The flag-burning vote: Republicans exploit, Democrats enable

Why did they play along?

By Tim Grieve

Published June 28, 2006 1:14PM (EDT)

Well, that didn't take long.

Even before the Senate took its designed-to-pander but destined-to-fail vote on a constitutional amendment on flag burning Tuesday, one Republican senator had already begun using the vote as a campaign issue for his 2006 reelection drive. As the Washington Post reports, Virginia Sen. George Allen issued a press release Tuesday in which he said his challenger's opposition to the flag-burning amendment put him "firmly on the side of John Kerry, Ted Kennedy and Charles Schumer."

Although Allen has often shown more of a fondness for the Confederate flag, it's no surprise that he has jumped on the flag-burning vote as a political tool. Polls have Democrat James Webb gaining ground fast against Allen, and the incumbent can't out-patriot his challenger in the usual ways. Allen, who turned 18 in 1970, never served in the U.S. military; Democrat James Webb saw combat in Vietnam and went on to become the secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. The Senate vote on the flag-burning amendment was custom-designed for needy Republicans like Allen, and they'll use it to full effect.

The question, of course, is why so many Democrats felt the need to play along. Three Republicans -- Lincoln Chafee, Mitch McConnell and Robert Bennett -- had the courage to vote against the amendment. Fourteen Democrats did not; Max Baucus, Evan Bayh, Mark Dayton, Dianne Feinstein, Tim Johnson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Bob Menendez, Ben Nelson, Bill Nelson, John Rockefeller, Ken Salazar and Debbie Stabenow joined Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in voting in favor of the flag-burning amendment.


Maybe they really think that flag burning is so awful that the Constitution ought to be amended to allow its criminalization. But Sen. Reid, can you make a serious argument that with all the other problems facing the country, a flag-burning amendment was really worth a minute -- let alone two days -- of the Senate's time right now? Nope. "I think we have some misplaced priorities," Reid said at a press conference Tuesday. "I don't think it's the right time to bring up the issue ... I'll vote for it."

And what about you, Sen. Feinstein? If a Republican from Utah and a certain Democrat from Connecticut can find it in themselves to stand up to cheap political pandering by the right -- even Hillary Clinton managed to vote no, albeit in her typical have-it-both-ways style -- what in God's name were you doing out on there on the Senate floor with a picture of Iwo Jima?

As the majority leader, Bill Frist has every right to bring whatever he wants to the Senate floor. As a far-right extremist, Orrin Hatch has every right to argue that flag burning really is the No. 1 issue in America today. But Democrats in the Senate have rights, too, and among them is the right -- in a time of war, we'd call it a responsibility -- to walk out of the chamber in protest when the other party decides to spend its time playing cheap political games. You want to talk about honoring the sacrifice of veterans, Sen. Feinstein? Why don't you start by doing your job?

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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