It’s a sad commentary about the state of the Democratic Party when Republicans are more willing to take advantage of a Republican President’s sagging poll numbers to assert their independence than Democrats are. Yet that’s what’s happening: while Senate Democrats are still too afraid of Republican attacks to support Russ Feingold’s long-past-due resolution to censure the President for authorizing warrantless wiretaps and electronic surveillance of American citizens in what Attorney General Gonzales admits is a violation of federal law, Senate Republicans --- both weakened and freed by the President’s low approval rating -- found the courage to stand up to what they perceived as White House overreaching on the Dubai ports deal.
And it’s doubly sad when the reasons the cowardly Democrats give for their reluctance to stand on principle are demonstrably inaccurate. E.J. Dionne:
Some Democrats want the party to forget the issue of warrantless wiretapping, because engaging it would let Bush claim that he's tougher on terrorists than his partisan enemies. Others share Feingold's frustration with the administration's stonewalling on the program, but they think they need to know more before they can effectively challenge Bush on the issue.
Neither is a good reason to let a President get away with criminal acts. The charge that Democrats are soft on terrorism can be answered by a judicious combination of
(a) proper framing (“I’m all for spying on terrorists, but if we’re going to spy on Americans, it should be in compliance with the law. We can have both safety and freedom”);
(b) a quick glance at the polls (more Americans think the President should be censured than don’t, even without Democrats vigorously supporting Feingold)(update: more polling here);
(c) a little education (for example, that in 2002 the White House expressly declined to amend FISA to make it easier to spy on terrorists, and that the program has generated such a deluge of bad leads that it's kept FBI agents from pursuing more fruitful ones; and, most importantly,
(d) stopping their God-damned wavering and standing on principle for a change; nothing reassures people that a politician is courageous better than seeing him act courageously.
And the cowerers' claimed desire to "let the Intelligence Committee complete its investigation" before they can challenge Bush is, as Glenn Greenwald has explained to the point of exhaustion, either unmitigated bullshit or inexcusable ignorance: FISA clearly states that it is the ONLY method by which covert electronic surveillance may be conducted on American citizens; the Attorney General and President both admit that they have authorized covert electronic surveillance of American citizens without complying with FISA; their only defense is that the resolution authorizing war in Afghanistan, and/or the President’s Constitutional powers as Commander in Chief, allow him to spy on Americans without warrants in wartime. Gonzales explained the White House position this way:
[T]he Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provides -- requires a court order before engaging in this kind of surveillance that I've just discussed and the President announced on Saturday, unless there is somehow -- there is -- unless otherwise authorized by statute or by Congress. That's what the law requires. Our position is, is that the authorization to use force, which was passed by the Congress in the days following September 11th, constitutes that other authorization, that other statute by Congress, to engage in this kind of signals intelligence.
Now, that -- one might argue, now, wait a minute, there's nothing in the authorization to use force that specifically mentions electronic surveillance. Let me take you back to a case that the Supreme Court reviewed this past -- in 2004....
I might also add that we also believe the President has the inherent authority under the Constitution, as Commander-in-Chief, to engage in this kind of activity.... We believe that -- and those two authorities exist to allow, permit the United States government to engage in this kind of surveillance.
Setting aside the fact that those arguments can be easily rebutted by any second-year law student at a halfway decent school, it is irrefutable -- even Gonzales would agree -- that those are legal, not factual, defenses. To lawyers and judges -- which most Senators are, though they don't like to say so in public -- that is a critical and dispositive distinction. Matters of legal interpretation can be resolved on their face, as matters of law. Gonzales admits that the surveillance that's occurring -- whatever it entails, whoever it's of -- falls under the terms of the FISA statute. Thus endeth the factual inquiry: the Senate doesn't need an investigation to vote on censure if the only dispute is over the meanings of a law that Congress itself passed and a written Constitution that every Congressman swore to protect and defend.
Besides, the Intelligence Committee Republicans’ party-line vote not to hold hearings into the NSA program, and the pledge they extracted from the Democrats on the seven-member Intelligence Committee Whitewash Squad not to tell what they know to their peers [UPDATE: thorough analysis of new bill here], means that there will be no investigation anyway: waiting for the Intelligence Committee to “complete its investigation” is like waiting for Abraham Lincoln to finish watching his play: it ain’t gonna happen, not ever.
