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, March 14, 2006

Following the script

(updated below - updated again)

By Anonymous Liberal

Sometimes it's all so predictable. Yesterday I wrote that despite the bipartisan consensus that President Bush acted illegally, Sen. Feingold "will undoubtedly be labeled as a rabid partisan by the GOP, someone 'extreme' and 'out-of-touch.' And if history is any guide, this characterization will be reinforced by Feingold's Democratic colleagues who will immediately try to distance themselves from his proposal in order to be seen as 'reasonable.'"

Sure enough, the AP story opens with the following:

Democrats distanced themselves Monday from Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold's effort to censure President Bush over domestic spying, preventing a floor vote that could alienate swing voters.

The article goes on to say:

Throughout the day, Feingold's fellow Democrats said they understood his frustration but they held back overt support for the resolution. Several said they wanted first to see the Senate Intelligence Committee finish an investigation of the warrantless wiretapping program that Bush authorized as part of his war on terrorism.

Well, that's going to be a long wait because the always reasonable, never extreme Republican members of the Intelligence Committee voted last week NOT to investigate. Did these Democrats sleep through all of last week? The Washington Post leads with this:

Some party strategists, however, worried that voters will see the move as overreaching partisanship, and Republicans pounced, practically daring Democrats to vote for the measure. "The big question now," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), "is how many of his Democrat colleagues will follow him over the cliff?"

As usual, blowhard idiots like Cornyn, who have never worried for one second in their entire political careers about being seen as overly partisan, are able to scare Democrats into submission with a series of childish taunts. The article continues:

Several Democratic strategists said surveillance issues are not Bush's most vulnerable spot, and they fear the party may appear extremist.

Maybe someday these "strategists" will learn something by watching how their opponents operate. When was the last time the Republican party let fear of appearing "extreme" stop them from doing anything? And they now control every branch of government. GOP strategists long ago realized that, in politics, the only difference between an "extreme" idea and a "reasonable" one is the number of politicians willing to endorse it.

The reason the John Cornyns and Bill Frists of the world are so sure this will backfire on the Democrats is because they know the Democratic party, true to form, will not stand together. They're confident they can bluff their way into another disjointed, fractured vote. If the Democrats would just stand together and say what every single one of them thinks (and what many of their Republican colleagues think but lack the courage to say), there is no way the Republicans will succeed in painting them as "extreme" or excessively partisan.

Do these "strategists" read the polls? Yesterday--while all this was going on--Gallup reported that the President's approval rating hit 36%, an all time low. Those are close to Nixon levels. And a recent Zogby poll found that 52% of Americans support impeachment if the President is found to have wiretapped American citizens without court approval (which, by the way, he has admitted to doing). If that many Americans are willing to support impeachment, doesn't it stand to reason that even more would be willing to support the far less drastic step of merely declaring, for the record, that it's not okay for the President of the United States to openly defy a criminal statute?

We're faced with a situation where the President has admitted circumventing a longstanding criminal law designed to protect the constitutional rights of the American people. The White House has successfully strong-armed its Republican colleagues in Congress into abdicating their oversight responsibilities and thwarting any investigation into the administration's surveillance activities. If the Democrats in Congress believe the President has violated the law (and I'm confident every single one of them does) and there is no possibility of further investigation (which there isn't), seeking censure is the responsible, principled thing to do.

If the Democrats would just speak with one voice, confidently, clearly, the American public will respond. This isn't a difficult concept to explain to people. Most people no longer trust this President or his apologists in Congress. Most people believe strongly in the rule of law. This scandal has percolated long enough for the national media to understand it, and they will only treat this resolution as "extreme" if large numbers of Democrats shy away from it.

And like it or not, Senator Feingold has put this proposal out on the table. It can no longer be ignored. Either the Democrats will vote their consciences and come across as confident and principled, or they will once again look fractured and cowardly, uncomfortable in their own skin. The GOP did not take back Congress in 1994 by shying away from what they believed or pulling their punches when it came to criticizing an unpopular president. They were vocal and confident and combative. People weren't sure what GOP leadership would be like, but they knew it would be different and they could sense that the Republicans were sure of themselves.

