"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Debating Bush Censure Serves Dueling Purposes
LA Times
Ronald Brownstein
March 26, 2006

Maybe to save money and reduce duplication, MoveOn.org and the Republican National Committee should just hire the same ad agency.

Usually, the RNC and MoveOn, the giant online liberal advocacy group, go at it hammer and tongs. But they have found common cause of a sort. Both are highlighting the resolution by Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) asking the Senate to censure President Bush for authorizing warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency.

Feingold and his resolution dominated prime real estate on the websites of both MoveOn.org and the RNC. Possibly not since an unknown Bruce Springsteen simultaneously scored the covers of Time and Newsweek three decades ago has any public figure landed such an unlikely twofer.

MoveOn, of course, championed Feingold's idea, and the RNC condemned it. But both want it in the voters' minds as the elections approach.

One group has been conspicuously absent from that consensus: most Democrats in Washington. Their objections to Feingold's gambit are both substantive and political. Although sharing his concern about the legality of the NSA program, some worry about formally sanctioning another president so soon after the Republican Congress impeached Bill Clinton. Others complain that Feingold's resolution diverts the debate from the surveillance program itself to whether it is appropriate to officially rebuke the commander in chief at a time of war (as Republicans like to put it).

It's an understatement to say Feingold's proposal doesn't fit with his party's emerging election strategy. In a narrow sense, many Democrats would rather focus on Iraq than on the NSA surveillance, on which polls show Bush enjoys greater support.

On a broader level, Democratic leaders are drifting toward a midterm message that indicts Bush more on grounds of competence (on issues such as Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and prescription drugs) than ideology. It wasn't a coincidence when three senior Senate Democrats marked the third anniversary of the Iraq war last weekend by employing variations on the phrase "dangerous incompetence" to describe Bush's record there.

Such language is a tip-off that Democrats want Americans to cast their ballots this November looking backward, at the missteps and setbacks that have depressed Bush's approval ratings to anemic levels.

A focus on ideology, by contrast, inherently tilts the election forward: It asks voters to decide which side has a better plan to move ahead. Most Democratic leaders seem leery about that approach.

Not Feingold. He and his allies, such as MoveOn, believe Democrats should present clear, confrontational alternatives to Bush (like censure) that will inspire a large turnout from the party's base. "Our biggest problem is Democrats, all over America, saying: 'Why don't you guys ever stand up?' " Feingold insists.

Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn's political action committee, seconds Feingold. Promoting censure, Pariser says, will convince voters that "Democrats are strong and will take principled positions."

Republican strategists, perhaps over-optimistically, welcome such talk. They insist their prospects will improve if Democrats present a sharper alternative this fall. Republicans want voters to see the election more as a choice than a referendum.

That's one reason Republicans are drawing attention to Feingold's censure idea. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on it Friday. Almost daily, the RNC issues statements charging that Feingold's resolution is the first step in a Democratic plan to impeach Bush if the party recaptures the House.

Those jabs are designed mostly to energize the Republican base. But they are also likely to be one of many GOP efforts this year to persuade voters that Democrats can't be trusted with power.

The censure debate carries implications for 2008 too. Feingold, who appears likely to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, is positioning himself as the next Howard Dean: the truth-teller willing to confront Bush when a spineless party establishment won't. In that sense, Feingold may welcome opposition to the resolution from his Democratic colleagues (whom he didn't notify before introducing it two weeks ago). The more they oppose him, the more they prove his point.

Feingold's ambitions, and ideals, help explain his call for censure. But the debate also seems the nearly inevitable product of Washington's unending spiral of conflict.

The resolution wasn't the first punch in this fight. It followed months of frustration among Senate Democrats over the White House's refusal to provide meaningful answers about the NSA program and the unwillingness of most Senate Republicans to demand them.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is exploring the program's legal justification, but shortly before Feingold introduced his proposal, the Senate Intelligence Committee, on a party-line vote, rejected an investigation of the program's operation. The same day, four Senate Republicans introduced legislation to legalize the program with little change.

Feingold said those decisions convinced him that the possibility of serious accountability or change "had been completely shut down." So he rolled his grenade into the tent. With that, Feingold successfully blasted the dispute back into the headlines.

Now, the question is whether everyone involved wants to find solutions — or just escalate further. A showdown over censure promises unnecessary division. But so does the prospect of Republicans imposing a GOP-only solution to the NSA controversy.

The country needs a stable strategy for collecting intelligence on terrorists, and that will come only with a bipartisan consensus on the balance between civil liberties and national security. Whether the Senate endorses, rejects or ignores Feingold's resolution, the job of fashioning such a durable accommodation will still be waiting.

Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Sunday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times website at latimes.com/brownstein.

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