Sunday, April 02, 2006

Contrarian thoughts on censure

The conventional wisdom about Russ Feingold goes something like this:
The Wisconsin Democratic senator is hurting his own party by seeking to censure President Bush, with an official Senate rebuke that's one step short of impeachment; that Feingold is making the Democrats look soft on terrorism by arguing that Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program is an outright violation of federal law; that Feingold's bid to punish the president is a display of Bush-hating zeal that will turn people off to the Democrats in general (despite the fact that most Senate Democrats are refusing to endorse Feingold's move).
Yes, sometimes the conventional wisdom is absolutely correct.
But sometimes it pays to be a contrarian, and this might be one of those times.
First of all, as nonpartisan analyst Stuart Rothenberg pointed out the other day, there is broad public antipathy toward Bush these days, especially because of the war, and he is no longer viewed by most Americans as an effective steward of the war on terror. In such a climate, it is easier for a Democrat to argue that Bush deserves to be held accountable for his actions.
As Rothenberg told the New York Times, "If (censure) is discussed in at all a reasonable way, that may add to its credibility. When you have presidential approval ratings this bad, you have a public that is not predisposed to rally to the president and not predisposed to reject the criticism."
Secondly, even though it's widely assumed that only liberal Democrats believe Bush broke the law by setting up a warrantless surveillance program, that conventional wisdom is factually incorrect. Two days ago, in a Senate hearing on the censure idea, one of Feingold's most reputable witnesses contended that Bush is using 9/11 as a "preposterous" excuse to slowly and steadily amass "unprecedented" presidential powers. In short, he said, "You can lose a republic on the installment plan every bit as efficiently as at one fell swoop with a coup d'etat."
The speaker was Bruce Fein, who served as assistant director of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy...under Ronald Reagan. Fein, who supports censuring Bush for "official misconduct," also supported the impeachment of Bill Clinton. This is also the same conservative scholar who, last winter, argued that "President Bush presents a clear and present danger to the rule of law." (The Republicans who assail the censure idea never mention Fein. You can read his prepared statement here.)
My point is that Fein's involvement is evidence that concerns about Bush and the law are not limited to the left side of the political spectrum. And this is exactly what conservative analyst William Kristol brought up this morning on Fox News Sunday. Kristol is not a fan of Russ Feingold's censure move, but he too believes it may be a more politically potent idea than conventional wisdom would suggest.
Kristol cited a national poll showing that 38 percent of Americans back the censure idea, with 45 percent opposed. Then he said:

"That's an amazingly high number, that Feingold already has 38 percent...If he keeps making the case that this (warrantless program) is illegal, and the Republican response is 'Oh, we're a little uncertain (about the legality), but this (censure) is a little harsh,' who's going to win that argument? If the Republicans believe that the president has done the right thing - which I believe - they should introduce a resolution commending the president for eavesdropping on terrorists, and force the Democrats to vote on that. But the Republicans are in a fetal position, and the Bush administration is in a fetal position, and Feingold makes his case articulately...And of course Feingold is going to win that debate."

I couldn't find the poll to which Kristol was referring. But I did find a Newsweek poll, conducted in mid-March, that puts support for censure at 42 percent, which arguably strengthens Kristol's point.
So, I'm just asking: Are all those Senate Democrats who are fleeing from Feingold - are they possibly misreading the public mood?