Attention Democrats: GOP fear-mongering does not work

The Democrats have completely ignored the key lesson of the 2006 midterm elections.

Published August 6, 2007 7:11PM (EDT)

(updated below)

Karl Rove's election strategy prior to the 2006 election was to force the Democrats to vote against the Military Commissions Act and warrantless eavesdropping so that he could run around the country accusing them of being "soft" and "weak" on Terrorism. While Senate Democrats chose not to filibuster the MCA and thus allowed it to pass, Congressional Democrats did overwhelmingly vote against it. And most House Democrats voted against warrantless eavesdropping (the Senate never ended up voting).

As a result, Rove repeatedly boasted that Democrats were sure to lose because Americans would punish them for their refusal to be "tough" on the Terrorists. Here, for instance, is what he told NPR in October of 2006 as to why he was so certain of imminent Republican victory:

[NPR's Robert] SIEGEL: What do you tell all of those people? You say we have to keep a majority on Capitol Hill because dot dot dot. We have to re-elect your guy regardless of what party he's with.

ROVE: I think what you need to do is make it a choice between two candidates. So that you have a choice between Candidate A and candidate B. And on the big issues Candidate A represents the values of his or her district or state and Candidate B doesn't.

For example, look, the war on terror. Do you support in a time of war reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Terrorist surveillance program. There was a vote in the House. 88% of Democrats in the House voted against giving additional authority to a program to listen in to suspected Al Qaeda figures calling or trying contact people in the United States. The vote on CIA interrogation bill. Where again over 80% of Democrats in House and Senate voted against a program of the CIA interrogating high value targets like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed the mastermind of the 9/11 plot.

Rove made national security -- specifically the Democrats' opposition to coercive interrogation, lawless detention and warrantless eavesdropping -- the centerpiece of the GOP 2006 midterm campaign. From a Washington Post article reporting on Rove's October, 2006 speech outlining the GOP's strategy:

"You can't say I want to win the war but not be willing to fight the war," said Rove, Bush's top political adviser. "And if leading Democrats have their way, our nation will be weaker and the enemies of our nation will be stronger. And that's a stark fact, and it's the reason that this fall election will turn very heavily on national security" . . .

For instance, he needled congressional Democrats for voting against a GOP plan to try terrorist suspects at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Many Democrats said the plan violated basic rights, but Rove rejected that. "You need to have the ability to try these people without worrying about the ACLU showing up saying, 'Wait a minute, did you Mirandize them when you found them on the battlefield,'" he said. "With all due respect, I don't happen to remember that in World War II, that when we captured Nazis and Japanese and took them to camps, that the first thing we did was provide them legal aid."

He also went after the would-be House speaker for voting against renewing the USA Patriot Act, the warrantless wiretapping program and the war in Iraq. "With a record like that, you can see why Nancy Pelosi wouldn't want this election to be about national security," Rove said.

How did that big, bad, scary "Soft-on-Terrorism" strategy work out? The Democrats crushed the Republicans in an historic election, re-taking control of both houses of Congress, protecting every single one of their incumbents, and vastly increasing their hold over governorships and states houses. Democrats won in every region of the country outside of the Deep South. Karl Rove's strategy of accusing Democrats of being "soft on terror" due to their opposition to warrantless eavesdropping, lawless detention and torture was a complete failure on every level.

Following along with Rove's scheme, numerous incumbent GOP candidates attempted to exploit Democratic opposition to warrantless eavesdropping in order to save their campaigns. Connecticut's Nancy Johnson, a 12-term incumbent, repeatedly ran an ad accusing her challenger, Chris Murphy, of being weak on terrorism because he opposed warrantless eavesdropping. After 24 years in Congress, Johnson lost by 12 points. Murphy, who proudly opposed warrantless eavesdropping, is now in the U.S. Congress.

When the NSA scandal was first revealed, the conventional wisdom in Washington immediately solidified -- among Washington pundits and Democrats alike -- that Democrats had better not dare challenge Bush's illegal eavesdropping or else they would doom themselves to electoral defeat. One of the most eye-opening experiences I have had since I began blogging was when, in February of 2006, I met with various Senate staffers for Judiciary Committee members (including ones from the blue-est of states) as they were planning to question Alberto Gonzales for the first time about the NSA scandal, and all they could do was sit there petrified, quivering and saying things like (this is more or less verbatim): "we are just so afraid that if we get too aggressive, they're going to accuse us of giving away our playbook to Al Qaeda."

