The Blog

Republicans Taunt Obama As Spineless Over FISA Reversal

It's not just the left questioning Obama's principles over the FISA flap. His opponents are pointing and laughing at him for being a panderer and accommodationist. And Obama hasn't even voted on the bill yet!
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

UPDATE BELOW (June 27, morning)
Original Post, June 26: In a press conference call this morning, John McCain surrogate Sam Brownback (R-KS) pointed at Barack Obama and essentially called him a spineless panderer -- and welcomed it, saying he expected Obama to cave in on Iraq withdrawal next. McCain senior policy adviser Randy Scheunemann, with tremendous self-assurance, described Obama's support for the FISA bill -- a bill McCain also supports! -- as an example of Obama's supreme commitment to his own "political fortunes" above all else. And then, to underscore how weak they now consider Obama to be, the McCain campaign then issued an "In Case You Missed It" press release with a transcript highlighting these statements.

In other words: it's not just and others on the left who are questioning Obama's principles over the FISA flap; even his opponents are pointing the finger and laughing at him for being such a panderer and accommodationist. And Obama hasn't even voted on the bill yet!

Brownback said Obama's spinelessness on the D.C. gun ban, campaign funding, and, most importantly, on FISA, meant he probably would eventually cave in on Iraq. Brownback even "set down a marker" -- dared Obama -- to concede on Iraq just like he's said he'll do on FISA. It's a remarkable display of chutzpah on Brownback's part:

Proving that this wasn't just Brownback shooting off his mouth, Scheunemann piled on, making the exact same points, even down to his expectation that Obama would "flip" on Iraq, using even harsher terms:

Analysis: Obama's Foolish Inconsistency:

It's true that Barack Obama has taken flak from many of his supporters for his shift to the "center" since locking up the Democratic nomination. Some of the angst on the left is naive and loses sight of the fact that every candidate must reach out to a different constituency in a general election than he or she did in the primary; that's the nature of politics. What's more, all of us (not just politicians) struggle to balance our own sense of right and wrong against the perceptions and judgments of others: what will our spouse, our children, our parents, our boss, the neighbors think?

This tension between what each of us thinks we should do, and what the crowd thinks we should do, is what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about in his indispensable essay, "Self-Reliance":

It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

In fact, Emerson believed, we don't just need to guard against foolishly conforming to the crowd; we even need to guard against foolishly conforming to ourselves -- against becoming set in our (past) opinions and unwilling to change. That's where one of Emerson's most famous quotes comes from:

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word....

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? *** Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

For Emerson's reasons, I don't hold most of Obama's shifts in position against him; or, at the very least, I respect him enough to give him the benefit of the doubt. If he is great, then much of what is blithely called "flip flopping" may actually be the wise refusal of a true statesman to adhere to a foolish consistency. So he says one thing in a public place, and later adjusts it; I'm willing to at least postpone judgment until I can ask why. Opting out of campaign finance, wearing or not wearing a flag pin: these are "shadows on the wall"; who cares?

But that doesn't mean it's all good. There are two laws by which inconsistencies must be judged. One is expediency: when a politician tactically shifts his position to obtain some larger good, does it pay off? Is he getting the good thing he's bargaining for? If so -- if a politician budges on a funding bill in order to improve some aspect of education, for instance -- then it may just be wise horse-trading. But if it's a net loser, then we can call that politician unwise.

The other limit to acceptable inconsistency is this: every great statesman, every great person, must adhere to some larger, immovable principles. He must stand for something. It's only when staying true to our core principles that we can indulge in the freedom to make necessary adjustments on transient issues. In fact, that's the heart of Emerson's lesson: that if we are true to our principles, then in the end our minor inconsistencies -- our "flip flops" -- will seem as insignificant as the Andes or the Himalaya are, seen from space:

I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; -- read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing.... [L]et me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not....

These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance, at a little height of thought. One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now.

In other words, it's OK to be inconsistent at times -- but if we don't act from our essential "nature" -- if we triangulate and poll-watch and pander -- then those tacks, those zigzags, don't blend into a true line. They just wander all over, in search of votes instead of truth.

On the FISA legislation, Obama is coming very close to failing both the expediency and principle tests.

His abandonment of principle couldn't be clearer, no matter what his defenders say. The FISA "compromise" allows the government to data-mine the contents of millions of Americans' communications -- their phone calls, emails, IMs -- even when there's no suspicion at all that those Americans are involved with terrorism, and without warrants. The bill pretends to add warrant and other oversight requirements -- but, as Glenn Greenwald has repeatedly explained in his columns on this issue, and as Senator Russ Feingold explained on the Senate floor yesterday (caution: superb, but really long, speech), it also contains exceptions that swallow the rule. Obama, a Constitutional Law professor, knows better. There's no way a "yes" vote on this bill can be reconciled with what he said less than a year ago, on August 1, 2007, when he referred to the "false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand" and promised "no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens.... That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works."

Listen to the old Obama, the one who stood on principle:

That's just not the same Obama as the one who now says he will support the "compromise" FISA bill. It's a man with a fundamentally different nature, a different character, and the Republicans are seizing on it.

