I admit to great ambivalence over Senator Russ Feingold’s flagging effort to officially censure President Bush. The same sort of ambivalence I felt when he voted – a few years back–to confirm John Ashcroft for Attorney General because, Feingold argued, a President should have the cabinet he wants.
Feingold is a senator of singular courage and solid principle (note that he was also the only senator to vote against the same Ashcroft’s Patriot Act). His call to censure is a bold and admirable moral stand. But effective politics are rarely about morality – unfortunately. Censure, like impeachment (and for that matter like Western Civilization)to paraphrase Gandhi, "would be a good idea."
Censure or impeachment is neither about the law nor really very much about the Constitution. They are, instead, strictly and wholly political acts. So we have to ask ourselves, is Feingold’s move actually good politics? Any somnolent Grand Jury could probably indict just about any sitting president on some or another high crime or misdemeanor. But so what? There must be a political consensus to move ahead with such acts — either untenable revulsion even by one’s own party as was the case with Nixon (who jumped before getting pushed). Or of a solid partisan opposition majority, as was the case with Bill Clinton.
Neither of these conditions is present in the case of George W. Bush. It’s little wonder that most other Democrats went scurrying away from Feingold’s resolution. Who couldn’t predict that? It’s hard to believe that the Senator from Wisconsin, one of the sharpest guys around, didn’t fully anticipate this, thereby raising questions about his own intent. Was his move to censure a personal moral statement? A pre-positioning as the "progressive" alternative in 2008? Perhaps. If there’s a broader political strategy, what is it?
What we do know, and what Feingold certainly knew, is that this issue coming to vote is nigh impossible.
As I said, I’m ambivalent. Right now George W. Bush is at an all-time low in his popularity ratings. His party is fragmenting over immigration, spending, the Dubai ports deal and his general unpopularity. It’s a rare golden opportunity for Democrats –one that has fallen into their laps rather than having been seized. I might be wrong, but, in agreement with Josh Marshall, I suspect that these same Democrats would be much better served by concentrating on a pro-active counter-offer to a disgruntled electorate instead of imposing upon it some sort of "prosecute Bush" litmus test.
Progressives should be particularly sensitive to this point. The conventional wisdom on the Democratic Left is that the more liberal the 2008 Democratic nominee, the more virulently anti-Bush, the more successful he or she will be. Again, I’d like that to be true but I’ve no way to prove it. Can anyone?
Meanwhile, as Matt Bai pointed out in this week’s New York Times Magazine, the momentum inside the machinery of the Democratic Party might be tilting in an unpredictable direction. What if the eventual "Anti-Hillary" runs not to her left, but to her right? Even better reason for liberals to stay focused on what’s ahead rather than simply flailing away at Bush.