Dick Durbin: Bush Fighter
Though Durbin cast an unwise vote for the USA Patriot Act in the fall of 2001, he soon emerged as one of the Senate's most outspoken critics of that legislation's excesses. Zogby says that Durbin stands out as one of Congress's most ardent battlers against racial and ethnic profiling, a stance for which he has earned high praise from the American Civil Liberties Union. And as the Abu Ghraib scandal blew up, it was Durbin who introduced an amendment to the 2005 defense authorization bill reaffirming the US ban on torture. More recently, during the Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales to serve as Attorney General, Durbin grilled the White House counsel regarding the Administration's tolerance of torture before voting against him.
In recent years, Durbin has become the go-to man for liberal activists who cannot get a hearing from their own senators. When Bush nominated Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Diane Sykes, a rigid conservative with a troubling record on criminal justice issues, to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Wisconsin's Democratic senators deferred to home-state pressures and backed away from a fight. But Durbin took it on, charging that Sykes had engaged in "major-league evasion" when she was asked by Judiciary Committee members about abortion rights issues, and he convinced more than two dozen Democratic senators to join him in opposing a nominee who many believe is on the fast track to become the next conservative woman on the US Supreme Court. "Most senators, particularly senators who are angling for a place in the leadership, would not take on a fight like that," says the Alliance for Justice's Aron. "But Durbin recognized that there was a need to challenge her at this point, if only to establish a record for the future."
While Durbin is very much a member of the inner circle of Senate progressives--after the 2002 elections he formed a loose-knit progressive caucus that included Massachusetts's Ted Kennedy, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, New Jersey's Jon Corzine and several other senators who wanted Democrats to get more aggressive in battling Bush--he is no fan of lonely protest votes. He is determined to hold the Democratic caucus together in order to get the forty votes necessary to stall Bush nominees and policies. Even as he moves to leadership, Durbin plans to maintain a high profile on the Judiciary Committee--and to serve as a bridge between committee Democrats and the full caucus. "I think the members of our caucus understand the gravity of this moment," he says. "The new Supreme Court Justice could tip the scales on many close decisions. I hope President Bush really does the right thing for America and finds someone who is more moderate and not extreme. But if he should choose someone who is extreme in his positions, then I think that the Senate Democratic caucus will stand together and oppose him."
Durbin can also be expected to lead on issues related to the war in Iraq. Both Daschle and Reid voted in favor of authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq in the fall of 2002. Durbin, on the other hand, was one of the Senate's loudest critics of the measure. "I felt then as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that the President had not made his case for that war, and certainly had not demonstrated that we were prepared to go in effectively and win quickly," he says. "Without a broad coalition, without the support of other nations, we ran the risk of what we're currently facing, which is an intractable conflict with no end in sight." Does that mean that Durbin is ready to begin talking about the need for a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops? "I don't know that we've reached that moment, but we may be near," he says. Then, showing those political instincts that have served him so well, Durbin frames his questioning of the war in terms of concern for Army National Guard and Reserve units that he says have been "pushed to the breaking point." He says, "The President is facing a strain on the military that cannot be sustained."
Durbin's vote against the Iraq War came during his first Senate re-election campaign, and he took hits from his Republican challenger for casting it, but he was easily re-elected. "Durbin crossed the Rubicon with that 2002 vote against the war," says David Axelrod, the political consultant. "He made it clear that, even as he was moving up in the Senate, he wasn't going to start looking over his shoulder and worrying about what votes were safe." For his part, Durbin says, "I think it was the most important vote that I ever cast in twenty-two years of service on Capitol Hill, and I think it was one of the best votes." Then, sounding like a very different leader than Senate Democrats have had for a long time, he adds, "I am not going to shrink away from this at all. In fact, I think the American people are ready for Democrats to start speaking up."
Durbin's determination to speak out, and his proven ability to do so in ways that work, both on Capitol Hill and beyond, do not merely mark him as a man to watch in this Congress. They mark him as one of the best hopes for a party that has struggled for the better part of a decade to identify itself as something more than just the lite brand of Republicanism. The man who was on the vice-presidential short lists of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 dismisses talk of a presidential run; he jokes that he now leaves such speculation to the junior senator from Illinois, his friend and ideological ally Barack Obama. What he really wants, Durbin says, is to stop playing defense and to use what he refers to as "the most important forum in America" to define the Democratic Party as a vibrant alternative to the conservative brainlock that has settled over Washington. "This is a critical moment for our party, but it is also a critical moment for our nation. Right now, we have to fight to prevent bad things from happening, but that's not enough," says Durbin. "We need to be blunt about what distinguishes Democrats from Republicans on the issues that matter. You can do that as an opposition party. And if you do it right, you won't be the opposition party for long."