Chris Dodd's leadership vs. Clinton and Obama's game playing

On the fundamental question of the rule of law and constitutional liberties, Democratic candidates begin to show true colors.

Published October 24, 2007 10:24AM (EDT)

(by Glenn Greenwald)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Chris Dodd appeared yesterday for a speech and Q&A session sponsored by FireDogLake regarding his commitment to doing everything possible to prevent telecom amnesty. It can be viewed in its entirety here. The transcript is here.

Dodd is not the planet's greatest orator and is never going to be. But he has something, at least right now, that is far more important: authenticity and passion about defending the Constitution and the rule of law, along with the resolve to accompany those convictions with action, even if it risks alienating his "friends and colleagues" in the oh-so-august Senate.

As Dodd said yesterday: "I'm not afraid to do this alone. I feel so strongly about this. It's part of my DNA." He then proceeded to explain why he believes that restoration of our constitutional framework and the rule of law is the matter of the greatest urgency, and recounted why those values are inculcated in him, as they are in many -- I'd say most -- Americans. I think Dodd's authenticity and passion -- undoubtedly bolstered by the tidal wave of encouragement he received last week from tens of thousands of American committed to these issues -- is evident from how he is he speaking and the commitments he is making.

Contrast Dodd's leadership and conviction on this matter with the complete passivity and invisibility of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Both candidates finally issued statements last night purporting to set forth their views on telecom amnesty and the FISA bill -- but did so only because they were forced to, after they learned that several blogs, in conjunction with MoveOn, intended to launch efforts today to pressure their campaigns finally to say where they stood on the Dodd filibuster.

Whatever that is, it's the opposite of "leadership." And it is this passivity and amorphous, shapeless, inspiration-free invisibility that has come increasingly to characterize both of their campaigns, along with the leadership of their party. That is why Dodd's relatively mild actions have generated such intense enthusaism and support -- a drop of water to someone stranded in the desert will seem like a royal feast.

And the "substance" of the statements issued both by Obama and Clinton is no more impressive than their obvious reluctance to get anywhere near this issue. While both of them suggest that they might support a filibuster to stop telecom amnesty, both statements are couched in the sort of amorphous, equivocating hedging that is the currency of the principle-free, cynical-game-playing Beltway insider.

Obama said only that "if the bill comes to the Senate floor in its current form, he would support a filibuster of it" -- a transparent hedge given that it is virtually certain that the bill (being marked up this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee) will not come to the floor in its "current form." That makes Obama's statement virtually worthless, filled -- as intended -- with plenty of room for him to vote for amnesty if and when the Senate votes on it.

Clinton's statement was just incoherent -- claiming first that she hasn't seen the bill (which has been available for many days now) and thus "can't express an opinion about it," then vowing (so inspirationally) that she is "going to study it very hard," and then surrounding her "support" for a filibuster with multiple conditions: "As matters stand now, I could not support it and I would support a filibuster absent additional information coming forward that would convince me differently."

These statements are just manipulative and woefully insufficient. Leadership is about standing and galvanizing support for fundamental principles. And there just is no more fundamental issue than the rule of law principles and basic constitutional guaranteees that will be eviscerated -- still further -- if telecoms are granted retroactive amnesty and relieved of all obligations from having broken the law for years.

Amnesty will single-handedly ensure that the most transparent act of Bush law-breaking -- warrantless eavesdropping and illegal spying on millions of Americans -- will not only go unpunished, but will also remain un-investigated forever. Telecom amnesty will provide Bush and Cheney with full and virtually insurmountable protection from any conseqeunces for their illegal spying. Sitting around hiding on this issue, playing fun semantic games, and clearly signalling a fear of being involved at all is actually grotesque, especially for candidates who claim that they are running in opposition to the excesses and abuses of the last six years.

The issue here for Clinton and Obama is clear and simple and permits no equivocation: Will you support a filibuster of any bill that grants retroactive immunity to telecoms for enabling the Bush administration to spy illegally on Americans? There is absolutely no reason why they should be unable to answer that question in a clear, straightforward and unconditional manner. What they ought to be doing is leading on this issue -- taking a principled stand for the rule of law and our constitutional liberties and leading the Senate in a filibuster to stop this travesty. But since they are leaving that to Dodd, they ought to at least issue a clear statement as to their positions here.

