MoveOn.org is circulating a new survey asking its 3.3 million members to plan the group’s "next steps," offering a dozen choices ranging from issues on the national agenda, like ending the Iraq War and climate change, to less mainstream items such as impeachment. But the survey does not even mention Bush’s worst domestic transgression: the suspension of habeas corpus and other fundamental rights in last year’s Military Commissions Act (MCA).
The omission is particularly glaring because habeas corpus and constitutional rights are one of the top priorities of the netroots activists who comprise the membership of MoveOn.org. In a Democrats.com survey of over 400 netroots activists after the November election, restoring habeas corpus ranked first for legislative priorities – above even Iraq withdrawal. MoveOn members have said "restoring the Constitution" should be one of the top priorities for the Democratic Congress, according to MoveOn spokesperson Jennifer Lindenauer, and several leading bloggers recently pressed Congressional Democrats to jam habeas restoration into a defense spending bill. Restoring habeas "is something that we elected them to get done," blogged MyDD’s Matt Stoller. [Update: MoveOn sent out an action alert to members about the issue as well.]
But House Democrats failed to take action. Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton meekly argued Democrats could restore habeas in a "separate bill," a futile strategy since Bush can easily veto stand-alone human rights legislation.
While it may seem like MoveOn is planning its "next steps" with habeas off the radar, Executive Director Eli Pariser says the group simply does not survey all of its campaigns. "Surveying is just a way for us to get a sense of the relative priorities — absent strategic opportunities that we’re sure our members will want to seize," he told me via email. The group is looking to find out where it can "play a constructive role," but they haven not "seen that moment yet," he added.
But if MoveOn keeps holding its fire on habeas corpus, it may wind up looking like the diffident Democrats in Congress who refuse to lead on human rights. The battle lines are already drawn. Most Democrats voted to protect habeas corpus during the MCA fight last year, while Bush backed the bill and will surely veto any attempt to undo it. That is why Congress must attach a human rights provision to essential bills and force Bush’s hand. Netroots leaders like MoveOn don’t need to wait for the right "moment." They have the power to create the moment, (as I’ve argued before). An editorial in the St. Petersburg Times recently hammered this point: "If the Democrats were serious about returning the checks and balances to our legal system, they would add a habeas corpus amendment to every vital piece of relevant legislation until the president capitulates or there are enough votes for an override."
In addition to bloggers’ activism on this front, there are important efforts by the Alliance for Justice, Amnesty International, Sen. Chris Dodd’s Restore-habeas.org, and the ACLU, which launched a high-profile campaign including legislative meetings with bloggers, ads on the New York Times homepage and a MySpace profile for habeas corpus. But these initiatives do not have the financial or political clout of MoveOn, which spent more than every other liberal PAC in the last election cycle except for EMILY’s List. But without more activism, especially within the netroots, it looks like habeas corpus may stay on the backburner for MoveOn and the Democratic Congress.
UPDATE (Monday morning): Eli Pariser adds that MoveOn sent out an action alert about restoring habeas corpus in the Defense Authorization bill, an example of how the group has been working with their members on this issue.
UPDATE 2 (Monday afternoon): Reader Leah Adler adds that Working Assets has launched Lawyers for Habeas, a petition drive to rally the legal community around restoring habeas corpus. "This petition was posted in collaboration with Alliance for Justice and Equal Justice Society and needs thousands of members from the legal community across the country to sign up," she explained.