To understand national politics in the runup to a Presidential election -- which, unfortunately, has already started -- one must know who's running, where the alliances and allegiances are, and who's tacking which direction and why. In such times, politicians tend to overthink: for example, every Senator who's not immediately supporting Russ Feingold's resolution to censure the President is overthinking a fundamentally simple question, to-wit: when the President admits breaking a serious law, is it too much to ask that the opposition party unanimously and formally register its displeasure?
But electoral politics do interfere. Hillary Clinton already is running hard, trying to accumulate both money (she didn't REALLY travel to Oregon to raise money for her Senate race, did she?) and information (which, as her husband kept reiterating, is the new currency of power) for her 2008 bid. What's more, she's trying to corner those markets: asking contributors not to make contributions to any other Democrats, cutting the national party out of the data game, and positioning her lackey, Rahm Emanuel, to reclaim a tenuous Democratic Congressional majority in a way that will make the entire caucus beholden to the Clintons, their allies and the DLC rather than the DNC.
The front line at present, of course, is Russ Feingold's resolution to censure the President for what he admits is an intentional, ongoing breach of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. As I said above, this should be a no-brainer -- but then, this (threee years out) is an "election year", so everyone acts as if they have no brains. Mark Dayton (D-MN) announces he thinks the President has broken the law and should be reined in but won't vote to censure him because he doesn't want to play "Presidential politics," thereby revealing how eager he is to play presidential politics. Marshall Wittman, a Republican (yes, you read that right!) senior staffer at the Democratic Leadership Conference who used to work in the Bush 41 White House and was a Republican Congressional aide before that, displays his (understandable) disinterest in the overall good of the Democratic party and his willingness to undercut anyone who isn't Hillary by handing Republicans a two-fer, slamming Feingold and sneaking a gratuitous shot at John Kerry into the soundbite as well: he called the censure resolution "the equivalent of calling for a filibuster from Davos." Link. (John Kerry called for a filibuster of Samuel Alito at a conference in Washington, D.C., but announced it to the press while attending an economic summit in Davos, Switzerland -- a working trip that Republicans, and apparently the pro-Clinton DLC as well, knowingly misrepresent as a hoity-toity ski trip.)(I keep scratching my head: can anyone still believe the Democratic Leadership Council and its favorite, Hillary Clinton, are in any way affiliated with the Democratic Party, when the DLC not only hires an unreformed Republican like Wittman, but doesn't fire him the day after he makes a statement like that?)
But back to the point, which is that for many senators, the game now, two and a half years before the next Presidential election, is not governance. It's not even partisan politics. It's already dog-eat-dog, individual, Presidential electoral politics, a slow but deliberate jockeying for position long before the sprint, like short-track speed-skaters. And that premature and self-interested triangulation is interfering with the real work we've sent our representatives to D.C. to do -- like protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Mark Leibovich published a good "players roster" of Senatorial Presidential contenders in Sunday's Washington Post; it's a must-bookmark for anyone who wants to understand what's really happening beneath the surface of Washington politics, even with 2008 seemingly so far away. Leibovich explains how jealousy makes senators afraid to support each other, and how even good-faith efforts to lead can get miscast or misinterpreted as election-cycle jockeying for position:
Of course, it's also common for senators to use their colleagues' interest in the White House as a weapon to impugn their motives. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was asked not long ago about something Brownback had said about Bush's judicial nominations. "Eh, I'm not running for president," Reid said, "so I have a very different constituency than Brownback does."
People who have served in the Senate say members are often uneasy with outward expressions of ambition -- particularly the ambitions of their colleagues. It's human nature for a senator to ask, "Who does that guy think he is?" says former senator Gary Hart, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988. He says he detected resentment and jealousy from other senators, especially during the heady days of his 1984 campaign after he stunned frontrunner Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary.
"They were angry at themselves for not running while I did," Hart says.
Those Senators who are already taking sides for the 2008 elections are falling prey to this syndrome in the embarrassingly cowardly way they are responding to Feingold's censure motion: they know Feingold is eying a Presidential bid in 2008, so they interpret his censure resolution as an electoral tactic, not as a serious effort to focus public attention on Presidential misconduct. Such black-and-white thinking is a mistake. Feingold's action was both the right thing to do, and the right thing to do politically; the one isn't cancelled out by the other. Wise Democrats would see this and support censure even if it benefits Feingold politically, because reining in an arrogant, unrestrained, mendacious president is more important than any individual candidate's fortunes two and a half years from now. In any case, a rising electoral tide floats all boats. A unanimous Democratic vote for censure would advance the interests of ALL Democrats: the 1/3 who are up for reelection this year, the 2/3 who would profit by regaining the majority, and all of the Presidential contenders. And a split-party vote, with censure not just losing but going down in flames with significant Democratic defections, would hurt all Democrats -- not just Feingold but all the rest.
Mature leaders should be able to separate politics from governance and do the right thing. If mature leadership is still in the Democrats' toolkit these days, dusty and in need of oil but still functional, then I would respectfully suggest that demonstrating that it is might persuade a few voters to pull the "D" lever next November. Which would be good for everyone.
CONTACT DEMOCRATIC SENATORS HERE TO LOBBY FOR SUPPORT FOR FEINGOLD'S CENSURE RESOLUTION
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