Here’s the real reason the Democrats in Congress are reluctant to vote to censure Bush: egotism. Pure, unadulterated, unprincipled egotism of the kind that only a seat in the United States Senate can bestow. Every Democratic senator besides Joe Lieberman (V-CT), who doesn't count anymore, believes in his heart that Bush broke the law and deserves censure. But every Democratic senator also harbors a grandiose image of himself as an insider, a player, a potential Presidential candidate someday, and to be ignored by Feingold -- left out of the loop, uninformed of his plans, juked out of his boots by Feingold’s brilliant move to the left -- now THAT galls. Dionne again:
Senators mostly scampered away from the cameras earlier this week, because they didn't want to say publicly what many of them said privately. Most were livid that Feingold sprang his censure idea on a Sunday talk show without giving them any notice. Many see Feingold as more concerned with rallying support from the Democratic base for his 2008 presidential candidacy than with helping his party regain control of Congress this fall.... [A]t the grass roots and Web roots, Feingold has become a hero.... Feingold's latest move only reinforced his image of being "a Dem with a spine," as the left-liberal Web site BuzzFlash.com put it in a comment representative of the acclaim he won across the activist blogs.
In other words, there aren’t any Democratic votes against censure -- but there are jealous, pissy Democratic votes against Feingold. If the Democrats in the Senate were responsive to their base, they would understand that that is not an acceptable or sensible conflation: Feingold is not his resolution, and no matter how much they dislike Feingold, they should dislike Bush’s dangerously autocratic policies more. Did Feingold make a smooth play to solidify his support with the base? Absolutely. Did he succeed? Stunningly. Will Dayton or Obama or Clinton voting no on Feingold's resolution make us like them more and Feingold less? Don’t be stupid. But many Democratic senators are being precisely that stupid.
Hey, Senators? Feingold beat you to the punch; get over it. The censure resolution is on the table now; deal with that. Did Bush break the law? Yes: he admits he did; he just doesn’t think the law applies to him. Is it the proper role of Congress to “jealously” (James Madison’s word) protect its power relative to the President by smacking him back down to size and reasserting the perennial truth that we are a nation of laws and not men? It’s not even debatable: of course that’s Congress’ job. And since Democrats are the opposition party in Congress, it falls to them to take the lead -- and no one, not even those illusory “swing voters," are going to hold it against them if they do what’s both expected and right.
The other, unacknowledged burr under the Senate Democrats’ saddle is that most of them are uncomfortable with their base. No, it’s worse than that: they’re distasteful, dismissive, even repelled by us. Republican activists get their hair cut every week and go to churches that focus harmlessly on the afterlife instead of on prophetic justice and only have homosexual sex behind closed closet doors, like they’re supposed to. It’s not too painful for Republican politicians to have lunch with them when they can't get wiggle of it. But I increasingly suspect that many Democratic politicians -- especially in the uber-genteel Senate -- don’t really like Democrats. Democratic activists like to do that stupid “Hey hey, ho ho” chant. The females don’t use sex to get what they want, at least from politicians, and the males do wear earrings, and at the more populist fundraisers a puzzled Democratic politician may wind up sitting across the table from a transgendered lesbian woman or some similarly troubling person. That kind of thing can be upsetting on an existential level, or, worse, a reporter might snap a photo. That's not actually the reality of Democratic activists, or at least most of them, but I suspect it's what most of the worst Democratic politicians fear deep inside: a troubling encounter with the Great Unwashed they're supposed to represent.
And the worst of the lot? Liberal bloggers, of course. Most Democratic senators seem to believe the propaganda that we’re pajama-clad basement-dwellers, even though the majority of influential bloggers on the left (I have my doubts about those on the right) are middle-aged attorneys, professors, economists, and the like. And that distaste is part of what is driving our “representatives” ever farther to the right of the political spectrum -- so far to the right that people like me, who believe in God, love our families, desire fair market economies, volunteer in their communities, honor America's veterans, etc., are labeled “lefties” merely because we define those terms more broadly than some others do and because we believe that the current crop of neofascist Republicans (oh , blow it out your rump, Godwin!) are opposed to every one of those formerly-conservative principles.