And even if expediency is all that matters, Obama's still failing. He's losing the support of MoveOn, one of his most important (and generous) supporters. Most of the commenters on my last post about this topic say resoundingly: Obama's destroyed his "brand" in just one week; they'll still vote for him, but that energy, that hopefulness that maybe his politics will be different, is already gone, squandered. Yesterday David Plouffe bragged about how much more excited Obama's supporters are than McCain's supporters are, but I'll bet a new poll on that issue will show that edge slipping away, just over this one vote on FISA. I don't think he's realized yet how much his collapse on FISA is costing him.

But even if Obama loses some energy on the Democratic side, will his embrace of a Bush-endorsed FISA amendment help him reach across the aisle to Republicans? I'm not so sure. If there's one thing that Obamacons and Reagan Democrats admire, it's principle. They don't mind someone who disagrees with them on specifics; but they despise someone who lacks a sense of right and wrong and the spine to stand up for what he believes is right.

Obama spent 18 months earning the respect of those folks. But now? Now, he hasn't even voted for FISA yet -- and already the Republicans are laughing at him.

Obama could, however, have the last laugh: The Hill is reporting that Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has managed to delay the FISA vote until after the July 4 recess. Perhaps Obama will dedicate part of Independence Day to remembering what exactly July 4 is supposed to commemorate -- and find his way back to what Emerson called "the law of his being" -- to the principle, and to the backbone, that we used to respect him for.

UPDATE, FRIDAY JUNE 27, 9:34 AM E.T.: Republicans Continue Piling On - Obama's Chance to Lead:

Adding insult to insult, the Republican National Committee this morning distributed an "RNC Research Briefing" (basically, a press release so strongly spun that it's even printed tabloid-style) with this headline:


The "briefing" discusses Obama's alleged "flip flops" on the D.C. handgun ban (a moot point now that the Supreme Court has issued its decision) and on campaign finance (sour grapes on the Republicans' part, since for the first time in decades they face an opponent with enough money to compete strongly even in red states and still afford to return fire on Swiftboat attacks, and it terrifies them). Then, just as they did yesterday, they return to blatantly taunting Obama on FISA, even though the stance they're making fun of is actually the one they WANT the Senate to take:


During The Primaries, Obama Pledged To Filibuster Any Bill Which Contained Immunity For Telecommunications Companies Involved In Electronic Surveillance:

In October, The Obama Campaign Pledged He Would Filibuster "Any Bill That Includes Retroactive Immunity For Telecommunications Companies." Obama Spokesman Bill Burton: "To be clear: Barack will support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies." (Greg Sargent, "Obama Camp Says It: He'll Support Filibuster Of Any Bill Containing Telecom Immunity," Talking Points Memo's "Election Central" Blog,, 10/24/07)

In December, Obama Stated He "Unequivocally Opposes Giving Retroactive Immunity To Telecommunications Companies." "Senator Obama unequivocally opposes giving retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies and has cosponsored Senator's efforts to remove that provision from the FISA bill. ... Senator Obama supports a filibuster of this bill, and strongly urges others to do the same." (Sen. Barack Obama, "Statement From Senator Obama's Office On The FISA Bill," Press Release, 12/17/07)

In February Obama Voted Against A Bill That Would Have Reauthorized Surveillance, But Also Contained Retroactive Immunity. "Motion to invoke cloture (thus limiting debate) on the bill that would amend the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to authorize warrantless surveillance of foreign targets, even if they are communicating with someone in the United States. It would give the FISA court authority to approve several aspects of how such surveillance is conducted. It also would grant retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies alleged to have participated in the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program." (S. 2248, CQ Vote #19: Motion Agreed To 69-19: R 48-0; D 20-28; I 1-1, 2/12/08, Obama Voted Nay)

Now, Obama Backs A Compromise Bill Which Grants Immunity For Telecommunications Companies:

Obama Now Supports A Bill Reauthorizing Electronic Surveillance That Grants Immunity To Telecommunications Companies. Obama: "Under this compromise legislation, an important tool in the fight against terrorism will continue. ... It does, however, grant retroactive immunity, and I will work in the Senate to remove this provision so that we can seek full accountability for past offenses. ... So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as President, I will carefully monitor the program, review the report by the Inspectors General, and work with the Congress to take any additional steps I deem necessary to protect the lives - and the liberty - of the American people." (Ben Smith, "Obama Backs FISA Compromise," The Politico's "Ben Smith" Blog,, 6/20/08)

Since yesterday, it's become more important than ever to ask: why are the Republicans so systematically dissing Obama over a vote he hasn't even taken yet? Yesterday, they didn't know for certain that the vote would be postponed until after the July 4 recess, so their jibes may have just been a little premature. Today, though, they know he's got time to reconsider and change his vote -- yet they're still daring him to do so. Why?

I think it's pretty simple: since they believe the bill will pass the Senate anyway, they would love for Obama to vote against it, giving them ammo both to claim that he's a double-flip-flopper (resurrecting one of their more successful attacks on Kerry in 2004), and to claim that he's weak on national security. It's yet another "briar patch" scenario: the Republicans saying "please, oh please don't vote against our bill!" when that's really what their taunts are daring him to do.

