Watching the Democrats fight amongst themselves during the past few days, I am reminded of a line uttered by Michael Corleone in the third Godfather movie: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
Just when the Democrats thought they were out in the clear, hammering away at an increasingly unpopular president and his increasingly anxious Republican party, now comes an incident that has pulled them back to their more familiar turf, where disunity reigns.
Their senator from Wisconsin, antiwar liberal Russ Feingold, is pitching a bill to censure President Bush for his domestic spying plan - and his Senate Democratic colleagues have responded by running so far from Feingold that you'd swear had bird flu.
They're all saying the same thing - "I haven't read the bill" - which is Washingtonese for "Get this guy and his wacko ideas away from me, before the Republicans beat us up."
Then there are the grassroots liberals, who love what Feingold is doing and who basically think that the party's Washington leaders are risk-averse wimps with no instinct for the jugular. The liberal wing believes that the timing of a censure is perfect, because Americans, as evidenced in the polls, are generally more critical than ever before about Bush's stewardship of Iraq and the war on terror.
As one Daily Kos blogger wrote today, "The atmosphere is ripe for accountability" -- while lamenting the Democratic establishment's response to the censure idea: "It's like we're watching the Boston Tea Party, with Feingold struggling to toss case after case into the water, while Democrats calmly watch from afar as they sip on their Lipton." Another liberal analyst, Matt Yglesias at the American Prospect, said: "I don't really see why Democrats would feel the need to be walking on eggshells here. An opposition party, faced with an incumbent who's sunk so low, could use a little swagger in their step."
Indeed, the new non-partisan Pew poll released today, reports that only 33 percent of Americans are pleased with Bush's performance (the lowest Pew rating of his entire presidency) -- and he's supported by only 26 percent of independents, a stat that puts him in Dick Nixon territory. It's true that Bush has roughly half the country with him on the domestic spying program, but there are still strong concerns about whether it's legal. So, says the Feingold camp, why not take a stand on principle? (It's not purely a matter of principle, actually. Feingold is interested in running for president, and the censure move is one way to warm the hearts of the antiwar liberals who dominate the early Democratic primaries. On the other hand, every move made by anybody in Washington is a mix of belief and self-interest.)
The problem, however (at least as Feingold's critics see it), is that politics is also about timing and momentum. The Democrats had the momentum last week and over the weekend, thanks to Bush's myriad woes and the worries of his followers. Feingold broke the flow and allowed the Republicans to get off the mat and crank up the old arguments about Democrats playing fast and loose with national security. Moderate Democratic blogger Joe Gandelman says we should "look at the chronology of where the White House was, what polls were showing, how Republicans were scrambling to distance themselves from the White House, amid signs that the GOP base was starting to sour on Bush, and the not-good-news-for-Bush topics of news cycles. Feingold's proposal shifted all of that..."
True, some of the Republicans' retaliatory arguments are not accurate; Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, referring to the censure proposal on Monday, said "if Democrats want to argue that we shouldn't be listening to al Qaeda communications, it's their right" -- yet not a single Democrat is on record arguing any such thing.
But clearly the Democratic leaders don't want to give the GOP any opportunity to shift the focus away from Bush and onto them. The Feingold bill has scrambled the focus. Now the Democrats can either stand with Feingold, and be forced spend valuable time defending themselves (however effectively) - or they can stay away from him, and wind up incurring fresh wrath from the liberal netroots.
There is a ray of hope here for Democrats, though. The ongoing GOP strategy is to paint the Democrats as lefty extremists, and they're trying to do it again, by linking everyone to Feingold. By doing that, the GOP then seeks to size the center and paint itself as the party of the American mainstream. But it's the independent voters who define the mainstream, and since, as Pew reports, only 26 percent are happy with Bush, that ship may have already sailed.