This site, VichyDems, exists to prod the cowering class in Washington into moving back to the left again, where Democrats historically have found their strength and where they belong. I believe that America flourishes, not when all politicians run to the center, but when conservatives and liberals hold different views and trust our complicated, counterbalanced system of government to convert that tension into constructive energy. There are lots of good reasons -- which I’ve discussed ad nauseum over the past several months -- why moving left again is a good tactic, the most important of which is that it demonstrably wins more elections than unimpassioned, unprincipled centrism does. But most of the Democratic leadership isn’t even willing to engage in that discussion; most of them -- not all, but most -- will pander to us when necessary but make it clear that they do not actually like us and that they never, ever would seriously consider accepting our advice.
Some "liberal" bloggers and commenters (and many, many “concern trolls” who love to give bad advice to the enemy) express "concern" (it's almost always that word, "concern") that targeting and ousting “Vichy” Democrats will cost us seats we need to win back one or both houses of Congress.
My usual response is this: I don’t believe that’s the case, because Joe Lieberman and Henry Cuellar are more trouble than their seats are worth and if we unseated them, the rest of the caucus would sit up, take notice, and start acting cohesively again, which ultimately will win us a lot more seats than we lose.
The Republicans won complete control of government not by running to the center, but by running to the right and persuading the media and the American public to shift right with them. They don’t tolerate defections from the party line; they stick to centrally-distributed talking points and abide by rigid party discipline enforced by a man nicknamed “The Hammer.” They don’t fall silent when discourse turns discordant; they trot out the Big Lie and repeat it so often that it becomes Truth in the same way that big mountains create their own weather. They won by doing the exact opposite of what the DLC crowd preaches we need to do to win.
It’s as if the Democratic leadership doesn’t understand how mirrors work: the key to Republican success wasn’t in the fact that they ran to the right (and that we similarly must shift right if we want to win); it’s in the fact that they ran AWAY from the center -- became more extreme -- and in doing so earned both the support of their base and the trust of centrist voters, who respect people who can articulate and adhere to principles even if they don’t agree with all of them. Copying the Republican formula for success doesn’t mean becoming more conservative [or, I hasten to add, more dishonest], it means becoming more liberal and being proud of it. Articulating, and expecting some reasonable degree of adherence to, a unifying party platform is a good way to articulate principles and win elections, and if that means tossing one or two enablers like Lieberman overboard, good riddance; they're dead weight anyway.
But in addition to the above response, which I believe is true, I have a second reaction to the concern that attacking Vichy Democrats will cost us a potential majority: that until our “leaders” start listening to their constituents and acting like Democrats again, they (and we) don’t deserve to be in power. Until we have our act together and are prepared to govern in a coherent, articulate, unified way, we should stay the hell out of it.
Our nation is facing tremendous problems; only a drastic change in course can possibly reverse them. If we Democrats are not prepared to change America's course, however, then it’s better for the inexorable collapse to occur on the Republicans’ watch than on ours. My preferences, in this order, are: (1) a dialed-in, unified, energized, liberal Democratic Party in power, correcting American's course and restoring her fortunes; (2) a faltering, dissipating, weakening Republican Party in power, living or dying with the consequences of their past actions while real Democrats continue to rebuild our party in the wings; and (3) a faltering, dissipated, weak Democratic Party in power, demonstrating once again to voters that we aren’t ready for prime time and possibly being blamed for a nationwide economic, military and social collapse created by the Republicans but foisted on us.
A lot of intelligent, energetic grassroots activists are working to make sure that (1) above comes true. Most of the Democrats in Congress are working hard to see that (3) above comes true, even though they're too struck with Beltway Blindness to realize that's what they're doing. If they don’t catch a clue and start working with us, (2) above is going to occur again in November, and then either (2) or (3) will occur in 2008. And that’s simply not good enough. Democrats deserve better. America deserves better.
E.J. Dionne’s closing words are so right-on, so conclusively correct, that I’ll use them to close this post as well:
Democrats, unlike Republicans, have yet to develop a healthy relationship between activists willing to test and expand the conventional limits on political debate and the politicians who have to calculate what works in creating an electoral majority.
For two decades, Republicans have used their idealists, their ideologues and their loudmouths to push the boundaries of discussion to the right. In the best of all worlds, Feingold's strong stand would redefine what's "moderate" and make clear that those challenging the legality of the wiretapping are neither extreme nor soft on terrorism.
That would demand coordination, trust and, yes, calculation involving both the vote-counting politicians and the guardians of principle among the activists. Republicans have mastered this art. Democrats haven't.
Turning a minority into a majority requires both passion and discipline. Bringing the two together requires effective leadership. Does anybody out there know how to play this game?
Originally posted March 16, 11:11 pm PT
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