Obama Should (Still) Be Standing With Feingold

Before the February 19 Wisconsin primary, which confirmed his front-runner status in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Illinois Senator Barack Obama went out of his way to associate his candidacy with the name of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.

It wasn't just about winning Wisconsin, although that undoubtedly was part of the calculus.

Obama wanted to secure the support of the substantial portion of Democrats nationally who, in polls conducted in 2006, indicated that they would back Feingold if he entered the presidential race. Internal polls by the various campaigns indicated that Feingold drew as much as 15 percent of the vote in a number of key states, coming mostly from anti-war and pro-civil liberties progressives.

Obama knew he needed the support of those highly engaged party activists. And so, in early February, he embraced an issue that mattered a lot to them: the defense of civil liberties.

Obama, Feingold and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd did not want Congress to support the Bush administration's efforts to block civil suits against telecommunications firms for spying on customers.

"I am proud to stand with Senator Dodd, Senator Feingold and a grass-roots movement of Americans who are refusing to let President Bush put protections for special interests ahead of our security and our liberty," declared Obama, who indicated that he would support efforts to filibuster any attack on the ability of citizens to use the courts to defend their privacy rights.

Obama's stance helped him. It was cited in endorsements by prominent progressives and newspapers in Wisconsin and other later primary states. No doubt, it contributed to his landslide victory in the Badger State, where the Illinoisan won a vote from Feingold himself.

Yet, now that he is the presumptive nominee, Obama is standing not with Feingold, but with Bush and the special interests Obama once denounced. He says he'll vote for a White House-backed FISA rewrite -- which is likely to be taken up by the Senate this week -- in opposition to the position taken by civil liberties groups, legal scholars on the left and right and, of course, Russ Feingold.

That's bad -- not just because Obama is putting politics ahead of principle, but because he's calculating the politics wrong. As Feingold proved when he was overwhelmingly re-elected in a swing state in 2004, after casting the sole vote against the Patriot Act, standing strong for the Bill of Rights attracts rather than sacrifices votes.

Even worse is the deceptive claim that the "compromise" on FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) reached by the Bush administration and congressional leaders allows for meaningful scrutiny.

As Feingold says, "The proposed FISA deal is not a compromise; it is a capitulation. The House and Senate should not be taking up this bill, which effectively guarantees immunity for telecom companies alleged to have participated in the president's illegal program, and which fails to protect the privacy of law-abiding Americans at home. Allowing courts to review the question of immunity is meaningless when the same legislation essentially requires the court to grant immunity."

Despite what some apologists for this sellout by Democratic leaders might suggest, it is comic to claim that multinational corporations given civil immunity might still face criminal charges.

Citizens have always been in the forefront of tackling corporate crime. At best, prosecutors play catch-up. Providing telecommunications corporations with immunity from civil suits gives them blanket immunity. To suggest otherwise is to buy into a fantasy that would make America less free and less safe.

Russ Feingold knows that. So does Barack Obama.

It is unfortunate that they are not standing together on the right side of history -- and the Constitution.

John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written The Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

Copyright (c) 2008 The Nation

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