Democratic strategists always seem to think that swing voters are looking for some milquetoast moderate to vote for, someone agreeable, someone who doesn't rock the boat. They're wrong. Most independents are just as fed up with the way things are going as liberals are. Look at the polls. What these voters are looking for is brand differentiation. They want to vote for a party that seems competent and confident, a party with courage of conviction and a plan for change. They won't be scared away by strong words or harsh criticism.

This is a pivotal moment for the Democratic party. The Democrats can either play by the normal script and feed every negative stereotype about the party, or they can chart a bold new course by voting together for something they all believe to be right. Fortune favors the brave.

UPDATE (by Glenn): Illustrating the challenge astutely described by A.L. is this amazing post from Elton Beard, which details the aggressive support given by Sen. Diane Feinstein to the Censure Resolution . . . . . which she introduced in 1999 to condemn Bill Clinton's conduct in the Lewinsky affair (including a clause specifically condemning him for his "inappropriate relationship"). That's contrasted with her noncommital stance as to whether the current Republican President should be censured for eavesdropping on Americans in violation of the law.

Similarly, Digby contrasts the statement yesterday from Joe Lieberman that he'd prefer to look to the future rather than "scold" Bush, with his pious insistence in 1999 that Clinton's behavior "is wrong and unacceptable and should be followed by some measure of public rebuke and accountability." What more can one say about a political party whose politicians want to censure a President in their own party for his role in a sex scandal, while fearfully refusing to censure a President in the other party for breaking the law -- repeatedly, deliberately and proudly -- while spying on American citizens? This is a real crossroad for Senate Democrats, each of whom will be forced -- thanks to Russ Feingold -- to reveal their true character.

UPDATE II (by Glenn): Here is the breakdown of the House Judiciary Committe's vote on the resolution to censure Bill Clinton, which was rejected 22-14. Fourteen out of sixteen House Democrats (including Chuck Schumer) voted for it, and all Republicans voted against it (because they wanted impeachment, not censure). So, unlike Feinstein's censure resolution (which was introduced after the Senate acquitted him on the impeachment charges), these House Democrats supported censure as an alternative to impeachment. Still, they did not have to vote for it, and at least two of them refused to do so. How can any Democrat who voted in favor of censuring Bill Clinton - such as Schumer - possibly even have to think about whether to support Feingold's resolution to censure of George Bush?

UPDATE III: An encouraging sign: Donna Brazile, who is usually one of the most conflict-adverse and fear-based Democratic consultants, has written a shockingly impassioned article for Roll Call urging national Democrats to join the blogosphere in supporting Sen. Feingold's censure resolution. The article is for subscribers only but here is a representative excerpt:

The progressive blogosphere is on fire right now. Web loggers are pumped up about the effort by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to censure President Bush for breaking the law on domestic surveillance and taking matters into his own hands. . . .

As a Beltway insider, I am convinced that we cannot continue to tell those who have loyally supported our Democratic leaders to wait. Wait for what? Wait until our pollsters give us the green light to speak up? Should we continue to wait, hoping that the Republicans will finally invite Democrats into the room when important decisions affecting our national security are made?

All I know is that people outside the Beltway have grown deeply impatient with our focus-group style of politics. They want to see some bold changes and some new leadership.

It's time to break with the same-old, same-old and use the Feingold resolution to force the Republican-controlled Congress to commit to serious oversight of the controversial, but increasingly popular, surveillance program.

The message from the left-leaning blogosphere is clear: Democrats should understand the real issue. The point is not censure or impeachment; it is Congress' lack of oversight and its failure to hold anyone accountable for major mistakes or missteps. And especially, it's about clearly misleading the American public. . . .

Oversight is a fundamental responsibility of Congress, which until the Republicans took over was a coequal branch of government. It's long past time for the Republican Congress — and in particular the House and Senate Intelligence committees — to stop protecting the administration and start doing more to protect the American people.

If Donna Brazile is saying things like that in Roll Call, there is hope that this message is starting to penetrate the previously impervious Beltway walls.

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