Thursday, April 13, 2006

Could Censure Help the Democrats Win?

[[P O L I T I C S]] * When U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) proposed in mid-March that Congress censure George W. Bush for secretly authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct warrantless monitoring of international communications originating in the United States, “and then misleading the country about the existence and legality of the program,” his overture was greeted with either silence or contempt. Even by Feingold’s fellow Democrats, who have made their objections to the prez well known.

The thinking back then was that trying to censure Bush--a purely symbolic condemnation, having no effect on “the validity of [his] presidency”--would remind Americans too much of the poisonously partisan battle to impeach President Bill Clinton back in 1998, and possibly lead voters to punish Democrats in the same manner as they’d punished Republicans in the impeachment aftermath. Democratic leaders and others worried, too, that censure might become a “rallying cry” for a Republican base disillusioned after 12 years of their party’s rule, and “demoralized by continued growth in government spending, undiminished violence in Iraq, and intramural disputes over immigration,” to quote The New York Times. “Why,” asked Slate’s chief political correpondent, John Dickerson, “when Bush was on the ropes, would Feingold want to pick a distracting fight that divides the party and makes it look weak on fighting terrorism?” All this hand-wringing, despite polls showing that 50 percent of Americans want Congress to not just censure Bush, but to impeach and remove him from office if he lied about his reasons for taking the United States to war against Iraq in 2003. (By contrast only 26 percent supported impeaching Clinton in 1998.)

With knee-jerk predictability, GOPers trashed Feingold, some dismissing his resolution as a publicity stunt designed to increase his odds of being nominated for president in 2008, while others suggested (as Representative Wayne Allard of Colorado did during a Denver radio interview) that the maverick senator was doing as much as any foreign bombthrowers to undermine America’s resolve in the so-called war on terror. Meanwhile, only three others among the 44 Democrats in the U.S. Senate--Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Barbara Boxer of California--stepped forward to endorse Feingold’s proposal. They were joined by Representative Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who’s favored to win the Senate seat currently held by Jim Jeffords in this November’s midterm elections. If a censure resolution is brought to Senate floor next year, Sanders told the Associated Press, “I’m inclined to support it.” However, the majority of Democratic solons were conveniently busy with “other commitments” on March 31, when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Feingold’s resolution. “Most of us feel at best it’s premature,” Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) told The Washington Post. “I don’t think anyone can say with any certainty at this juncture that what happened is illegal.”

By April Fool’s Day, Feingold’s proposal appeared to be going nowhere. The New York Times seemed sure to condemn it to unsanctified ground, when its editorialists proclaimed both censure and impeachment “the dream of liberals.”

But then the American Research Group conducted a nationwide survey that discovered a plurality--46 percent--of respondents saying that Bush should be censured “for authorizing wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining court orders.” Suddenly, the idea of censure didn’t seem like such a sop to the left wing, after all. Last Sunday, both Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and his former 2004 presidential running mate, John Edwards, endorsed the censure idea--Kerry on NBC’s Meet the Press, and Edwards during a campaign swing through Iowa.

And now, Craig Crawford, an MSNBC commentator and Congressional Quarterly columnist, is floating the notion that Democrats could employ a promise to censure Bush as one of the best reasons for voters to elect a Dem majority in the Senate come November. Crawford writes in The Huffington Post:
If Democrats are in a gambling mood they can nationalize the coming congressional elections with this issue, so long as they make clear that impeachment is off the table. Not enough voters want to go through another paralyzing impeachment mess, but polls show that enough are open to censure to make it a viable idea.

Censure might be no more than a slap in the face, but I am guessing that is as far as voters are prepared to go--if that far. Telling voters that a vote for Democratic congressional candidates is a vote for censure could be the killer app for rebooting Congress.
The last thing Republicans want is for the November election to be nationalized. With nearly 70 percent of Americans polled saying that the United States under Bush is off on the wrong track, the GOP hopes to protect its majorities on Capitol Hill by focusing on individual races and localized concerns, rather than overarching political themes. As columnist Jonathan Alter wrote recently in Newsweek, “Republicans are banking on having bought off enough votes with the type of local pork-barrel projects that Democrats once used.” Recognizing divisions within their own ranks on issues ranging from immigration to fiscal discipline; hurt by increasing denunciations of “incompetence” in the White House; and having to defend themselves against charges that they have fashioned a “culture of corruption” in Washington, D.C. (courtesy of Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, and others), Republicans want to avoid making the coming election a referendum on their agenda.

