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.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A Tale of Two Scandals

(updated below -
including with first poll on censure)

By Anonymous Liberal

Compare these two headlines:

March 15, 2006: Democrats Beat Quick Retreat on Call to Censure President

March 15, 1994: Open Season on Clinton's Veracity: What the Whitewater Fuss Is About

Here's an excerpt from the 1994 article:

Q. Is President Bill Clinton in trouble?

A. Politically, he is in big trouble. A growing number of Americans think he did something wrong or illegal in the so-called Whitewater affair, but they're not sure what. Republicans are maintaining a drumbeat of criticism and demanding hearings in Congress. Journalists are scratching for every shred of new material.

In short, it is open season on Bill Clinton's veracity, even though critics can only speculate on what he might have done. If the storm does not abate, Democrats may be hurt in the November congressional elections.

The article also notes that:

No evidence has yet emerged of unlawful acts by the president or his wife, Hillary.

So, as of March 1994, no one seemed to understand what Whitewater was about and there was no evidence of any wrongdoing on the Clintons' part. Nevertheless, the Republican minority in Congress had created such a ruckus over the issue that the Clinton administration, under pressure, had appointed a special counsel to investigate (in January 1994). A few months later, Republican pressure led the Banking Committees of both the House and Senate to launch investigations into Whitewater. And, in case you're wondering, throughout this entire period the president's approval rating was never lower than 50%.

Well, the rest is history. The Republicans badly miscalculated. Their accusations of presidential wrongdoing made them appear "extreme" and alienated swing voters. The GOP was thoroughly crushed in the 1994 midterm election and has never been heard from since.

Oh wait, you mean that's not what happened?

Seriously, though, let's compare the situation in 1994 to the one the Democrats face today:

  • Unlike Whitewater--which involved financial dealings that took place long before Clinton took office--the NSA scandal involves activity that occurred while President Bush was in office (indeed it's ongoing).

  • Unlike Whitewater, the NSA scandal is easy to understand. Whitewater was so convoluted that even the press didn't understand it.

  • Unlike Whitewater--where there was never any evidence of wrongdoing on Clinton's part--President Bush has admitted to authorizing the exact type of surveillance that FISA explicitly criminalizes.

  • Unlike Whitewater, polls indicate that a majority of Americans disapprove of what the president is doing, and without any real effort by the Democrats to educate the public. Polls during the Whitewater affair were driven solely by unified Republican criticism; no one even understand Whitewater well enough to form an opinion on their own. If Democrats were to "beat the drum" on this issue, as Republicans did in 1994, the poll numbers would only improve.

  • And, finally, unlike Whitewater, Democrats are faced with a president whose approval rating is only 33% according to the latest Pew poll. That's a full 17 points lower than Clinton's approval rating at this point in 1994 (and his approval rating was still in the mid to upper 40s at the time of the November 1994 midterm election).

Despite all this, Democratic strategists continue to worry about calling any attention to the President's illegal activities. They worry that supporting Feingold's resolution will unify Republicans and cause them to rally around the President. As if Republicans running for re-election are eager to associate themselves with a guy who's polling at 33%. And if they do, good. Let them tie themselves to that sinking ship. Proximity to Bush can only damage them at this point.

I'm sympathetic to the fact that many Democrats were apparently caught off guard by Feingold's announcement. But that bell cannot be un-rung at this point. The issue is out there, and it has to be addressed. The Democrats can either jump on board and find their collective voice on an issue of unparalleled importance, or they can succumb to irrational fear and play into every negative stereotype about their party. The choice is simple.

UPDATE (by Glenn): Steve Benen reports on a couple of articles from Lincoln Chafee's hometown paper in which Chafee offers some fairly strong praise for the Censure Resolution (he says he's not yet ready to say he'd vote for it, but does believe what Bush did was illegal and that some remedy is needed). Even though it's Chaffee, it's still a Republican Senator saying unequivocally that Bush broke the law and that he's open to censure - a lot more than most Democrats are saying.

Even if it's just one Senator at a time, the process gives a feel of some momentum to censure, keeps it constantly in the news, and at some point could reach a critical mass where most Democrats are required to come out and support it.

And John Cole favorably references this morning's New York Times article claiming that the NSA scandal is good for Republicans because it's supposedly energizing their base, a claim I responded to here. John Aravosis offers some good insight into the "reporting" behind that article.

UPDATE II: This is huge news. The Censure Resolution -- which is a great political boon to Republicans, massive self-destruction by Democrats, the greatest political blunder in 100 years, and the life raft that will single-handedly save George Bush's drowning presidency -- is already supported by a plurality of Americans, 46% to 44%. And that's with just one person -- Russ Feingold -- advocating it. Think of what those numbers will be if Democrats stand united, with some Republicans, and forcefully explain why we cannot allow the President to break the law with impunity.

Even better, the poll overall seems favorable to Bush, since it lists his approval rating at 38% -- higher than the 34-36% which several other polls have reported it.

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