(updated below - Update II - Update III)
It's worthwhile to review the actions of Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer with regard to some controversial appointments of the last few years, as it really reflects where the "center" is in Washington's political culture:
* Michael Hayden as Bush's CIA Director: Hayden implemented, oversaw and was the chief defender of Bush's illegal NSA spying program. Weeks before the Senate vote, his nomination was supposedly "complicated by the disclosure that the spy agency under Hayden's control collected phone records on millions of Americans." The new revelations of massive, secret spying on Americans under Hayden's watch prompted Dianne Feinstein to predict that the new surveillance scandal "is going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of General Hayden and I think that is very regretted."
Two weeks later, Schumer voted to confirm Hayden.
* Michael Mukasey as Attorney General: During his confirmation hearings, Mukasey refused to say that waterboarding was torture and refused to repudiate the most radical Bush theories of executive power, including the right to detain American citizens indefinitely without charges and to attack Iran without Congressional authorization.
Schumer not only voted to confirm Mukasey, but his early announced support for Mukasey (as 1 of only 6 Democrats to do so) was, along with Feinstein's support, the event that assured Mukasey's confirmation.
* John Bolton as Bush's U.N. Ambassador: Bolton is about as extremist an ideologue as it gets, so much so that Senate Democrats and even some Senate Republicans joined together to refuse to vote on his nomination. But not Schumer:
Dodd still lies in wait, hoping to filibuster Bolton again, but he does not appear to have the votes this time. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, now backs Bolton, and the usually partisan Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer has indicated he will change his vote from last year and vote for cloture to end debate.
New America Foundation's Steve Clemons, who led the effort to defeat Bolton's nomination, reported that Schumer was leading the way trying to pressure Democrats to support the nomination:
During the "third" major effort by the administration to get John Bolton confirmed as US Ambassador to the United Nations, one of the shocking parts of that battle was not only trying to get Republicans like former Senator Lincoln Chafee to stand strong against Bolton -- but to undo the damage that Schumer was doing inside the Democratic Caucus.
Two Democratic Senators involved in that part of the Bolton battle -- one on the Foreign Relations Committee and one not -- told me personally that Senator Schumer called them to say "a vote against Bolton is a vote against Israel" . . . .
Fortunately, Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Christopher Dodd undid the damage done by Schumer in a Democratic Caucus Luncheon and Dodd got the Dems to stand strong on Bolton despite Schumer's lobbying against Democratic Party and American national interests.
That allowed Senator Lincoln Chafee -- and behind the scenes Senator Richard Lugar -- to deploy the final coup de grace to the Bolton confirmation effort.
* Charles Freeman as Obama's Director of the NIC:
Yesterday, Schumer proudly boasted of the role he played in torpedoing the Freeman nomination on the ground that Freeman made "statements against Israel" that Schumer deemed to be "way over the top." Along those same lines, Politico's Ben Smith baselessly granted anonymity to someone Smith described as "an official at a major Jewish organization," who hid behind his anonymity and thundered: "What [the failure of the Freeman nomination] showed is that there's no place for that kind of hostility to America's closest friend and most loyal ally." And Antony Loewenstein notes that neocon fanatic Daniel Pipes is sending out mass emails crediting indicted AIPAC official/espionage suspect Steven Rosen with being the catalyst of the anti-Freeman campaign.
* * * * *
So, to review the beliefs of Chuck Schumer -- a leading Democrat from one of the bluest, most liberal states in the country (and Wall Street's most loyal and most rewarded servant) -- with regard to what does and does not disqualify one from high political office in the United States:
You can break the law when spying on Americans. You can store massive amounts of data about the activities of American citizens without the Congress authorizing or even knowing about it. You can give cover to torture, endorse the idea that Americans can be imprisoned without charges, and assert that the President can attack Iran without Congressional authority. You can advocate aggressive wars against Iraq and Iran and even take positions too extremist and belligerent even for the Bush administration.
That's all perfectly fine for Chuck Schumer. All of that is perfectly consistent with occupying the highest and most powerful positions in Government.
