An intriguing part of the Washington political dynamic is that the more the Democrats think they might win an upcoming election, the more timid they become – fearful that they will give the powerful right-wing media machine some issue that will destroy their victory dreams.
What often happens, however, is that once the Democrats slip into their four-corner stall offense, their lack of a clear purpose – or discernable principle – can become the lethal political issue that they so desperately wanted to avoid. John Kerry’s “flip-flopping” or Hillary Clinton’s “triangulations” can prove just as deadly as a controversial stand.
The Democrats appear to be sliding into just such a calculation as they signal a new willingness – especially in the Senate – to give George W. Bush pretty much whatever he wants on a new spying bill and to push for a more belligerent approach toward Iran.
As the New York Times reported on Oct. 9, “two months after insisting they would roll back broad eavesdropping powers won by the Bush administration, Democrats in Congress appear ready to make concessions that could extend some crucial powers given to the National Security Agency.
“Administration officials say they are confident they will win approval of the broadened authority that they secured temporarily in August as Congress rushed toward recess. Some Democratic officials concede that they may not come up with enough votes to stop approval.” [NYT, Oct. 9, 2007]
Indeed, congressional Democrats may end up granting the administration even more power than they did when they crumbled under political pressure in August and rushed through the loosely worded “Protect America Act of 2007.”
Along with granting President Bush broad new surveillance powers, the law gave legal immunity to telecommunications companies that assist the government’s spying in the future. But the administration now is sensing that it also can secure amnesty for companies that have collaborated with government eavesdropping orders in the past and are facing lawsuits from customers complaining that their rights were violated.
While retreating in the face of fears that they otherwise will be dubbed "soft on terror," the congressional Democrats have narrowed their hopes to possibly inserting an increased role for the secret court created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in overseeing the spying.
Though sold last summer as an important anti-terror law, the “Protect America Act” doesn’t actually mention the word “terrorism” nor is it the narrowly constructed revision of the FISA law that it was called in much of the press coverage in early August.
The supposed fix that the administration said it wanted was to let the NSA intercept messages from two foreign entities whose communications went through a U.S. switching station. That could have been easily corrected with a narrow amendment.
Instead, with the Democrats fretting that the Republicans would bash them for taking an August recess without first closing this security gap, the Bush administration rammed through a much broader law.
The “Protect America Act” granted the NSA sweeping powers to spy on anyone “reasonably believed to be outside the United States” who might possess “foreign intelligence information,” defined as anything that could be useful to U.S. foreign policy.
In other words, the Bush administration’s controversial post-9/11 decision to forego court warrants when intercepting electronic communications when one party is outside the United States and the other is inside was effectively legalized retroactively.
The law’s language didn’t even require that the person outside the United States have any alleged connection to terrorism or that the person be a foreigner. All that was required was a sign-off by the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence, two Bush political appointees.
When the scope of the Democratic cave-in became apparent to Americans concerned about constitutional protections, a furor erupted. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office reported receiving more than 200,000 angry e-mails.
Stung by the reaction, Democratic leaders promised that the spying law would be revisited once Congress returned from its summer recess, rather than waiting around for a required reauthorization of the law in February 2008. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “New Spy Law Broader Than Thought.”]
However, it now appears that congressional Democrats are setting the stage for a second capitulation out of fear that the Republicans would paint any rollback in the spying law as “soft on terror” and that the right-wing media would smear Democrats with a broad brush in Campaign 2008.
The national Democrats worry that the “soft on terror” charge could jeopardize their prospects for holding – and possibly expanding – their congressional majorities and for reclaiming the White House under their expected nominee, Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Given the unpopularity of President Bush and the disarray within the Republican Party, the Democratic leaders see a golden opportunity in Election 2008. So, they don’t want to take what they regard as undue political risks.
This “play-it-safe” pattern fits with Democratic behavior in 2002 when the strategy was to give President Bush his Iraq War authorization – thus blunting the “softness” charge – and then hope to prevail in the election based on domestic issues.
Despite the Democratic cave-in on Iraq, Bush’s right-wing allies still bashed the Democrats as weak on national security – even likening triple-amputee Vietnam veteran and Georgia Sen. Max Cleland to Osama bin Laden. The Republicans rolled up majorities in both the House and Senate.
In Campaign 2004, the Democrats turned to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Vietnam War hero who was considered somewhat safe because he had voted to give Bush authority to invade Iraq. The Republicans, however, didn’t miss a beat, questioning Kerry’s Vietnam War heroism and dismissing him as a weak-kneed flip-flopper on Iraq.
Campaign 2006 was a divergence from the Democratic pattern, with the party’s congressional candidates taking a tougher stance against Bush and bashing the Republican majorities in Congress as the President’s rubber stamp. The result was a surprising Democratic victory in both the House and Senate.
Since then, however, as Democratic prospects brightened for further gains in 2008, the leadership has chosen to play it safe, avoiding a serious showdown with Bush over Iraq War funding and rejecting rank-and-file demands for impeachment hearings.
Now, as Hillary Clinton consolidates her lead in the 2008 Democratic presidential race, she appears to be eyeing a similar strategy, shifting back toward the “tough-guy/gal” positions that she adopted in supporting the Iraq War from 2002 to 2005.
She joined other senior Democrats in backing a resolution co-authored by neoconservative Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut calling on Bush to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist organization,” a move that Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, warned could be a prelude to a wider Mid-east war. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Hillary Prods Bush to Go After Iran.”]
The Democrats may think that by giving Bush new spying powers they also can finesse the “soft on terror” charge in 2008. More likely, however, a new cave-in will simply demoralize the Democratic base and make the Democratic candidates look weak and indecisive to voters who are concerned about the nation projecting a strong image in a dangerous world.
One way to address this recurring political dynamic would be for American progressives to invest much more heavily in their own media infrastructure, so it can begin to match up with the juggernaut that the Right has built over the past three decades.
But the Left continues to pay insufficient attention to the nation’s media imbalance, apparently hoping against hope that the mainstream corporate media will rediscover its journalistic principles and start challenging the Bush administration more forcefully.
In the meantime, even on vital issues of war and constitutional principles, the national Democrats apparently have concluded that their best hope is to duck confrontations and do whatever’s necessary to accommodate aggressive Republicans and their right-wing media allies.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush , can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.