Jonathan Weisman's account of Democratic approach to national security issues in the Washington Post today is worth reading in its entirety, because it shows the mindset on Capitol Hill and why we aren't making progress. The biggest problem are the Bush Dog Democrats like Allen Boyd (the only Democrat to support Social Security privatization in 2005) and Lincoln Davis, who both believe in warrantless wiretapping and use fear of Republican attacks on the issue to justify their authoritarian impulses.
But conservative Democrats and some party leaders continue to worry that taking on those issues would expose them to Republican charges that they are weak on terrorism...
Conservative Democrats, including Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.), argued just as vociferously that Democrats dare not leave on vacation without passing the White House bill.
"The most controversial matters are the ones that people use to form their opinions on their members of Congress," said Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), who voted for the administration's bill. "I do know within our caucus, and justifiably so, there are members who have a real distaste for some of the things the president has done. But to let that be the driving force for our actions to block the surveillance of someone and perhaps stop another attack like 9/11 would be unwise."
Davis, in this quote, slips and slides between two different explanations. He argues that voters form their opinions based on controversial votes, and then says that the FISA vote was necessary to block another 9/11. The mixture of fear and reactionary instincts is quite revealing. The political evidence for Davis's position is thin. Bush has net negatives on his handling of terrorism, and the public is overwhelmingly opposed to warrantless wiretapping according to recent polling data. In fact, Rove and Bush made terrorism the centerpiece of their 2006 election strategy, and not one single Democratic incumbent lost.
Remember this ad against Chris Murphy, a so-called 'devastating' ad arguing that Murphy's stance against warrantless wiretapping would enable terrorists? The ad moved numbers against his opponent, and Murphy crushed his opponent by 12 points. It is simply ridiculous to think at this point that Republicans have an advantage on this issue. It's empirically untrue. But even if you believe the Republicans do have an advantage here, to assume that the Republicans won't run on this issue simply because you threw away civil liberties entirely ignores modern media. The GOP will run on whatever they want to run on, you can't stop them by voting for their proposals. Did Max Cleland's example mean nothing to these people? Apparently.
But it's not just Bush Dog Democrats that are the problem, it's much more pervasive than that. Here's Ben Cardin, a 'liberal' Senator from Maryland.
"If you just say you're standing up for civil liberties, the American people are with you, but if you say terrorism suspects should have civil liberties, it stretches Americans' tolerance," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who along with Hastings represents Congress on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a human rights monitor. "It's a tough issue for us."
Among Bush Dogs, the problem is fear and slavishness to Bush. But among liberals like Cardin, it's a poll-driven adherence to conventional wisdom.
If anything, the habeas corpus and Guantanamo Bay issues will be tougher. In June, nearly 150 House Democrats signed a letter by Moran urging the shuttering of the prison. But Moran said last week that he no longer thinks he could muster the votes to pass the measure, even though the move is supported by former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Republicans appear to have won the argument with their accusation that Democrats want to import terrorists....
"We can do this, but you have to keep in mind Republicans care more about catching Democrats than catching terrorists," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "They have spent years taking Roosevelt's notion that we have nothing to fear but fear itself and given us nothing but fear."
The slavishness to fear and conventional wisdom, the misreading of polls and politics, and the unwillingness to lead are remarkable, among liberals like Cardin, strategists like Emanuel, and Bush Dogs like Davis and Boyd. But there's there's also this.
And advocates of a strong push on the terrorism issues are increasingly skeptical that they can prevail.
"I don't think it's that we're reluctant to take on Bush," said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (Fla.), a senior member of the House intelligence committee. "I think it's we are reluctant to take on each other. . . . If I can fast-forward to September, October, November, December and see where we'll be, we'll be nowhere."
Congress is pretty small, with a little over 500 people. They get along with each other, they are 'office-mates' in some sense, they play basketball together, and they are in many cases friends. Public criticism from a Democrat to another Democrat is quite rare, because it ruins these relationships and makes it personally harder and more lonely to be in Congress. That's actually how you can tell that Brian Baird's 'the surge is working' is quite costly to him, because a fellow House member, Ellen Taucsher, is openly scornful of Baird's judgment.
Building a different set of incentives for decision-makers is going to take a lot of work. The problem is a mixture of conventional wisdom, poor judgment, bad values, a lack of coordination with activists by progressive members, and inertia. Fortunately, the ACLU is now getting very aggressive against Democrats, Nancy Pelosi is showing a harder line, Moveon is cracking down on people like Baird, local activists are becoming much less tolerant of flouting our values, and we're starting the criticism necessary to identify and fix the problem.