But you can't make "statements against Israel." Even for far less important and influential positions, even for positions that require far-ranging debates of ideas, that will cause Chuck Schumer to call Rahm Emanuel and -- echoing the views of the further-right members of the Senate -- demand that you be disqualified from serving in the American government, and then run around boasting that making "over-the-top" statements "against Israel" is the supreme sin in American politics.
Chuck Schumer represents nothing other than the rotted ways of Washington. He embodies everything that is broken and sleazy about our political system. That's the faction he speaks for most. As The Atlantic's James Fallows wrote last night:
I do not know Freeman and had never paid attention to him before this controversy. But it turns out that nearly twenty people I know well enough to respect and trust have themselves known and worked with Freeman. Every one of them supported his nomination. And -- as it is unfortunately relevant to point out in these circumstances -- most of them are Jewish.
We'll all think about this episode for a while.
As I documented the other day at length, it was a diverse set of commentators who were not only speaking in defense of Freeman this week, but also explicitly acknowledging the obvious: that most of the attacks on him were motivated by the effort to maintain the stranglehold on our debates over Israel and, in particular, to continue to make criticisms of American policy towards Israel career-ending events for any political figures (Greg Sargent noted the same diverse range of pro-Freeman voices here). If there's any silver lining in what just happened, it's that this episode was so flagrant and extreme that this recognition will only continue to grow. In the meantime, though, real damage has been done, as Time's Joe Klein noted:
[Freeman] pins his departure on "the Israel Lobby," which is imprecise. He was the victim of a mob, not a lobby. The mob was composed primarily of Jewish neoconservatives--abetted by less than courageous public servants like Senator Chuck Schumer, who has publicly taken credit for the hit. . . .
Schumer should know that he has taken a scalp in the name of closed-mindedness, which is not a well-known Jewish tradition. He has made Washington even less hospitable for those who aren't afraid to speak their minds, for those who are reflexively contentious, who would defy the conventional wisdom.
Freeman's most important point in his statement is this one:
I believe that the inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for US policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics has allowed that faction to adopt and sustain policies that ultimately threaten the existence of the state of Israel. It is not permitted for anyone in the United States to say so. This is not just a tragedy for Israelis and their neighbors in the Middle East; it is doing widening damage to the national security of the United States.
Barack Obama should take note. The thugs have taken out Chas Freeman. They will not rest. Their real target is you, Mr. President.
The real goal, as always, was to ensure that there is no debate over America's indescribably self-destructive, blind support for Israeli actions. Freeman critics may have scored a short-term victory in that regard, but the more obvious it becomes what is really driving these scandals, the more difficult it will be to maintain this suffocating control over American debates and American policy.
UPDATE: Regarding Armando's point here: I have never heard anyone argue, and I certainly don't believe, that there's anything wrong or illegitimate about Americans with devotion to Israel trying to influence American policy and debates to ensure greater American allegiance to Israel. All American citizens have the right to engage in whatever sort of advocacy they want. Petitioning the Government is a core First Amendment right.
The point isn't that the power they exercise is illegitimate. The point is that it's harmful in the extreme. They use it to squelch debate, destroy the careers and reputations of those who deviate from their orthodoxies, and compel both political parties to maintain strict adherence to an agenda that is held by a minority of Americans; that is principally concerned with the interests of a foreign country; and that results in serious cost and harm to the United States. In doing so, they ensure not only that our policies towards Israel remain firmly in place no matter the outcome of our elections, but also that those policies remain beyond the realm of what can be questioned or debated by those who want to have a political future.
You can criticize someone's ideas without suggesting that they should be barred from expressing them. Identically, you can criticize someone's political activism and the effects of that activism without suggesting that the activism itself is illegitimate. People who believe in the AIPAC agenda have every right to engage in political activism to advance that agenda, and critics of that agenda have every right to point out the stranglehold they are exercising and the damage they are creating.
UPDATE II: To see why the exertion of this influence is so damaging, see here.
UPDATE III: The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin, who interviewed Freeman several years ago, has some worthwhile observations on what the U.S. lost as a result of this failed appointment.