A few days ago, I received one of those telemarketing calls from the Democratic Party. Usually, as soon as I learn that someone is trying to sell me something over the phone—stocks, carpet cleaning or a cause—I break the connection with a request to be deleted from that group’s list. But this time, the hallucinatory quality of the message put me into a brief trance. I paraphrase (though hand to heart, her name really was Misty):
“Hi, this is Misty from the California Democratic Party. Like you, we think that George Bush is the worst president in history. And like you, we want to get this country out of the war in Iraq….”
For so long, I have wanted these views to become mainstream. Now an official Democratic Party call had presented them flat out, without hedging. Was I dreaming?
Yes and no. Last week, 41 House Democrats joined all but one Republican in voting to deepen and extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), effectively legitimating the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance activities. Pundits say that the Democrats who voted for the measure did so out of fear they would be branded “weak on terrorism” if they voted no.
Here’s some of the terrifying rhetoric being slung by Republicans, according to the New York Times:
“If it is good enough for Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats, it should be good enough for House Democrats,” said Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the second-ranking Republican.
Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee, accused Democrats of dithering for months without giving “the intelligence community tools they need while we are at heightened risk.”
Are you quaking in your boots?
“Yes” voters included one California Representative, Jim Costa of Fresno, deep in California’s agricultural Central Valley, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, a fence-straddler who likes to portray herself as a liberal.
So I guess the telemarketers for California Democrats were reasonably honest in portraying our delegation as opposed to Bush’s most belligerent policies. But who’s fooling whom when congressional Democrats hand the most unpopular president in living memory a blank check he can cash in the currency of invasion of citizens’ privacy and disregard of our civil liberties? Under the new provisions, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales now have joint authority to approve the monitoring of calls and e-mails between Americans and any foreign national they deem suspect, or in any way connected to a suspicious person. (Formerly, these decisions rested with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretaps excited opposition because they bypassed the court, something which FISA has now effectively made legal if any foreign phone is involved.)
At least the blank check is only good for six months: the law expires then unless renewed, perhaps giving members of Congress time to regain their senses. (Bear in mind, though, that warrants issued under the new FISA can outlive the legislation by many months.) At least none of the Democratic presidential candidates voted for it. But if 41 Democrats lack the courage to stand up to the weakest president in decades at a time when every indicator they trust—polls, focus groups, pundits—is saying no to this man, when will they find the strength to stand?
Beginning in the eighties, the Republicans earned much of their political capital by strongly stating positions that were affirming and resonant for their “base”—those who held the strongest right-wing views and felt politics mattered most. There are many competing ideas about how politics should be conducted, but one that has always seemed true to me is that the clearest statement of values will mobilize those who truly care about such things—those most likely to help activate others—whereas dissembling and vagueness in the interest of attracting (or at least not offending) the indifferent just ends up multiplying indifference.
Wouldn’t it be nice to feel aligned with a political party not just when you hear resonant marketing pitches, but when its members’ actions carry the courage of conviction? Or am I just dreaming?
Moveon.org has been quick on the draw with a petition to Congress. Generating a large response to Democrats’ spinelessness could have an effect. If you’re interested, you can sign it here.