In October of 2002, 29 Democratic Senators voted in favor of authorizing the use of military force against Iraq. Two years later, activists who worked for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign were asked why those 29 Democratic Senators voted the way they did:
The activists remain committed to the Democratic Party, even if some are reluctant supporters. They are clearly dissatisfied with party leaders: 80% of the activists say Democratic leaders supported the war in Iraq because they were afraid to stand up to the president.
According to Democratic activists, the Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force were actually opposed to the war, but voted for it anyway because they were too afraid not to do so. Only a small minority of Dean activists, 19%, thought that Democrats in Congress voted for the war "because they thought it was the right thing to do." (source, p. 14). Democrats in Congress actually agree with us, they are just too afraid to admit it.
To this day, that form of denial remains a prevalent, and seductive, attitude in the progressive blogosphere. The people we support all agree with us, but they are too afraid to say so in public. Surely, this is far more attractive than simply believing that the people you are working to elect actually disagree with you on vital topics. A lack of backbone is much better than a lack of agreement, because those without backbone can be pushed into self-actualizing redemption by progressive activists. By contrast, those who disagree with you might not actually be worthy of your support, and may even deserve a primary challenge down the road. Even though it is an exercise in denial, belief in a lack of backbone is a much more attractive for a grassroots activists than a belief in actual disagreement.
Now, even though I have repeated termed the belief in a lack of backbone "denial," it is also an understandable view, given the way that many Democratic leaders have talked for the past two decades. In particular, it is the epitome of DLC language in public is to attach every single policy proposal they make with how that policy proposal will help Democrats get elected. If Democrats are constantly saying that they are only voting or proposing right-wing policies in order to be elected, then the progressive activists who believe that Democrats are only voting certain ways in order to be elected are actually taking those Democrats at their word. Consider, for example, Steny Hoyer's triumphal claim after the FISA bill passed the House (emphasis mine):
In an interview with Politico on Monday, Hoyer called the FISA legislation a "significant victory" for the Democratic Party - one that neutralized an issue Republicans might have been able to use against Democrats in November while still, in his view, protecting the civil liberties of American citizens.
Progressive activists should think that the Democratic capitulation was all about getting elected, since the Democratic House majority leader said that it was all about getting elected. It also doesn't help that, back in November, Obama brashly declared his opposition to FISA without even reading a script to tell him to do so (emphasis mine):
One of his most passionate passages was not in the prepared text. He promised to close down Guantanamo "because we're not a nation that locks people up without charging them. We will restore habeas corpus. We are not a nation that undermines our civil liberties. We are not a nation that wiretaps without warrants."
Given that Obama seems to have changed his mind, and that we should be a nation to wiretap without warrants, it isn't much of a stretch to conclude that he did so for political reasons.
Now that Obama has publicly stated his opposition to FISA, and then reversed it for seeming political reasons, a new brand of denial has cropped up among progressive activists: a belief that Obama, and other Democrats, have a secret plan to stop FISA at some later date. Sure, he capitulated because of political reasons now, but really he will work behind the scenes in order to set things right. Glenn Greenwald discusses this new form of denial:
Notably, even beyond Olbermann's excuse, there have been all sorts of other theories about how Obama is harboring other Secret Plans that justify his support for this FISA bill. One widely cited Kos diary yesterday claimed that since the real danger to the Fourth Amendment is the Patriot Act's elimination of "the wall" between foreign intelligence and law enforcement, rather than FISA, Obama has decided to allow the FISA bill to pass so that he can gain power in order to implement a different Secret Plan to abolish the oppressive parts of the Patriot Act (however bad the Patriot Act is, allowing warrantless spying under FISA makes it worse). Another top Kos diary -- entitled "Obama's Outsmarted Us Again" -- echoed Jonathan Alter's rationalizations by claiming that Obama's support for this bill was part of a brilliant plan he has to impose Constitutional limits on Bush in his last six months in office. Apparently, Obama's unfailing Goodness is so absolute that even when it appears he's doing something wrong, that's just a failure on our part to discern his secret plan to protect us all.
The belief in the secret plan is one case where progressive activists are not taking Obama at his word. Let's look at what Obama actually said when he supported the new FISA bill (emphasis mine):
"The bill has changed. So I don't think the security threats have changed, I think the security threats are similar. My view on FISA has always been that the issue of the phone companies per se is not one that overrides the security interests of the American people."
If you want to take Obama at his word, and thus avoid engaging in denial, there is only one way to read this statement. Yes, Obama might agree with us, and probably capitulated for political reasons. However, as he said himself, he never really cared about telecom immunity all that much. As such, it is extremely unlikely that he will bother to do anything behind the scenes to fix this. There is no "secret plan." He just doesn't care all that much.
It is understandable to think that Democrats often capitulate to Republicans out of fear of political ramifications. This is because Democrats are constantly saying that they capitulate to Republicans out of fear of political ramifications. However, belief in a secret plan to solve FISA behind the scenes doesn't make any sense. This is because fighting for something behind the scenes, without any public glory to be had, requires strong conviction on the issue that is being fought. In this case, Obama just said, in public, that he doesn't really care all that much about telecom immunity for warrant-less wiretaps. Not only is this probably why he capitulated, it also guarantees that he won't do anything behind the scenes to fix the situation. The truth is, as he said in public, he disagrees with warrant-less wiretaps, but he will capitulate and not do anything about it because he just doesn't really care all that much.
Back in December, Mark Schmidt argued that Obama's talk of bi-partisanship was really a sneaky way of Obama taking Republicans at their word in public so that, when Republicans negotiated in bad faith, that bad faith would be put on public display and Republicans would be crushed as a result. While I think that is an extreme stretch and a case of wishful thinking while reading into Obama's actions, I also think that it is a pretty good way to adopt a "theory of change" on Obama himself. If we take Obama at his word, then we will be in a much better position to know what to expect from him, and thus in a better position to react to what he does as President. Pretending that he will do something other than what he says he will do won't work, and will inevitably lead to either disappointment or to deluded, cult of personality politics. In this case, Obama has flatly said that he doesn't really care about the fourth amendment all that much. That is good to know, because now we will know that we can't count on him to defend it during his presidency. As such, our fight to restore it will have to look elsewhere for its starting point.