If it could be arranged, surely Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman would hug Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold right now. As the White House struggles to find its political footing, Sen. Feingold has offered it a handy crutch with his proposal to censure President Bush for the National Security Agency surveillance program. The Democrats had just concluded a successful two-week bout of eroding the president’s national-security credentials with baseless attacks on the Dubai ports deal. Now, the party’s Left apparently believes it’s time to switch back to type and bolster Bush’s national-security credentials by demonstrating the Democrats’ own lack of seriousness in the War on Terror.
The Feingold proposal is a disaster on all levels for the Democrats, but it is a boon to the Wisconsin senator, thus capturing the current Democratic political dilemma in microcosm. The left-wing netroots are rallying to Feingold’s proposal, and posting the phone numbers of Democratic senators, so Bush haters everywhere can call to urge them to vote for the Feingold’s censure resolution. These bloggers and their readers are a key part of Feingold’s constituency for a run for the 2008 presidential nomination from the left. Anything Feingold does to please them helps himself, even if it is irrational and harmful to his party’s interests. It often will be, since the netroots can’t distinguish between political strategy and pointless, self-gratifying stunts. This is why they pushed Democrats to compound the disaster of the Alito hearings with a doomed filibuster of the nomination, championed–not coincidentally–by another ‘08 hopeful, John Kerry.
The censure resolution is so obviously overreaching that other Senate Democrats are keeping their distance, although Sen. Barbara Boxer says she could vote for it and Minority Leader Harry Reid thinks it is worthy of serious debate. The resolution will surely strike most Americans as mindless partisanship. It also shifts the political debate back to ground favorable to the White House. The NSA program is relatively popular, indeed is one of the administration’s most popular initiatives at the moment. The White House has a good case to make on its legality, and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee last week seemed to signal their willingness to acquiesce to a deal giving congressional blessing to the program in exchange for enhanced oversight.
Feingold hopes to blow this all up. Republicans should gladly rise to his challenge. Increasing Feingold’s prominence as a spokesman for the Democrats on the War on Terror only benefits the GOP. He epitomizes the Left’s do-nothing, or at least do-the-absolute-minimum, approach to the war. He voted against the Patriot Act, and its reauthorization. He opposes the NSA program. He was against the Iraq war, and opposes using coercive interrogation against terrorists abroad. He is against almost any measure in the War on Terror that doesn’t fit neatly within the confines of the American law-enforcement system (and against even ones that do–the Patriot Act). It was telling that on the Senate floor Feingold highlighted past statements by President Bush saying that law enforcement needs a court order to get a wiretap, by way of supposedly proving the president’s deceit. But the NSA surveillance is not a law-enforcement program; it is not being used to produce evidence of crimes, but to tip off American intelligence about potential plots and the whereabouts of terrorist agents.
Feingold has done himself a favor, but not his party. Where does Mehlman go for his hug?