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.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Everything is always good for the Republicans

One of the important points you learn from listening to political pundits is that every event and every controversy is always good for the Republicans. No matter what the controversy is -- even if it arises from the President's getting caught breaking the law -- the more it's talked about, the more political benefits will accrue to the Republicans, because most Americans are on their side. Here is what Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes said this weekend on "Beltway Boys," during the segment they playfully call "the Buzz" -- where they share with us the insightful Washington political whispers to which they are privy (from LEXIS):

KONDRACKE: Here's "The Buzz," Fred: the NSA spying issue's going to be back before Congress when they get back in - in September. And Arlen Specter in the Senate Judiciary Committee had made a deal with the White House, that - that the issue will be put before the FISA court for adjudication.

The Democrats who say that they want terrorists bugged are nonetheless saying that - but - that Specter gave away too much, and it's going to delay the whole
thing, and that's going to play into the hands of the Republicans in November.

BARNES: Yes. I'm not surprised at Democrats.

Even a scandal that arose because the President has been illegally spying on Americans -- and even legislation designed to eliminate all limits on the President's ability to eavesdrop on their conversations -- is going to be a great boon politically for Republicans. It will "play into the[ir] hands."

This has been going on for months and months. The New York Times first revealed the President's NSA lawbreaking on December 16 -- more than nine months ago -- and, almost from the first minute, we have been told endlessly that the NSA scandal would be a great boon to the President. And yet all that has happened since Decmeber is that the President's approval ratings have collapsed and virtually every poll shows Republicans in deep trouble politically.

When the NSA scandal first broke, Bush's approval ratings were in the high 40s. One poll, from Rasmussen, showed a slight bump upwards (well within the margin of error) after the NYT disclosed the NSA story, which caused political geniuses like Mickey Kaus to issue oh-so-knowing warnings like this:

Bush hits 50% on Rasmussen. ... Another spy scandal and he'll be at 60%!

Mickey is so smart and funny and politically savvy all at the same time!

I recall those days all too well. The NSA scandal was going to be Bush's political salvation. It would shift the debate back to terrorism, where they always win. Americans are too simplistic and stupid to care about the rule of law or privacy. They only want to cheer on the swaggering, sometimes-reckless Cowboy as he smashes the Bad Guys with machismo and grit.

The White House did everything possible to convince journalists that they welcomed the NSA scandal because it would be so politically beneficial for them. John Dickerson at Slate wrote: "But Bush and his aides are eager to talk about the National Security Agency's activities because they think the issue benefits them politically." Bush's Counselor, Dan Bartlett, boasted: "We're very comfortable discussing the issue for as long as they want." And, naturally, mindless pundits began echoing this claim, as when Eleanor Clift warned that Democrats were helping George Bush by opposing his illegal eavesdropping and that Americans see efforts to condemn the President as "political extremism":

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.

But none of that happened. It was all false, cliched fiction masquerading as oh-so-sophisticated political wisdom. The NSA scandal has remained prominently in the news for 9 straight months. We have had the New York Times story, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings with Alberto Gonazles, the controversy over the failure of the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate, the Feingold Censure Resolution, the USA Today story about domestic data-collection, the Specter bill, and now a federal court ruling that the President has broken the law and violated the Constitution by eavesdropping without warrants. Editorialists write more about eavesdropping issues, reporters finally understand their implications, and if anything, it is more of a scandal now than ever.

And yet the President continues to be a deeply unpopular President. Republicans trail Democrats in every poll. There is no public sentiment supporting the President's right to break the law and eavesdrop without warrants, and there never was any such sentiment. To the contrary, polls repeatedly showed that, at worst, the public was divided on this question, and most polls showed Americans were opposed to warrantless eavesdropping.

Yet for months we have been hearing -- and we still hear -- that the NSA scandal is going to be a great big political boon to the President and his party, that Democrats have to be afraid of this issue, that they better back down or else they will drive support to Republicans by looking weak on terror, etc. etc.

There is this bizarre syndrome where Republicans claim that every event is good for them, pundits echo that, and Democrats internalize it to the point of being paralyzed with fear. If there is no terrorist attack, that helps Republicans because it shows Bush is protecting us. If there is a terrorist attack, that helps Republicans because it makes Americans focus on terrorism again. If Osama bin Laden is silent, that helps Republicans because it shows he has to hide. If he releases a video tape, that helps Republicans because it puts the focus back on terrorism. Bush supporters and pundits, in unison, will insist that virtually every issue is a win-win politically for the Republicans, even as Republicans suffer political collapse.

Typically, Beltway Democratic consultants who are part of this same self-referential, sickly circle ingest this "wisdom" as well, and begin counseling Democratic politicians to avoid taking a stand on any of these issues because it will all be a great big win for the Republicans if they do. Anyone can see how disastrous for Democrats has been that fear-driven reliance on these always-wrong pundits and this Republican bravado. The question is whether Democrats are ready to finally shed their fear of confronting the President.

When Congress returns in September, the first test of whether they still fall victim to the "Republicans always win" psychological tactic will be whether they are willing to allow the White House to use Arlen Specter to remove all limits on the President's power to eavesdrop and legalize what has been clearly illegal conduct. One thing ought to be clear, the sage advice of the "Beltway Boys" notwithstanding -- Americans are not going to flock to the President they have abandoned because he wants the power to break the law and eavesdrop on them in secret. So there is no reason to fear opposing the President on that issue, or any other.

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