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The Dems are missing the boat on Feingold

Feingold stepped up and spoke for millions of Americans who see this administration's abuse of power as a very serious matter.
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It appears there is still a lot of angst both in Washington and the blogosphere over Senator Russ Feingold's censure motion. Substantively, the majority of Democrats agree that Bush broke the law and deserves to be censured, but there is a division among most of the blogosphere and virtually the entire establishment about whether this is a canny political move. (See these two post by Kevin Drum and Glenn Greenwald respectively for the essence of the argument within the blogosphere.)

Steve Benen contacted some insiders who filled him in on the establishment rationale:

First, a lot of Dems were bothered by the fact that Feingold took the party off-message. The DP World controversy was still reverberating, and congressional Dems had hoped to keep the momentum going this week with a vote on the "Sail Only if Scanned (S.O.S.) Act," which requires more effective scanning techniques be implemented at our ports, and a bill that would expanding government scrutiny of foreign investments. Instead, both of these are getting less attention because of interest in Feingold's resolution.

Second, there's a sense that Feingold helped bring Republicans together. As of last week, the GOP's fissures were showing and all the talk was about Republicans on the Hill exerting independence from the White House. Now, Feingold's resolution has pushed the GOP back together again and Republicans are back on the offensive. Some Dems think the censure resolution basically helped the GOP get off the ropes.

Third, there was not even a hint of party strategy on this. The past couple of years, there's been an effort to try and have Dems coordinate more on major political and policy initiatives. Coordinating Dems is like herding cats, but there's been some progress of late. Feingold, however, decided to go his own way; he announced his resolution without even letting his colleagues know it was coming and with no real regard for what it would do for the party's short-term agenda. Some see this as a slap in the face -- if Feingold wanted party support, they said, he should have worked within the party. Instead, Feingold took the lead, and no one followed.

Fourth, Dems saw that Bush was starting another series of Iraq speeches, and the party was ready to pivot from ports to the war. Roll Call noted today that Dems want to "play offense on Iraq." Yesterday, however, whenever a Dem senator tried to talk about the war, reporters just asked about Feingold.

And fifth, one Senate staffer in particular said if Feingold wanted to push warrantless searches again, there were (and are) effective alternatives to a censure resolution. The staffer told me:

"Rather than just rush to a vote, which would be stupid, we want to get Specter to hold a hearing on it in Judiciary where it has been referred. Imagine a hearing with a panel of experts discussing whether Bush's behavior deserves censure. Wouldn't that be much better as a first step then a rushed vote in which we lose and R's declare victory and say we were silly?"

None of these reasons hold up for me. They do not denote timidity, so much as a kind of political blindness. Let's take them one by one:

One: The port legislation was reported on CNN. And it was reported with as much fanfare as it ever would have been. But it is as dry as tinder. The mojo of that controversy is past. It did its job. It helped to further drive the president's approval ratings into the dirt and split the Republicans from the president. Any thought that the controversy could be effectively extended by legislation announced in a press conference by Nancy Pelosi is wishful thinking. That's not a good reason not to do it, of course. But it isn't an excuse to be angry at Feingold.

Two: Please tell me that the Democrats are not going to withhold criticim of Bush because it might make Republicans rally around him. Karl Rove and Tom DeLay have run the GOP with an iron fist for almost eight years. The Republicans have lost the ability to function without them. They are confused and rudderless and they will run back and forth toward Bush and against him dozens of times over the next few months. They literally don't know where to turn.

Yes, Feingold probably did bring Republicans together. For five full minutes until the latest polls came in which have George W. Bush at 33% today. Do Democrats really think that Republicans can turn that around if they vote for this censure motion? (If they do then Rove and Delay have already done their jobs well. They have convinced the Democrats that the GOP is omnipotent.)

According to a new poll by NPR today:

One clear piece of evidence in the data is that Republicans benefited by showing some independence from the president on the ports deal," Bolger says. "Democrats have a 16-point advantage over the president in terms of who [voters] trust, and only an 8-point advantage over the Republicans on the ports deal. So the Republican Congress' stand of independence cut the Democratic advantage on this issue in half."

Democrats hope the president's low approval ratings will continue to drag his party down.

"It is because the president's popularity is clearly the center of this," Democratic pollster Greenberg says. "He's defining the course for the Republicans. They're going to try to separate. I think that's difficult for them to achieve."

It would make it even more difficult if Democrats weren't so reluctant to exploit situations that make the Republican congress feel they have no choice but to rally around their beleaguered leader.

Three: It's apparently true that Feingold didn't consult with the party. But considering the response I can sort of see his point. Something dramatic had to happen to change the dynamic. If party coodination means being forced to wait for them to hold plodding press conferences about x-raying cargo boxes, then it's hard to see why anyone who wants to take the fight to the Republicans would bother.

I can see why they are angry about it. They were caught short. Feingold will have to fight that out among his brethren. But they need to learn to move more quickly on this stuff. Planning is great, but you can't always control events. How you deal with things coming from left field is important --- they failed on this one, making it worse for themselves by ducking the press and dithering about their response. I think Democrats have lost touch with their political instincts. This is one of those things that a smart old fashioned pol would have been able to either finesse or respond to properly off the cuff. (They should have called Bill Clinton --- he was good at that sort of thing.)

Four: Iraq is the issue that's killing the Republicans in the polls. It is going to be with us thoughout the campaign and the Dems need to use it effectively. All national security issues, planned or otherwise, should seamlessly pivot to Iraq. If it isn't part of the agreed upon calendar of events for a particular day, then make room for it every chance you get.

Five: Well yes, by all means a strategy whereby we count on Arlen Specter to hold "real" hearings is spot on. What could possibly go wrong? Why, if we wait until after the 2008 election, he might even do it. And Democrats worry far too much about looking "silly" to beltway pundits and Republican attack dogs. They need to start worring a little bit more about how they look to their base.

This image of "powerlessness" at a time when the Republicans are on the ropes is the biggest problem Democrats face for the fall elections. If Democratic pols don't understand that they are flirting with terrible grassroots defeatism, then they are going to lose. They must take action (and I don't mean boring press conferences and 10 point plans) or it won't matter a damn if the Republicans are imploding --- demoralized Democrats are not going to bother to vote. Rage is not enough. People must see that Democrats have the will to win or they are going to lose hope.

Donna Brazile broke with the beltway establishment and wrote in Roll Call earlier this week:

As a Beltway insider, I am convinced that we cannot continue to tell those who have loyally supported our Democratic leaders to wait. Wait for what? Wait until our pollsters give us the green light to speak up? Should we continue to wait, hoping that the Republicans will finally invite Democrats into the room when important decisions affecting our national security are made? All I know is that people outside the Beltway have grown deeply impatient with our focus-group style of politics. They want to see some bold changes and some new leadership.

The message from the left-leaning blogosphere is clear: Democrats should understand the real issue. The point is not censure or impeachment; it is Congress' lack of oversight and its failure to hold anyone accountable for major mistakes or missteps. And especially, it's about clearly misleading the American public...While the Feingold resolution is not going anywhere given the full Republican control of Washington, D.C., a change in leadership in the fall would make this a ripe item for conversation and action in 2007 and beyond


Feingold stepped up and spoke for millions of Americans who see this administration's abuse of power as a very serious matter for which this president should be held to account. We are desperate for such leadership and we care nothing about the lack of political politesse with which it was raised. The president and his party are held in very low esteem by two thirds of the country. If not now, when?

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