Yet with each new blunder committed by Bush and his GOP colleagues, every new increase in the national debt, and daily hikes in the U.S. death toll in Iraq, a localized election appears more unlikely. This spells good news for the Dems, opines Slate columnist Bruce Reed: “Democrats should seize the opportunity to put forward a new agenda for the country’s sake, and their own. If the GOP wants to turn the midterms into a choice between the potential consequences of Democratic ideas and the current impact of the Bush record, that’s a deal worth taking. There’s a good answer to rebut the Republican charge that the Democrats’ plan will run the country into the ground: You ran the country into the ground first.” Already, Democrats have put out a lengthy plan to “protect America and restore our leadership in the world.” And this summer, Representative Rahm Emanuel (D-Illinois), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, expects to release his party’s version of the GOP’s 1994 Contract with America, making clear to voters why changing the leadership in Congress is necessary. Newsweek’s Alter spells out the bare bones of that blueprint:
Just as Harry Truman ran [in 1948] against the “Do-Nothing Congress,” Democrats will run against the “Rubber-Stamp Congress,” which pimped for K Street, took a dive on its critical oversight duties (particularly on Iraq) and helped the president bankrupt the country by shoveling money toward the rich. Emanuel won’t say yet which votes supporting Bush he plans to wrap around the necks of incumbents. But look for gut-punch ads that highlight the incumbents’ 90-plus percent backing for Bush on issues like cuts in college loans and veterans benefits, privatizing Social Security, selling out to Big Pharma on prescription drugs and halting stem-cell research. Republicans are now scurrying away from Bush, but it may be too late. They can’t take those roll-call votes back.
Now, talk by this year’s Democratic congressional candidates about how they’re going to strengthen (not “privatize”) Social Security; beef up (rather than cut) Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, and food stamp programs; overhaul the expensive and troubled Medicare prescription drug benefit; engineer a steady withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq (without sending that country deeper into civil war) and prevent a nuclear confrontation with Iran; and keep Bush’s broken promises to cut the deficit and reinvigorate the national economy is all well and good. Certainly, with the prez so unpopular, and polls showing that a strong majority of Americans would prefer to have Democrats--not Republicans--in charge on Capitol Hill, there’s likely to be at least some turnover in Congress come next year. But all such complicated legislative proposals tend to go over the heads of many Americans. A simple promise to censure Bush, should voters give Democrats the chance again to lead, might be more easily understood, and it could serve as a rallying cry not only for Dems and independents, but for those Republicans disappointed in the prez’s loose grasp on both the truth and the nation’s purse strings. If the GOP retains its power after November, Democrats wouldn’t have to launch a censure effort; they could say, rightly, that political suicide wasn’t part of the deal.

Will Bush become only the second U.S. president to be censured by Congress? (Democrat Andrew Jackson was the first, in 1834, but he had the reprimand expunged three years later, after his party had retaken control of the Senate.) That may depend, first, on whether Democrats this year are willing to take Craig Crawford’s game; and second, on whether they can reassure voters that a Democratic Congress won’t spend its entire time trying to punish Bush, rather than solving the nation’s economic and diplomatic woes.

A MEASURED RESPONSE: More proof that Americans consider censure an appropriate and possible reprimand for Bush having authorized warrantless electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens. The latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll finds that 46 percent of respondents favor censuring the prez, while 45 percent do not. Such an even split puts the lie to right-wing allegations that censure appeals only to the “nutball left.”

THE SLOW-MOTION TRAP: Writing in Salon, Sidney Blumenthal examines how the recent “scandal-ette” about Bush leaking intelligence information to a sympathetic reporter, and then trying to excuse his own hypocrisy, has led the prez to become twisted in a trap of his own secrecy and lies:
Bush is entangled in his own past. His explanations compound his troubles and point to the original falsehoods. Through his first term, Bush was able to escape by blaming the Democrats, casting aspersions on the motives of his critics and changing the subject. But his methods have become self-defeating. When he utters the word “truth” now most of the public is mistrustful. His accumulated history overshadows what he might say.

The collapse of trust was cemented into his presidency from the start. A compulsion for secrecy undergirds the Bush White House. Power, as Bush and Cheney see it, thrives by excluding diverse points of view. Bush’s presidency operates on the notion that the fewer the questions, the better the decision. The
State Department has been treated like a foreign country; the closest associates of the elder President Bush, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, have been excluded; the career professional staff have been bullied and quashed; the Republican-dominated Congress has abdicated oversight; and influential elements of the press have been complicit.

Inside the administration, the breakdown of the national security process has produced a vacuum filled by dogmatic fixations that become more rigid as reality increasingly fails to cooperate. But the conceit that executive fiat can substitute for fact has not sustained the illusion of omnipotence.
Read the whole story here.

READ MORE:What Is the Alternative to Censure?” by Cenk Uygur (The Huffington Post); “Parsing the Polls on Censure and Impeachment,” by Chris Cillizza (The Washington Post); “Governors: ‘Red State’ Dems Thrive in Often Hostile Terrain,” by Marc Rehmann (CQ Politics); “Theocons and Theocrats,” by Kevin Phillips (The Nation).

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