Beltway cynics get it wrong

The pundits assumed Russ Feingold's principled stands were really grandstanding by a presidential hopeful. As usual, the pundits were mistaken.

Glenn Greenwald
November 13, 2006 9:35PM (UTC)

When Russ Feingold announced in March that he would introduce a resolution to censure President Bush for breaking the law by eavesdropping on Americans without warrants, a clear two-pronged consensus immediately arose among Beltway pundits and politicians -- Republicans and many Democrats alike:

1) Feingold had just disastrously handed a huge "gift" to Republicans because opposition to Bush's warrantless eavesdropping would doom the Democrats politically; and,


2) Feingold had introduced this resolution not because he really believed anything he was saying about it but only as a "political stunt," selfishly designed to advance his own political interests (at the expense of his party) by shoring up the "liberal base" for his 2008 presidential run.

As for premise (1), though their opposition was mostly mild and reluctant, Democrats spent all year opposing warrantless eavesdropping. That opposition culminated in a House vote just six weeks before the midterm elections in which 85 percent of Democrats voted against a bill to legalize warrantless eavesdropping.

For the next six weeks, Republicans did everything possible to make the Democratic reluctance to abridge civil liberties an issue in the campaign, yet Democrats still crushed Republicans in the election. As but one example, 12-term GOP incumbent Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut made her support for warrantless eavesdropping (and her challenger's opposition to it) a centerpiece of her campaign. She lost by 12 points.

As for premise (2), Russ Feingold announced Sunday, definitively, that he is not running for president in 2008.

As their treatment of Russ Feingold illustrates, it is hard to overstate how misguided and just plain wrong Beltway pundits are about virtually everything, and how barren and corrupt inside-Washington conventional wisdom is.

Feingold has spent his entire idiosyncratic political career espousing views because he believes them, even when those views are plainly contrary to his political interests. He infuriated his entire party by being the only Democratic senator to vote against dismissal of the Clinton impeachment charges prior to the Senate trial. He relentlessly pursued campaign finance reform hated by incumbents in both parties.


When Feingold ran for reelection in 1998 against a tough challenger, GOP Rep. Mark Neumann, he vowed to limit his expenditures to one dollar per Wisconsin citizen and not to accept any soft money. Even when he fell behind in the polls and was unable to pay for television ads to keep up with his challenger, Feingold adamantly refused to budge from his vow or even to allow the national Democratic Party to run campaign ads on his behalf.

And in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Feingold seemed to be the only prominent elected official in the country immune from irrational pressures, as he not only was the only senator to vote against "The Patriot Act" but also was the only senator who refused to pledge blind loyalty to limitless presidential power. He emphasized on the Senate floor as early as Sept. 14, 2001, that a national emergency did not make Bush a king. In voting for the resolution authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan and against al-Qaida, Feingold made sure to note, "Congress owns the war power. But by this resolution, Congress loans it to the President in this emergency."

In the same speech, Feingold presciently warned of the dangers of an excessive reaction to the terrorist threat as a result of allowing the terrorists to "inflate their numbers and their influence." Even with the attack on the World Trade Center, as well as the anger of most Americans, still smoldering, Feingold cautioned, "Our response will be judged by friends and foes, by history, and by ourselves. It must stand up to the highest level of scrutiny. It must be appropriate and constitutional."

Despite all of that, when Feingold stood up and advocated the censure of George W. Bush -- based on what ought to be the uncontroversial premise that when the president is caught red-handed breaking the law, Congress should not meekly acquiesce -- Beltway insiders could not even contemplate the possibility that he was doing so because he believed what he was saying. Instead, pundits, along with political figures in both parties, spoke in unison and immediately began casting aspersions on Feingold's motives. The Beltway crowd laughed off the idea that he was motivated by actual belief, and did not deign to debate the merits of his proposal.


That's because they believe in nothing. They have no passion about anything. And they thus assume that everyone else suffers from the same emptiness of character and ossified cynicism that plague them. And all of their punditry and analysis and political strategizing flows from this corrupt root.

Not only do they believe in nothing, they think that a belief in nothing is a mark of sophistication and wisdom. Those who believe in things too much -- who display intense political passion or who take their convictions and ideals seriously (i.e., Feingold, Howard Dean) -- either are naive or, worse, are crazy, irrational, loudmouthed masses and radicals who disrupt the elevated, measured world of the high-level, dispassionate Beltway sophisticates (i.e., Joe Klein, David Broder). They are interested in, even obsessed with, every aspect of the political process except for deeply held political beliefs, which is the only part that actually matters or has any real worth.

For that reason, when Feingold announced his censure resolution, the merits of it were virtually ignored. Few asked whether something should actually be done about the president's deliberate lawbreaking, or wondered what the long-term consequences of doing nothing might be. Instead, Feingold's announcement was immediately cast as a disingenuous political maneuver and discussed only in cynical terms of how it would politically harm the Democrats.


Thus, the Washington Post reported on March 15, 2006, that Republicans "denounced the censure resolution as a political stunt by an ambitious lawmaker positioning himself to run for president in 2008." Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said that Feingold's move was "an overreaching step by someone who is grandstanding and running for president at the expense of his own party and his own country." Rush Limbaugh and the National Review both described Feingold's censure resolution as a "gift to the GOP," while Marshall Wittman called Feingold "the GOP's man of the hour" because Republicans were "gleeful about a debate" on the president's illegal warrantless eavesdropping.

Following right along with the script, the New Republic's Ryan Lizza said that the censure resolution was introduced because "Feingold cares about wooing the anti-Bush donor base on the web and putting some of his '08 rivals -- Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Evan Bayh -- in uncomfortable positions." In Newsweek, Eleanor Clift called the censure resolution a "brilliant strategy for [Feingold], a dark horse presidential candidate carving out a niche to the left of Hillary Clinton," but warned that it was proof that "Democrats must have a death wish" because Feingold had "serve[d] up a refresher course on why [Democrats] can't be trusted with the keys to the country."

The same thing happened when Feingold announced that he favored same-sex marriages. He couldn't possibly be motivated by actual belief, so the Associated Press told us why he really did it: "Sen. Russ Feingold, a potential presidential candidate, said Tuesday he supports giving gays and lesbians the right to marry, again positioning himself to the left of possible 2008 rivals."


All of this Beltway certainty about the motives of Feingold's censure resolution and the political consequences of it could not have been any more wrong. Feingold obviously hadn't decided to run for president and apparently wasn't planning on it. And 2006 saw endless controversies over the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program -- from Senate hearings to court rulings to Feingold's censure resolution to a final House vote in which Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the president's program -- and yet American voters stomped on the Republicans and put the Democrats in power.

The Beltway pundit class and the premises that generate conventional Washington wisdom are corrupt to their core and almost always wrong. And Sunday's Feingold announcement illustrates a major reason why that is so. They operate from a set of completely unexamined, empty premises that reflect their own character and belief system, but nobody else's. Lacking passion and conviction, they think that those deficits are the marks of sober, responsible people. And they project those character flaws onto everyone else and assume that only unserious lunatics are motivated by sincere belief.

All of that combines to produce a worldview that is as inaccurate as it is bereft of integrity and principle. The excitement over new politicians like Jim Webb and Jon Tester -- and the passion inspired by Feingold and even Dean -- has nothing to do with long-standing and increasingly obsolete liberal vs. conservative stereotypes (the only prism through which members of the media can analyze the election results, which is why they are so confused). Instead, the excitement is due to a widespread hunger for people who are outside of and immune to the entire, soulless Beltway machinery -- a system that, in every aspect, is broken and empty.

Glenn Greenwald

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