The Republican National Committee has made a remarkable discovery. U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has long been thought to be an outsider in the Senate Democratic Caucus, is not a maverick at all.
It turns out that Feingold is a "Democratic leader" who, according to RNC researchers, is pretty much setting the party's agenda.
In one of a series of talking-points memos distributed from the Republican headquarters in Washington since Feingold proposed on Monday that the president should be censured, the senator's photo appears next to a bold headline that declares: "THE DEBATE IS OVER: DEMS FIND THEIR AGENDA." A subhead reads: "Dem Leaders 'Ecstatically' Embrace Sen. Feingold's Plan To Weaken The Tools To Fight The War On Terror."
Apart from the fact that the underlying premise of the memo is inaccurate - there's no Democratic plan to weaken the tools to fight the war on terror, which has already been effectively undermined by the misguided invasion and occupation of Iraq and determination of the White House to treat "homeland security" as a slogan rather than an imperative - the RNC's announcement makes what, even in these hyperbolic times, is a remarkable claim.
Not only has Feingold proposed censuring President Bush for authorizing illegal eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of American citizens but, according to the Republican memorandums, this is now the "agenda" of the Democratic Party.
In a breathless headline, the RNC announces: "Dem Leaders (Are) Embracing (Feingold's) Plan To Censure President For Intercepting Foreign Terrorists Before They Hit Us Again."
It would probably be a bit picayune to note that Feingold does not want to stop intercepting foreign terrorists. He just wants the president to follow the law when listening in on phone calls placed by American citizens on American soil.
But what's really intriguing about the "news" that Democratic leaders have gotten on board for the Feingold plan is the fact that, well, they haven't done so. Indeed, there is little evidence that Washington Democrats are in any more of a fighting mood this year than they were in 2002 or 2004.
Only two senators, Iowa's Tom Harkin and California's Barbara Boxer, have expressed clear support for Feingold's censure proposal.
The statements of support from Harkin and Boxer quoted in the RNC memos, which have been widely circulated to reporters, pundits and politicos in Washington and beyond. But so too are statements from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry that are portrayed as endorsements even though Reid, Durbin and Kerry have only said that Feingold is a "man of principle" and that the censure motion is "interesting" as a "catalyst" for debate.
Feingold read those comments as a tepid response from Democratic leaders and said so. "I'm amazed at Democrats ... cowering with this president's numbers so low," he told reporters. "The administration ... just has to raise the specter of the war on terror, and Democrats run and hide."
MoveOn.org, similarly concerned, launched an online campaign to get Democratic senators to back the censure motion. The campaign proved so popular, gaining more than 200,000 signatures on pro-censure petitions in a day, that MoveOn upped its goal from 250,000 signatures to 350,000 signatures. But MoveOn still expresses concern: "Right now it's unclear how many of Senator Feingold's colleagues will stand with him in this important fight."
The online activists must not have gotten the memo from the RNC.
Of course, the MoveOn folks are a cynical bunch. They may think that these RNC memos suggest a "they-doth-protest-too-much" scenario in which the Republicans are trying to "spin" the censure debate in a manner that causes the actual if spineless leaders of the Democratic Party to distance themselves from the one member of the Senate Democratic Caucus who has decided to raise fundamental questions about the illegal actions of the administration.
Really cynical folks might even conclude that -- with polling showing Americans do want the president and his administration held to account -- the Republicans have an ulterior motive. By scaring Democratic leaders off and forcing the censure issue back into the closet before, the White House political team can again spin away a serious threat to the president -- much like the threat that Karl Rove admitted he feared could have emerged in the 2004 presidential election if, instead of Kerry, Democrats had nominated a presidential candidate who aggressively challenged administration's Iraq policies.
But the Republicans need not worry. As long as most congressional Democrats continue to "cower," the wedge that divides those "leaders" from the party's base voters, as well as the many Republicans and independents who worry about warrantless wiretapping, will remain firmly in place. And prospects for the fundamental political debate about this administration's misdeeds remain almost as slim as in the 2002 and 2004 election cycles.