We're hearing a lot about Democrats these days -- from Republicans. Democrats are going to run Hillary Clinton as their presidential nominee in 2008. Democrats are going to try to impeach George W. Bush if they win control of Congress in 2006. It's enough to send the Republican base into panic -- which is, of course, exactly the point.
For the past four years, the Bush White House has kept the American public in line by warning that the terrorists are everywhere and fixing to "hit us" again at any minute. That argument isn't working anymore, at least not to the president's benefit. The public has begun to disapprove of the way that George W. Bush is handling national security; only 30 percent still think that Bush's "central front" in the war on terror -- the war of choice he launched in Iraq -- is actually making Americans safer.
But when all you've got is fear, you'd better hope that everything looks like a monster: So if Osama bin Laden isn't scaring Americans into the president's camp these days, the Republicans have to hope that Sen. Russ Feingold will.
The Wisconsin Democrat introduced a resolution Monday that would censure Bush for engaging in a program of warrantless spying and misleading the country about it afterward. Republicans say that Feingold is somehow coming to the aid of America's enemies. Republican Sen. Wayne Allard told a radio station earlier in the week that Feingold's resolution is an attempt to take "the side of the terrorists that we're dealing with in this conflict."
For all the fuss, Feingold's resolution is -- or, at least, ought to be -- a remarkably unexceptional piece of work. Censure is an entirely symbolic thing, so much so that Republicans dismissed it as an insufficiently serious sanction when Bill Clinton got caught lying about a blow job. So what does Feingold's resolution do? It sets out the legal argument against the warrantless spying program -- a legal argument that a lot of Democrats and several Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, seem to have accepted as correct. It states that the president has misled the country about the program -- a proposition that's hard to refute in the face of his 2004 claim that any government wiretap "requires a court order." And then it says that the U.S. Senate "does hereby censure" the president for what he has done. That's it.
If this is -- as the New York Times says today -- a "rallying cry" for those in Bush's base, these are people with some pretty sensitive hearing. Except for that "censure" word, Feingold's resolution says nothing that hasn't been said before -- even by some Republicans. And while Congress heads into a weeklong recess, I hope members of the Senate have a chance to listen to their constituents back home. Americans want to fight terrorism and protect our country from those who wish to do us harm, but they don't want to sacrifice the rights and principles our country was founded upon. One of those fundamental American principles is that the president doesn't get to pick and choose which laws he follows. While Rush Limbaugh and Paul Weyrich may see the resolution as part of some larger "impeachment agenda," it sure seems hard to make the case that this is some kind of united Democratic plot.
That won't stop the Republicans from trying. As John Nichols reports for the Nation, the RNC talking points say that the Democrats have finally found "their agenda" in Feingold's hands -- and that Democratic leaders are "enthusiastically" embracing his plan to "weaken the tools to fight the war on terror." As hyperbole goes, the RNC's claims make the inevitable-Hillary argument seem like a matter of irrefutable mathematical proof. So far as we can tell, exactly two out of 44 Senate Democrats have said publicly that they're backing Feingold's resolution: Tom Harkin of Iowa and Barbara Boxer of California. We assume Feingold's plan to "weaken the tools to fight the war on terror" is a reference to his fight against renewing the Patriot Act -- a fight in which the Democratic Senate leaders who are supposedly embracing Feingold "enthusiastically" abandoned him rather completely.
But they're all just lying in wait for impeachment, right? It sure doesn't look that way from here. Rep. John Conyers introduced a resolution calling for the creation of a committee to study the possibility of impeachment last year. So far, fewer than three dozen House Democrats -- not one of them a member of the Democratic leadership -- have signed on in support of the measure. Put it another way: About 170 House Democrats haven't.
We don't have any doubt that the terrorist threat is real -- more real, probably, than the Bush administration thought it was before 9/11. And maybe Hillary Clinton will someday be the Democratic presidential nominee -- although at this point in the process in years gone by, Mario Cuomo and Gary Hart looked a lot like locks, too. Maybe Feingold will even find some more Democrats to support his censure resolution; in a statement released by his office today, he said that his colleagues may be swayed during their spring break from constituents who want to keep America safe without sacrificing "the rights and principles our country was founded upon."
But for better or for worse, the fantasy that congressional Democrats are going to be rallying around Feingold or Conyers in a march for impeachment is just that: fantasy. It may represent the fondest hopes of a lot of Americans -- a majority of Americans say Congress should consider impeachment if Bush wiretapped U.S. citizens without warrants or lied about the reasons for war -- or the darkest fears of a few, but that doesn't mean that it's ever going to happen. As Feingold said the other day, members of his party still "run and hide" every time the White House plays the terror card. Maybe everything changes if the Democrats somehow win back both houses of Congress in November. But if the party's leaders can't join in a purely symbolic censure resolution now, can anyone seriously hope -- or fear -- that they'll find the fortitude to take on something more serious then?