Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) cast the Senate into mild chaos with his resolution to censure President Bush for breaking the law with his program of wiretapping. His action probably set back his party significantly, as other Democrats’ unwillingness to support him demonstrated.
In the end, Feingold is probably the only Democratic beneficiary of his resolution, as he puts all other Democrats in the awkward position of having to take a stand for or against.
The largely symbolic resolution was a political tool for Feingold’s presidential ambitions as he seeks to run to the left of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in 2008. Clinton, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), and other Democratic presidential hopefuls in the Senate will be put on the spot as to how they would vote. The resolution’s introduction could also help convince the Democrats’ liberal donor base that they are serious about undermining the administration at all costs. This is red meat for the left-wing troops.
The only problem here is that Democrats are not getting behind Feingold — neither in the Senate nor anywhere else in Washington — even though most refused to completely disavow the idea of censuring Bush. If Democrats were to unite around the resolution, it could do them some good, although probably much more harm. They would raise more money over the Internet, and the entire episode could be viewed as strengthening their hand in a Senate in which they hold only 44 seats. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would come out as weak.
But Frist gambled correctly when he let through a unanimous consent request to give Feingold time for grandstanding with his resolution. The problem for Democrats is that there is a big downside to the resolution that outweighs all of its positive potential. If badly defeated, the resolution is an embarrassment that could alienate the Left, like Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) failed filibuster against the confirmation of Justice Samuel Alito in January.
The resolution’s mere introduction, however, already undermines Democrats’ credibility on the issue of national security, and just at a time when they had successfully blunted Bush’s credentials on the issue. The fact is that Americans approve of the wiretapping program, especially when it is described to them the way countless Republican political advertisements will describe it in the run up to November. Feingold has opened Democrats up on one of their classic weaknesses.
GOP Senators and even House members were furiously accusing Feingold and Democrats of trying to weaken the War on Terror and of playing politics with national security. It was Senate Democrats who refused to allow a floor vote on Feingold’s resolution, a vote requested by Frist. This is beginning to resemble the Alito filibuster, or the House debate over immediate withdrawal from Iraq, or the House vote on liberal Democrats’ bill to reinstate the draft. In all of those cases, Democrats were ultimately humiliated and voted against their own resolutions after Republicans let them overextend themselves.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R) continued his days of Senate dominance as he led the debate against the measure. He triangulated himself, acting as both the defender and the reluctant critic of President Bush and his wiretapping program. Notably, Specter also took the bold step of taunting Feingold at least five times for leaving the floor immediately after his speech, so that the fact that he left would be preserved in the Congressional Record and publicized. This gives an avenue for other Republicans to criticize the resolution as a mere tool for advancing Feingold’s presidential candidacy. But Specter also made known his own reservations about the legality of the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping of U.S. persons’ phone calls with foreign terrorists.