Last week, Russell Feingold, Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, gave Democrats an opportunity to challenge Republicans on principle. Most of his colleagues, however, appear eager to pass up the chance.
Three weeks ago, Democrats demonstrated a rare, albeit misguided, show of consensus, focused, as they were, on a sexy non-issue. Preying off of fear and insecurity (with a little ignorance of all things Arab thrown in for good measure), they were busy raising the specter of a Dubai-based company administering six US ports. Democrats had found an opening to challenge the President on his signature issue-national security-and were determined to capitalize.
The debate that ensued was a mixture of irresponsible rhetoric about the United Arab Emirates and Dubai, confusion about the role of a port administrator, and not a lot about what was actually required to make ports more secure.
In any case, with Republicans in control of both Houses of Congress and fearing that this xenophobic attack might hurt their chances in November, the GOP moved to seize control of the issue. Republican leaders put forward legislation of their own to block Dubai’s acquisition of the ports. They succeeded and Dubai ultimately agreed to divest itself of the US ports. That divestiture, an increase in anti-Arab sentiment, and some damage to US relationships with valued Middle East allies, appear to be major results of the entire affair.
With the war in Iraq continuing to unravel and the President’s job approval continuing to decline, it appeared likely that a more direct challenge might follow.
Enter Russ Feingold.
Long a fierce critic of the way the Bush Administration has conducted the war on terror, Feingold took to the Senate floor this week to introduce a resolution of censure against President Bush. In a harsh floor statement Feingold explained his reasoning:
"The President authorized an illegal program to spy on American citizens on American soil, and then misled Congress and the public about the existence and legality of that program. It is up to this body to reaffirm the rule of law by condemning the President’s actions.
"All of us in this body took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and bear true allegiance to the same. Fulfilling that oath requires us to speak clearly and forcefully when the President violates the law. This resolution allows us to send a clear message that the President’s conduct was wrong.
"And we must do that. The President’ actions demand a formal judgment from Congress."
The reaction to the resolution has been intriguing. In the topsy-turvy world of partisan politics, Republicans are celebrating Feingold’s move, while most Democrats are either silent or actively distancing themselves from the effort.
Within two days of Feingold’s speech Republicans have sent an editorial on the censure attempt to 15 million contributors. By warning the party faithful of what Democrats may do if they gain control of either Houses of Congress in November, Republicans hope to spur 2006 election fundraising. Democrats, on the other hand, appear paralyzed. They have no consensus on this issue and are not yet decided on which issues they want to advance in November. They know that opposition to both the war and the Administration’s post-9/11 violations of civil liberties are popular with their party’s base, but fear alienating more moderate voters. And so, while they might agree to "bait" Dubai, they can’t agree to challenge NSA spying, for fear being accused of being weak on national security.
Some Democrats say that Feingold failed to consult with them in advance or of not waiting until an investigation of the NSA matter is completed. In response, Feingold points to other opportunities Democrats wasted by waiting. Just a few months ago, for example, Democrats brought the Senate to a stand-still until Republicans agreed to investigate charges that the Bush Administration lied about pre-Iraq war intelligence. That issue was referred to committee and has yet to be acted upon.
Urging caution and focus on "home grown" issues, the consultant class and leaders of the Democrats’ 2006 effort appear to be taking their party down the same road that led to failure in the past few elections. Feingold, it appears, decided not to seek their "imprimatur" for his effort, fearing that they would only seek to block it.
There are also those who accuse Feingold of self-promotion. But, the Senate has never been composed of shy and self-effacing members. Those accusing Feingold would have to work very hard at keeping a straight face while delivering the charge. To his credit, what Feingold knew is that the Democratic base is looking for principled leadership and a challenge to the Bush Administration based on substance.
His censure resolution might never see the light of day, but what Russ Feingold has done is remind Americans that there are real issues at stake in the war on terrorism and all it takes to raise them is a commitment to principles and a leader willing to take risks.