The Feingold gambit

Republicans are acting as thrilled about a proposal to censure Bush as liberal activists. So who is right?


Michael Scherer
April 3, 2006 3:45AM (UTC)

Now that the New York Times has discovered that the Internet is changing politics, let us pause a moment to consider the censure strategy of Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold.

When he first raised the idea, in early March, the Democratic establishment in Washington reacted with revulsion. With no hope of actually passing Congress, Feingold's gambit was seen as a "selfish move." "It's an overreaching step by someone who is grandstanding and running for president at the expense of his own party and his own country," complained Minnesota Sen. Mark Dayton, a Democrat. With the president's approval ratings in the 30s, the argument went, why remind Americans of Bush's best issue -- his muscular posture in the war on terror?

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Even as the establishment fumed, liberal bloggers and online activists championed Feingold's move, reveling in the heavy coverage by the nation's newspapers, which have followed the debate closely. In the censure hearing on Friday, Feingold returned the praise, quoting the blogger Glenn Greenwald's comparison of Richard Nixon during Watergate and George W. Bush during the current warrantless wiretapping scandal. There is an overwhelming consensus among online liberals that any comparisons like this will eventually bring great rewards at the ballot box.

Republicans, meanwhile, think the Democratic base is walking off a cliff. For days, the Republican National Committee has been crowing about all of Feingold's press with the same enthusiasm as the liberal bloggers. The Republicans released a new Web advertisement on Friday. On Sunday, after Feingold appeared on Fox News, the GOP attack dogs sent out a press release that blared, "Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) Claims President's Use Of Terrorist Surveillance Program Worse Than Watergate."

The pollsters will tell us soon enough who is right. Can Feingold generate more skepticism of Bush among teetering independent voters? Or will Feingold only distract the country from the president's failures on just about every other public policy issue?

The answer could tell us a lot about the power of the liberal blogosphere. In 2004, the results for online activists at the polls were not so impressive. Internet campaigns for Howard Dean and Wesley Clark in 2004 fizzled. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga at Daily Kos went 0 for 13 in picking Democratic congressional candidates.

But times they are a'changing, with more Americans than ever going online for political news. As the Times reports today, "The percentage of Americans who went online for election news jumped from 13 percent in the 2002 election cycle to 29 percent in 2004, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center after the last presidential election. A Pew survey released earlier this month found that 50 million Americans go to the Internet for news every day, up from 27 million people in March 2002, a reflection of the fact that the Internet is now available to 70 percent of Americans."

I don't know the answer. On issues like censure, the bloggers may be right, and the Washington establishment wrong. But we will know soon enough. Feingold is forcing the issue. Come November, the moment of truth will be upon us.

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Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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