If there remained any doubt about whether US Senator Russ Feingold did the right thing when he moved to censure President Bush for illegally ordering warrantless wiretapping of Americans, it should have been removed by the news that the Wisconsin Democrat’s call for accountability immediately earned the wrath of Vice President Dick Cheney, Washington’s pre-eminent advocate of executive excess. Rejecting the suggestion that citizens might be concerned about the Administration’s disregard for laws written to protect the constitutionally defined right of Americans to be secure from secret searches and seizures, Cheney said, “The American people have already made their decision. They agree with the President.”
Cheney knows that’s not the case. The warrantless wiretapping was kept strictly secret before the 2004 presidential election–by the White House and by the New York Times, which apparently had the story–so voters never had an opportunity to decide whether they wanted to re-elect a President who first lied to them about the spying and then, when caught, brazenly declared that he would continue to authorize eavesdropping on the phone conversations of US citizens.
If Cheney was deliberately disingenuous, so too were Republican political operatives who churned up the spin machine to suggest that the censure move would mark the Democrats as vindictive Bush haters and doom their prospects in November’s Congressional elections. That fantasy was dispelled by an American Research Group poll that showed a slight plurality of Americans supporting censure, with Democrats backing it overwhelmingly, independents split and a remarkable 29 percent of GOP loyalists in favor of making Bush the first President since Andrew Jackson to be called to account by the Senate.
Unfortunately, the group of Americans that mattered most in the immediate aftermath of Feingold’s announcement, his Democratic colleagues, displayed little enthusiasm for a fight. No one doubts that most, if not all, Senate Democrats share John Kerry’s tepid but true “I think he broke the law” statement. This was Kerry’s assessment of the President’s refusal to follow the guidelines of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires a warrant for domestic wiretaps, when he directed the National Security Agency to begin listening in on the phone conversations of Americans without required judicial oversight. Yet only Iowa’s Tom Harkin and California’s Barbara Boxer expressed support for Feingold’s censure motion before senators exited Washington for spring break. While Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee hailed Feingold’s motion as a “positive” vehicle for promoting debate about constitutional concerns, the majority of Democratic senators, some of them stung by the fact that the maverick Feingold had not consulted them but most merely as cautious as ever, either refused to comment or expressed a preference, as did Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman, for working with Republicans to construct cover for the Administration’s lawbreaking by rewriting rules regarding surveillance programs.
The line that has been peddled quietly by a number of the senators, and somewhat more loudly by pundits–when they aren’t crudely claiming Feingold raised censure only to distinguish himself as a 2008 presidential candidate–is that this is the wrong time for Congressional Democrats to develop a spine. With Bush’s poll ratings sliding to record lows, and with indications that Americans are ready for change, Democratic insiders are afraid to do anything that might upset their chances in November. The fear is that being “too tough” on Bush–by, say, demanding that the Administration obey the law–will make Democrats appear shrill and cost the party’s candidates votes this fall.
Apart from the fact that White House political czar Karl Rove’s spin machine will label Democrats “shrill,” not to mention “unpatriotic,” simply for suggesting that voters shift control of the House and Senate from the President’s party, the rejection of censure–a more moderate rebuke than the articles of impeachment that a growing number of Bush critics on the left and right, including Bruce Fein, an associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan Administration, suggest are appropriate–put the Democrats right back in the corner of overly calculated caution where they positioned themselves for the miserable 2002 and 2004 election cycles.
The opposition party that too rarely opposes appears to stand for nothing. There does not seem to be any principle, not even respect for the rule of law, that motivates most Democrats. As such, they come off as the party that will compromise on anything and everything in order to win elections. In so doing, cynical Democrats create another undeserved opening for Republicans who have argued, time and again and with considerable success, that Bush, Cheney and their Congressional allies may not always get things right but at least they operate from a place of conviction. John Nichols