And yet Democrats repeatedly held hearings on the NSA scandal. They refused to enact a law legalizing warrantless eavesdropping despite the President's demands. Russ Feingold introduced legislation to censure Bush (which we were told by Washington geniuses would doom Democrats because they were becoming too aggressive, too Left, and "soft" on terrorism). Joe Lieberman was removed from the party (which we were told by Washington geniuses would also doom Democrats because they were becoming too aggressive, too "Left", and "soft" on the war). They voted overwhelmingly against the Military Commissions Act (which we were told by Washington geniuses would also doom Democrats because they were becoming too aggressive, too "Left", and "soft" on terrorism).

This mentality is wrong time and again. The midterm elections empirically disproved it. There is no vast yearning in America to allow the President the power to eavesdrop on our conversations with no warrants or oversight. There is no powerful political movement in the heartland demanding unlimited executive power. The notion is patently false that it is politically fatal to insist that eavesdropping be conducted only with warrants, or that we abide by minimal norms of civilization in how we interrogate people, or that we grants basic due process rights to people before we detain them for life.

For the Democrats in Congress and their apologists who are claiming that they had no political choice but to enact the FISA expansions, this claim is conclusively disproven again and again. The same people who fret that Democrats will be politically doomed if they take a stand for these positions -- for some limits on presidential surveillance and lawlessness and imprisonment powers -- have as impressive a track record as those who advocated the invasion of Iraq (and they are, more often than not, the same people).

We do not need to wonder or speculate about what might happen if Democrats obstruct warrantless eavesdropping legislation and Republicans are then able to make an issue of it politically. That already happened in 2006. That was Rove's whole strategy. It failed miserably, across the board. And yet the Democratic leadership just permitted, and many Democrats supported, a wild expansion of George Bush's warrantless eavesdropping powers based on a jittery fear of this already-failed tactic, if not based on actual support for these increased eavesdropping powers.

The only ones left who jump at the mere utterance by George Bush of the word "Terrorists" are authoritarian right-wing followers, the Beltway media, and Democratic consultants. As the 2006 election demonstrated, the rest of America stopped jumping long ago.

UPDATE: As Russ Feingold says:

Six years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, Congress rammed through the USA PATRIOT Act with little consideration of what that bill actually contained. Five years ago, Congress authorized a reckless and ill-advised war in Iraq. One year ago, Congress passed the deeply flawed Military Commissions Act. And late last week, a Democratic Congress passed legislation that dramatically expands the government's ability to conduct warrantless wiretapping, which could affect innocent Americans. It is clear that many congressional Democrats have not learned from those earlier mistakes, two of which happened when Democrats controlled the Senate. Once again, Congress has buckled to pressure and intimidation by the administration. . . .

The American people see through these tactics, and don't buy the president's attempts to use the threat of terrorism to get what he wants any more. Unfortunately, 16 Senate Democrats and an Independent, as well as 41 House Democrats were all too willing last week to let the president successfully employ this ruse yet again. . . . After all the wrong-doing by this administration, it was disheartening to see Congress bow to its demands one more time.

It is worth underscoring that Feingold -- the "1" in the 98-1 vote in favor of the 2001 Patriot Act and the prime sponsor of the Censure Resolution -- hails not from Massachusetts or California or some other safe blue state, but from the quite purple state of Wisconsin, and has won re-election by slim margins. Yet he continues aggressively to take these stands, and remains in the U.S. Senate. As noted earlier, Jon Tester removed a long-time GOP incumbent and ran on a platform of complete repeal of the Patriot Act. The Democrats' behavior is not only craven and destructive, but also based on pure myth that opposing George W. Bush on anything -- including Terrorism -- will doom them politically.

* * * * *

I'll be on C-SPAN's Washington Journal tomorrow morning from 7:45-8:30 a.m. to talk about FISA issues with pro-Bush lawyer David Rifkin. Earlier today, I was on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, discussing the FISA legislation, and that segment can be viewed here.

As a reminder for those in the Washington area, the Cato Institute is hosting an event for my book, A Tragic Legacy, tomorrow at 12:00 noon. After I speak about the book, Rifkin's pro-Bush writing partner -- Lee Casey -- will offer critical commentary about the book, followed by questions and audience discussion. The event will be covered by C-SPAN, though not live, and it will be broadcast online by Cato in real time, here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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