Just before its implosion last November, the Republican Congress passed the Military Commissions Act (MCA), one of the worst legislative setbacks to human rights policy since World War II. The law dilutes restrictions against torture; provides new immunity for war criminals; eliminates habeas corpus, the sacrosanct right to go to court and challenge government detention, for US residents; and authorizes rigged military trials for people captured on and off the battlefield, without any oversight by American courts.
But the public barely noticed because Congress approved the sweeping legislation with no hearings in a seven-day rush before the midterm elections. Some Democrats in the new Congress say they will roll back the law. Yet they are under pressure instead to address the Iraq War and the requests of their top interest groups, which rarely focus on constitutional rights. Some Democrats want to avoid the entire issue, arguing that because Bush will veto any reforms, they should just hope the Supreme Court finds the law unconstitutional. (This timid logic was recently outlined by an anonymous Democratic Senate staffer who told the The New Yorker that “we’re basically leaving it up to the courts” instead of confronting Bush.) But there is one progressive group with the political influence, financial clout and policy expertise to put constitutional rights on the Congressional agenda: the emerging network of liberal bloggers, netroots activists and blink tanks–blogs that function as online think tanks–that have been doggedly fighting the Bush Administration’s six-year assault on the Constitution.
Beyond changing power in Washington, the midterms also demonstrated how dramatically bloggers can upend public opinion. They successfully promoted long-shot candidates like Montana’s new Senator Jon Tester and redefined popular incumbents such as former Virginia Senator George Allen, who was YouTubed to political death by clips of his racist “macaca” comment and an attack by his campaign staff. Now many influential liberal bloggers are turning their attention to repealing the MCA.
Bob Fertik, a blogger and founder of ImpeachPAC, a political action committee that raised more than $75,000 for House candidates who support impeachment hearings for Bush and Cheney, is one of many activist bloggers arguing that constitutional rights should top the “netroots legislative agenda.” When one liberal website recently asked more than 400 online activists to vote on their preferred legislative priorities for Democrats, restoring habeas corpus ranked first–ahead of Iraq withdrawal and impeachment. During recent live chats with readers of Daily Kos, the top liberal blog, Democrats Chuck Schumer and John Edwards heard several pleas to repeal the MCA. One activist told Schumer, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, that while the election was encouraging, Democratic constituents were counting on the Senate to pass legislation “so that habeas corpus can be restored and all loopholes that allow torture [will] be closed.”
The Democratic Party’s top interest groups, however, have different priorities. In 2006, the top ten PACs donating to Democratic Congressional candidates included eight unions, the realtors lobby and the trial lawyers, while the top ten PACs in total spending consisted of five unions, a prochoice group, the realtors lobby and two netroots organizations, MoveOn.org and ActBlue.com, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Last year, the United Auto Workers committee spent about $13 million to advance labor’s agenda, for example, while ActBlue directed more than $12 million to Democratic candidates, without pushing any legislative agenda at all. Instead, a decentralized group of netroots donors supported challengers chosen by activists and bloggers. There was no political litmus test, but some of the most popular stances included opposing the Iraq War, aggressively confronting Republicans, economic populism and defending constitutional rights–such as opposing warrantless wiretapping, banning torture and, more recently, restoring habeas corpus. Fighting for these constitutional rights could become the netroots’ top legislative priority in 2007.