The current dust-up in the Obama camp over this week's FISA vote may have real consequences for the rest of this campaign. As you may know, the largest "group" on the Obama campaign's social networking site, MyBarackObama.com, is now a group assembled to protest Senator Obama's reversal of his promise to filibuster against the FISA legislation up next week. Reading through the blogoshpere, many commenters appear baffled at the intensity of the passions involved, and criticize the protestors for making such a fuss over "just one issue." But there are good reasons why core activists have taken a strong stand, and why the campaign may look different after this is over.
For many Obama activists, a key issue that propelled them into campaign activism is dismantling the unconstitutional legal measures the Bush administration put in place in the aftermath of 9/11. The prison at Guantánamo, the secret CIA prisons scattered around the globe, the torture of prisoners, and the kangaroo courts set up to process them are the foreign pieces of this puzzle. Warrantless eavesdropping on Americans is the domestic piece. While understanding all the ins and outs of the FISA legislation requires a specialist's knowledge, the core issue is simple: are we working to return the country to the rule of constitutional law or not? (Click here for an excellent analysis of Obama's FISA statement by a specialist.)
Obama made two arguments in his reply to the protestors. First, he argued that though the bill is "far better than the Protect America Act" which the Bush administration pushed through Congress last year. This argument is not only meaningless but downright misleading, for the Protect America Act was written to expire. If no new legislation is passed, we revert back to the pre-Bush, pre-9/11 version of the legal structure of state surveillance of Americans, not the Bush version. The question is not whether the new legislation is better than Bush's, but whether it is better than what the country lived under from 1978 until Bush. It is one thing for Obama to be vague about the particulars of his policies, as he was throughout the primaries. But it is a different thing altogether to make misleading statements about key issues.
So we are left with Obama's second argument, and this one has actual substance:
The ability to monitor and track individuals who want to attack the United States is a vital counter-terrorism tool, and I'm persuaded that it is necessary to keep the American people safe -- particularly since certain electronic surveillance orders will begin to expire later this summer. Given the choice between voting for an improved yet imperfect bill, and losing important surveillance tools, I've chosen to support the current compromise.
The "important surveillance tool" he is referring to is warrantless wiretapping. Here Obama unequivocally sides with the argument the Bush administration justice department has been making for years: that in the context of the "war on terror," some constitutional rights must be suspended or at least sidestepped, and key among them is warrantless state surveillance. That is a BIG DEAL.
There are more ways in which this issue stands out among others. Obama's promise to withdraw American troops from Iraq in 18 months is highly provisional and will be subject to many reality tests along the way. His program for global warming will be a major undertaking to put in place, and will surely show many signs of wear when and if it is enacted. The FISA issue is a completely different deal: this is pending legislation that will be voted on next week. It is very much still a fight. There are senators set to oppose the bill, by filibuster if necessary.
Obama had promised to be one of them. On October 24, 2007, campaign spokesman
Bill Burton announced,
"To be clear: Barack will support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies."
The position was elaborated in another statement December 17, 2007:
"Senator Obama unequivocally opposes giving retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies and has cosponsored Senator Dodd's efforts to remove that provision from the FISA bill. Granting such immunity undermines the constitutional protections Americans trust the Congress to protect. Senator Obama supports a filibuster of this bill, and strongly urges others to do the same."
What Obama has done here is not a "refinement" of a policy position like he recently suggested concerning Iraq. It is an about face. Imagine how different next week would play out if the presumptive Democratic nominee was joining a filibuster on the floor of the senate, standing up for the constitutional rights of all Americans. The contrast between what would happen if Obama followed through on his promise, and what will happen if he doesn't, is night and day. (See this complete timeline of Obama's statements on the bill.)
Here is another level on which this whole thing stinks. It is one thing for a presumptive nominee to adjust policy positions to reach out to constituencies he wants to bring in to his coalition which were not part of his primary victory. We have seen Obama do that with evangelicals, for example. Warrantless wiretapping has no constituency. There is no sector of the American population that just might jump off the fence and get behind Obama if he only agrees to give telecommunications corporations retroactive immunity for illegally collaborating with the Bush administration's spying. He is not courting votes here. Either he is caving in to pressure from the giant telecom corporations, or he has really bought into the idea that American actually needs warrantless wiretapping. Either option is equally unpalatable to many activists.
Finally, here is yet another angle. Throughout the primaries, one of the big criticisms of Obama was that when it came to votes, he backed off. Thus all those "present" votes in Illinois. But the campaign came up with what seemed like a plausible explanation for all that, and many Obama supporters decided he deserved a pass on that. Well, here we are, the first big vote Obama faces on the national and international stage, and guess what? He is backing off. Not good.
Yet there has been very little talk among the MyBO protestors of not voting for Obama. What there has been is a pronounced change of tone, which may hold real implications for the rest of the campaign. Obama rode to the nomination in large part on the backs of... well, of people like me.
I always vote Democratic, and I always vote. All my life I have voted for a long string of mediocre Democratic candidates, but I have almost never volunteered for or sent money to a presidential campaign. I am politically active, but on local issues where I feel I can have a real impact, or on international issues that I feel are of global importance. The realm of presidential politics is another world to me: donors who can bring in millions, TV ads which I never see since I don't own a TV, and candidates loaded down with corporate backers with set agendas.
Obama changed that for me. I sent him money. I phone banked. I held street signs. I don't know if I am going to continue with all that. I will vote for Obama of course. I will continue to urge everyone I know to vote for him. But my money and time, paltry though they may be, will likely get redirected to candidates who are willing to stand up for issues I care about. And because of the Internet, I know that there are a lot of other Obama supporters in the same boat; a lot of people considering cutting off their string of small donations to the campaign.
All of this is coming at a time in which Obama's schedule is filled with big-money fundraisers where people can buy face time with the man for $30k. Put all these things together, and one cannot help but wonder if there is a turning point, that from here on out the campaign is will be less of a grassroots affair. This is not the death knell of the campaign. Far from it. I think Obama can do very well against McCain with a traditional, top down, big money campaign. I think he will be sworn in as our next president in January. But it will be a different campaign than what it has been until now. As one commenter to my blog so aptly said, "Senator Obama, you can tap my phone or my wallet, but not both."
Bob Ostertag is an historian, journalist, and composer. He is currently Professor of Technocultural Studies and Music at the University of California at Davis.
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