The Clinton and Obama campaigns should still be called today and an answer to that question ought to be demanded. They can be reached here:

* Clinton Presidential: (703) 469-2008

* Clinton Senate: (202) 224-4451

* Obama Presidential: (866) 675-2008

* Obama Senate: (202) 224-2854

To his credit, Joe Biden -- not exactly famous for his concise answers -- had no trouble answering the key question in a straightforward manner, without larding it up with all sorts of Senatorial hedges and conditions:

San Francisco: Will you join Sen. Chris Dodd's hold and proposed filibuster on any FISA bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecoms? . . .

Sen. Joe Biden: Yes.

What is Clinton and Obama's answer to that question? That is the only question that matters on this issue.

Finally, the planned campaign today to induce a statement from Clinton and Obama is but the first step planned for what I think is a comprehensive campaign -- from bloggers working in unison with various civil liberties and privacy groups and activist organizations -- to do everything possible to stop telecom amnesty and generate support for Dodd's efforts to derail it.

There will be additional prongs to the campaign launched over the next several days, including the targeting of selected Democrats who continue to serve as eager instruments for enabling and protecting the worst excesses of the Bush administration. All of these efforts will matter only when Congressional Democrats know that their betrayal of what they were sent to Washington to do will result not merely in a loss of support and enthusiasm, but -- far more importantly -- will trigger active, strategically focused and well-funded efforts to work against them and defeat them.

* * * * *

I will be on Air America's The Young Turks this morning at 8:00 a.m. EST to discuss all of this. Local listings and live video feed can be found here.

UPDATE: Robert F. Kennedy, 1965:

Mr. Kennedy said that he objected to the basic philosophy of retroactive immunization, which he said, might logically be applied to "murder or any other crime."

Attorney General Nicholas Katznebach, 1965:

The Attorney General, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, marched up to Capitol Hill Wednesday with one of the most sternly-worded statements ever delivered by a Cabinet-rank official in formal, public testimony on any subject.

Mr. Katzenback denounced as "outrageous" legislation . . . [that] would retroactively legalize six bank mergers . . . two of which have already been found illegal by the courts.

The bill that grants this retroactive immunity amounts to nothing more or less than a private relief, the Attorney General said, . . . and such special treatment for the banking industry alone can in no way be justified.

Barack Obama, last night:

Senator Obama has serious concerns about many provisions in this bill . . . He is hopeful that this bill can be improved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But if the bill comes to the Senate floor in its current form, he would support a filibuster of it.

Hillary Clinton, last night:

I am troubled by the concerns that have been raised by the recent legislation reported out of the Intelligence Committee. I haven't seen it so I can't express an opinion about it. . . . As matters stand now, I could not support it and I would support a filibuster absent additional information coming forward that would convince me differently.

Chris Dodd, yesterday:

You don't decide to keep to something in a bill that's dreadfully wrong because the president threatens a veto. If it's dreadfully wrong, as this is in my view, to provide retroactive immunity, here, then you strip it out of the bill, and do everything you can to achieve that. The President vetoes it, you send it back that way again. You don't put, the constitution should not be monkeyed around with because you're afraid of a veto. That's the worst thing you could do, when it comes to that document.

That all speaks -- loudly and clearly -- for itself.

UPDATE II: From TPM's Greg Sargent:

It's official: Obama will back a filibuster of any Senate FISA legislation containing telecom immunity, his campaign has just told Election Central. The Obama campaign has just sent over the following statement from spokesman Bill Burton:
To be clear: Barack will support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies.

Good for Obama. We'll see if Clinton will do the same.

Most importantly, it has been a good last week for the ability of Americans without armies of lobbyists to make Democrats responsive. All of this is an issue at all -- and these candidates are talking about telecom amnesty and taking a stand against it -- because so many people demanded they do so that they had no choice but to respond. Hopefully, Obama will join Dodd in taking a leadership role -- rhetorically and otherwise -- in stopping the travesty of Bush's telecom amnesty.

UPDATE III: More here, from Richardson, Obama, Clinton and Dodd.

By Glenn Greenwald

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