him would ever consider.

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