None of this fits any of the tried-and-true formulations in the red-and-blue American playbook. A mild- mannered Midwestern Senator—Russ Feingold—announces on a Sunday-morning chat show that he’s going to introduce a resolution to censure the President. His grounds are straightforward: that the President’s warrantless-wiretapping initiative violates the law and the constitutional separation of powers. His party’s leaders, all universally understood as coastal-elite figures drunk on their hatred of the President and hell-bent on his undoing—well, they flee en masse, literally hiding behind each other as inquiring reporters try to suss out what they make of the proposal.
“Both Democratic politicians and pundits are afraid,” Mr. Feingold said on March 21 by phone. He was between constituent tours during the week’s Congressional recess. “Time and again, they allow themselves to be intimidated from taking a strong stand against the administration.”
Mr. Feingold said that he came to the idea of censure after three months of watching the N.S.A. issue wend its way through Congress and flail slowly into nothingness. “Even though [Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen] Specter was trying to hold hearings, they were weak. [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales wasn’t addressing the issue. They were putting up a brick wall—their legal arguments were not persuasive.
“Then, when they briefed the [Senate] Intelligence Committee on the program—well, all I can say is that it was amazing how little we were told. All they get to do is listen to the administration—even when the administration doesn’t feel like talking. And then there was this proposal to break up the Intelligence Committee so that it could work even less effectively.”
From all this self-administered Senatorial gagging came only new legislation proposed by Senator Mike DeWine (R.-Ohio) that would essentially go back and retrospectively legalize the abuses of power under the N.S.A. program. “I wanted to see the headline then,” Mr. Feingold joked: “‘Republican Senate Proposes Law to Make Illegal Program Legal.’
“What they succeeded in doing, in other words, was to sweep the illegality under the rug,” Mr. Feingold said. “I decided it was time to include that on the record and came up with the censure proposal, to bring accountability back into the discussion. And I succeeded in doing that. That’s been achieved.”
Maybe so. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to the commentators in the fourth estate, itself supposedly an informal check on executive power as well as the great liberal-elite mothership, at least as per the prophets Coulter, Goldberg, Bozell. On the following Sunday, they marveled at the lone Senator’s cluelessness. There go those Democrats again, they wailed in patrician befuddlement: They’re being handed every electoral advantage they could wish for, and some crank lawmaker has to spoil it all by taking a stand. How out of touch. How bumbling, how typical.
Tune in next week, when the exact same corps of televisual pundits bewails the Democrats for not proposing alternatives or having a winning strategy.
Mr. Feingold is using a different frame of reference, though—one that pans well back of the horse-race babble that is Washington’s lingua franca. “What I’m seeing is that, while Congress did reassert itself vis-à-vis Nixon, now it’s abdicating more and more of its power to the executive. I think it’s a very dangerous thing: Congress is allowing itself to be minimized, while the President is claiming more unchecked power. At the time I was coming out with this censure proposal, the President was reiterating his commitment to the extremist doctrine of pre-emptive warfare.” This marks, Mr. Feingold said, “a historic attempt to aggrandize power to the executive.”
IF MR. FEINGOLD’S PROPOSAL TO CENSURE the President for the N.S.A.’s casual annexation of your private life to its daily to-do list has achieved nothing else, it has exposed the unutterable hollowness of the policing of respectable opinion in our nation’s capital. If that bluest of elite blue institutions—the Congressional leadership of the Democratic Party—doesn’t want to censure an opposition-party President for his defiance of Congress’ own lawmaking, well, then what could it possibly want?
“There is no leadership in the Democratic Party,” said Terry Michael by phone on March 20. He’s a former Democratic National Committee press secretary who now heads the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism. “If only the Democratic Party leaders were alive, they could accept a debate on this. But instead, their strategy is focused on how best to muddle through.”
This goes double, in Mr. Michael’s view, for the party’s funereal flight from debate on the war in Iraq. Indeed, he said, the cower-duck-and-run maneuvers that party eminences conducted in the wake of Mr. Feingold’s announcement was almost identical to the drear chorus of prim disapproval when Pennsylvania Congressman John P. Murtha disavowed his early support of the Iraq war and called, last November, for rapid draw-downs of the U.S. troop presence.
Heavyweight aspirants to the ’08 Presidential nomination—people like Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware—clucked their disapproval and stressed how Mr. Murtha only spoke for himself. For her part, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi mewled that she didn’t cotton to Mr. Murtha’s resolution but respected him as a veteran and part of the Democratic Party’s grand mosaic of opinion.
Then, when Republican attacks on Mr. Murtha went haywire and addled freshman Congresswoman Jean Schmidt (R.-Ohio) called the decorated Vietnam vet a coward on the House floor, Ms. Pelosi managed to stir herself to an endorsement—when all was assuredly safe and the Murtha resolution was good and doomed anyway.