So what's the correct response? Obama has only two options at this point. One is to stay the course and vote for the bill. It's a bad option, but at least by sticking to his guns this time, he won't play into the Republicans' hands by looking like even more of a panderer than he does already. I hate to say this, but at this late stage I don't even want him to cast an ineffectual vote against a bill if it's destined to pass anyway and his vote will hurt his chances in November (especially if, God forbid, there's another attack between now and then). But that's small thinking, defensive thinking, and it will cost Obama a lot of support from progressives who thought he represented something better.

Option 2 is the one Obama should have chosen in the first place, and it's bolder: not just vote no on the bill, but use his position as party leader to do what Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have proven sadly unable or unwilling to do: lead his party. Option 2 is for Obama to use the next few days to work, hard, on assembling a Senate majority against the FISA "compromise."

He could actually pull it off. His entire campaign, and the DNC's entire "50 State Strategy," is premised on using Obama's coattails to help Democrats in purple and red states, and Obama and Dean can impact a lot of people's careers by giving or withdrawing Obama's support. And he has the leadership skills to pull it off: the most attractive part of the Obama package, for me anyway, has been his optimistic insistence that when the majority of people disagree with what a politician believes is right, then the politician's job is to educate and persuade them -- to use Teddy Roosevelt's "bully pulpit," which doesn't mean to bully people but rather, in TR's old-fashioned lingo, means "the Presidency is a bully [wonderful, great, effective] pulpit from which to preach to people and persuade them to do what's right."

Obama could use the next week to line up Senate opposition to the bill, then use his tremendous rhetorical skills, his access to free media, and his remaining stock of moral capital not just to personally vote "no" but to actually engineer the bill's defeat.

What a blow this would be to the Republicans! For years now -- no, decades -- they've ridden roughshod over Congressional Democrats. When Dems were in the minority, the Republicans forced through whatever legislation and judicial appointments they wanted. When Dems finally mustered the courage to filibuster, the Republicans threatened to "go nuclear," and a core group of Senate Democrats joined the infamous "Gang of 14," pretending to be "bipartisan" when what they really were doing was rolling over and letting themselves get walked on. When Dems won back the majority in both houses in 2006, did they seize power the same way the Republicans had? Ha! In your dreams. Under the leadership of the weak Harry Reid and the less-than-visionary Nancy Pelosi, the Dems immediately took impeachment off the table, are allowing Karl Rove to circular-file their subpoenas with impunity, and (in Reid's case) actually had the temerity or the naivete to complain that the now-minority Republicans are successfully doing what the then-minority Democrats never found the guts to do: preventing the majority party from accomplishing anything by placing holds and threatening filibusters.

In other words, Democratic Congressional leadership has been weak and ineffectual for years, party unity has been nonexistent, and small, essentially non-democratic groups like the Blue Dogs are running the show. It's been agonizing for Democrats to watch, delightful for Republicans. And true to form, the Dems, on behalf of the Blue Dogs, are prepared to roll over again on FISA.

But what if Obama led? That's what we're all really so upset about here: not just Obama's lone vote for this one bill, but his failure to seize the chance to actually engineer the bill's defeat when he had the chance to do so. But now the Republicans have gotten in his face, and Feingold has bought him some time to do something about it -- so what if, in just a week, he actually led?

What if Obama loudly proclaimed that he had promised to oppose the bill if it contained retroactive immunity, and that since it contains retroactive immunity, he's going to see it killed? No flip-flop there, just adherence to principle! And what if, for the first time in decades, the Democratic Party took a principled stand, whipped the splinter groups like the Blue Dogs into line (that's what the "Majority Whip" is for!), kicked Joe Lieberman out of the caucus for good measure, and sent the "compromise" FISA bill back to Bush's desk with a giant "NOT ON MY WATCH!" scrawled in red Sharpie across the front?

A principled, organized, disciplined, effective Democratic Party? Led by a principled, courageous, and legislatively effective President? Dry cleaners throughout the District of Columbia would be buried in soiled, expensive Italian suits. And the American people would see something we haven't witnessed since the assassination of JFK: a Democratic party that stands for something, a Democratic party that people can believe in and trust to do what's right.

The Republicans are continuing to taunt Obama. Like all bullies, they can't be bought off just by caving in, as Obama appears to be doing on FISA. Do what they want, and they just disrespect you more; that's why they're laughing at Obama for voting exactly how they want him to vote. Should he change his vote, then? No, not if that's all he's going to do. That would just play into their hands. But should he change his vote, and lead the rest of his party to do the same? THAT would be a game-changer.

The Republicans don't expect Obama to lead; they don't believe any Democrat is capable of leadership. But he can. Russ Feingold has bought him the time; he already has the power; his brand would never be stronger if he did.

Senator Obama: don't just vote no on FISA; send in the Air Force and destroy it completely. Just take it out, shock and awe.

Then all of us -- all your fervent supporters, and all the Independents and Moderates and reasonable Republicans who respect character and courage more than any other thing on Earth -- can believe in you again.


Before You Go

Popular in the Community