Democrats' Strategy: Strength Through Bowing
Historians writing about the Bush era were given a great gift yesterday -- an iconic headline that explains so much of what has happened in this country over the last seven years:
Their rationale for doing that is that it prevents the Republicans from depicting them as "weak," because nothing exudes strength like bowing. Here's more evidence of the brilliance of the Democratic strategy to show how "strong" and "tough" they are by bowing to Bush and all of his demands, from this morning's New York Times article by Eric Lichtblau:
WASHINGTON - The Senate gave final approval on Wednesday to a major expansion of the government's surveillance powers, handing President Bush one more victory in a series of hard-fought clashes with Democrats over national security issues. . . .
Even as his political stature has waned, Mr. Bush has managed to maintain his dominance on national security issues in a Democratic-led Congress. He has beat back efforts to cut troops and financing in Iraq, and he has won important victories on issues like interrogation tactics and military tribunals in the fight against terrorism. . . . Debate over the surveillance law was the one area where Democrats had held firm in opposition. . . . .But in the end Mr. Bush won out, as administration officials helped forge a deal between Republican and Democratic leaders that included almost all the major elements the White House wanted. The measure gives the executive branch broader latitude in eavesdropping on people abroad and at home who it believes are tied to terrorism, and it reduces the role of a secret intelligence court in overseeing some operations.
President Bush generously patted the Democrats on the head for their compliance with what they were told to do. Here is the head-patting headline on the White House's website:
The Leader wasn't entirely pleased, as it took longer for Democrats to comply with his orders than he wanted, and he thus pointed out -- with the disapproving tone a teacher uses to scold a mildly delinquent student -- that the bill "is long overdue." Nonetheless, he singled out the most compliant members for special praise:
I want to thank the members of my administration who worked hard to get this legislation passed. I thank the Democratic and Republican leadership in the Congress for their efforts, particularly House Majority Leader Hoyer, House Republican Whip Blunt, Senators Bond and Rockefeller, Congressmen Hoekstra, Reyes and Smith.
And the President has every right to be pleased. Eric Lichtblau -- who went through the trouble of exposing the illegal NSA spying program for, as it turns out, no good reason -- put it this way:
The program was disclosed in December 2005 by The New York Times. . . . . The vote came two and a half years after public disclosure of the wiretapping program set off a fierce national debate over the balance between protecting the country from another terrorist strike and ensuring civil liberties. The final outcome in Congress, which opponents of the surveillance measure had conceded for weeks, seemed almost anticlimactic in contrast.
"Anticlimactic" is a mild description for a scandal that began with disclosure that the President of the United States and the telecom industry were committing felonies for years in how they spied on American citizens, only to end with a Congress controlled by the "opposition party" legalizing the surveillance, protecting the lawbreakers, terminating the only meaningful process for discovering what really happened, and embracing the premise that the President has the power to order private actors to break the law as long as, in his sole discretion, he decrees that doing so is legal. On the bright side, we can rest assured that -- even though there is no individual warrant requirement for huge categories of eavesdropping on our telephone calls and email communications -- they promise not to abuse that power:
There is nothing to fear in the bill, said Senator Christopher S. Bond, the Missouri Republican who was a lead negotiator, "unless you have Al Qaeda on your speed dial."
Such promises -- that our magnanimous Government Leaders will only use eavesdropping powers for the Right Reasons, and therefore we can trust in them and thus don't need any of this bothersome "oversight" nonsense -- don't really have a very glorious history in our country. From a July 25, 1969 article in Time:
During his presidential campaign, Richard Nixon said that he would take full advantage of the new [eavesdropping] law -- a promise that raised fears of a massive invasion of privacy. To calm those fears, the Administration last week issued what amounted to an official statement on the subject.
In his first news conference since becoming the President's chief legal officer, Attorney General John N. Mitchell pointedly announced that the incidence of wiretapping by federal law enforcement agencies had gone down, not up, during the first six months of Republican rule. Mitchell refused to disclose any figures, but he indicated that the number was far lower than most people might think. "Any citizen of this United States who is not involved in some illegal activity," he added, "has nothing to fear whatsoever."
Six years after Mitchell issued that assurance, a Congress that actually performed its Constitutional duties of oversight commissioned the Church Committee to investigate the history of government eavesdropping in the U.S., and it found "a massive record of intelligence abuses over the years" whereby the "the Government has collected, and then used improperly, huge amounts of information about the private lives, political beliefs and associations of huge numbers of Americans." Still, on a daily basis, I get emails like this one which I received yesterday:
As for President Bush, I love the way that liberals like yourself depict this. It is as if he and the VP are sitting in the oval office with a box of thin mints and headphones listening to someone have phone sex with their mistress. Bush doesn't "listen in" on our phone calls. He doesn't care who you or I call. The electronic surveillance system focuses on international calls, specfically to terrorist hotbeds not on your phone calls to your liberal cronies. To think he cares who you call or even who a convicted felon calls shows how out of touch you are.
This electronic surveillance is necessary and is part of the plan that keeps us safe.
One can mock that authoritarian, un-American mentality if one likes (I trust my Leader with unchecked power because he's Good!), but it's a perfectly mainstream view. It's the precise mentality that led the Democratic-led Congress yesterday to pass a bill with broad new eavesdropping powers, with Kit Bond and Jay Rockefeller playing the role of John Mitchell.
Yesterday's episode also illustrates why I've been so ambivalent about campaigns such as those to demand that John Yoo lose his tenure. Although Yoo ought to be far outside of the mainstream of American political thought, he simply isn't. The Democratic-led Congress yesterday just passed a bill by a wide margin that institutionalized Yoo's signature theory -- namely, that when the President orders something, then it is legal and proper, even if it's against what Congress calls "the law."
Why should we pretend that John Yoo is some sort of grotesque authoritarian aberration when his defining belief in presidential omnipotence is, to varying degrees, shared by the leaders of both parties? Yoo has long been mocked for his belief that the President -- simply by uttering the magical phrase "National Security" -- has the power to break the law, but Congress, yesterday, just passed a bill grounded in exactly that premise. There are many things that one can say about what the Democrats did yesterday. Claiming that they showed how "strong" they are, or avoided being depicted by Republicans as "weak," isn't one of them.
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The Art of the Possible, a blog of liberals and civil-liberties-minded libertarians, has an interview with Trevor Lyman and Rick Williams, the libertarians who are coordinating the Strange Bedfellows Money Bomb to hold accountable those responsible for yesterday's travesty and similar rule-of-law-destroying measures. The interview can be read here. Our campaign can be joined here or here. Relatedly, an ideologically diverse coalition has banded together to oppose a "Senate housing bill that would establish a mandatory fingerprint registry for many workers in the mortgage and real estate industries." I'm increasingly convinced that the effort to battle the growing lawlessness of our political class and the sprawling surveillance state that assaults core Constitutional liberties will come not from the Democratic Party, but from citizen coalitions of this sort. Does yesterday's episode allow any doubt about that?
I'll be on NPR's On Point this morning for an hour, beginning at 10:00 EST, to discuss the Obama campaign. That can be heard here. Digby has a very good analysis of the political foolishness of the strategy of Democrats generally and the Obama campaign specifically to win elections by repudiating their own supporters and moving as close as possible to Republicans.
Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.