“A voice like a Jack Murtha or a Russ Feingold literally cannot be heard,” Mr. Michael said, “when you have a so-called opposition party colluding with the party in power.
“The fear factor inside the Democratic Party is appalling,” he added. “You’ve got these small-minded Democratic-consultant-driven political leaders, and then you’ve got real neocons who refuse to listen to the base of the party …. You have these voices of unbridled ambition—Hillary Clinton first among them—who are asking the base to nominate them, when they’re not even listening to the base when it comes to the most important issue in American politics today.” Look at the 2004 convention in Boston, Mr. Michael said: “Ninety percent of the people in that nominating hall wanted to end this war, and they wound up voting in a ticket where both candidates voted for it—and said they still supported it.”
Other veterans of past Democratic campaigns don’t share Mr. Michael’s bitterness, but they recognize his befuddlement. David Kusnet, a former Clinton speechwriter whose book Speaking American was an important touchstone in the ’92 Clinton campaign, said the Feingold censure motion “shouldn’t be an issue of party loyalty.” He doesn’t support the idea of the resolution, arguing that it should only be considered after a proper investigation.
But as a practical political matter, he said, “it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Feingold alone, or two or three other Senators”—so far the measure has only won support from Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Barbara Boxer of California—“would jeopardize their chances in ’06” by advancing the proposal. “And you just can’t go into a defensive crouch,” he said, “and say that someone 2,000 miles away from Wisconsin would lose in a competitive race because this other guy introduced the censure resolution.”
Indeed, last Sunday, Democrats had to endure the additional embarrassment of hearing William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and a key conservative opinion-maker, announce on Fox News Sunday that Senator Feingold “is smarter than the Democratic Congressional leadership” and “deserves credit for taking a principled stand.” What’s more, Mr. Kristol argued, “I think he’s winning this debate …. As long as the charge is out there [that President Bush has broken the law] and is unrebutted, it helps.” And while Mr. Kristol by no means endorses Mr. Feingold’s aims, he “is making his case coherently. He’s an impressive politician.”
Which may be the reason the Democratic Party can’t figure out what to do with him—and why they need a G.O.P. opinion-broker to point out when they hold a potential advantage in political debate. “Democrats at this point tend to have so much scar tissue that they bleed before they’re hit,” said Mr. Kusnet. “A lesson of the last Presidential campaign was that there’s something to be said for having a position and making the case for it convincingly.”
“YOU NEED SOME SORT OF PROPOSAL for people to crystallize opinion around,” said John T. Barry, author of The Ambition and the Power, a richly detailed account of Newt Gingrich’s rise to Congressional influence via the relentless pursuit of House ethics matters. “One or two people in the House have talked about impeachment, but there you have judiciary rules that prevent any action, and you’re in the minority party. In the Senate, you at least have an opportunity to get an idea across …. I think it will further erode support for the G.O.P.”
It bears noting that Mr. Barry, like Mr. Kristol, is scarcely carrying water for the Democrats. A New Orleans resident, he has been coordinating efforts with former Speaker Gingrich to step up federal housing support for hurricane victims. But as with the G.O.P. in the Wright matter, the censure question could produce important tactical advantages—and go some way toward redefining a minority party’s identity after it has long been characterized, with considerable justification, as aimlessly adrift.
“You start out by putting the opposition on the defensive,” he said. “The Democrats are trying to portray the White House’s position as that these people see themselves above the law. By casting the argument in those terms explicitly, I think they will continue to make headway. After all, the President is eroding support even among Republicans right now.”
Former Clinton press secretary Joseph Lockhart, now a consultant with the high-concept political-marketing firm the Glover Park Group, sees no political downside to Senator Feingold’s proposal—and likewise sees much desperation in the Republican spin that it would be another self-inflicted Democratic wound that would haunt the minority party in the fall elections. All the G.O.P. bluster about an early vote on the Feingold proposal to smoke out weak-sister Democrats for elimination in November, Mr. Lockhart said, “is complete nonsense.”
He said: “One simple rule of politics is that the more ferociously you’re pushing your talking points, the less you believe in them. The Republicans jumping so hard on this tells you that they believe they’re in a really vulnerable position—that this issue is not the winner they thought it was.”
But Democratic Congressional leaders are treating the G.O.P.’s ability to dictate the terms of debate as a virtual law of nature. It is arguably the whole point of political leadership to make volatile forces swing in your direction, and harness them to a coherent stand. By contrast, Mr. Michael said, the reigning mentality among Democratic leaders is that “if we take a stand, we risk defeat. That’s a chicken-shit refusal to have a real debate …. The Democratic establishment and the press establishment won’t let that debate happen.”
Senator Feingold seems placidly determined to ignore all that. “Guess what? They’re out of touch,” he said. “That story is finally emerging, now that polls are showing popular support for a censure. It just shows that people in that town are only talking to each other. You can publish that. That’s on the record.”