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Thinking back, it is hard to believe Ross Perot nearly upturned the two party system in 1992. He received almost 19% of the vote, which was more than an independent had received since 1912 - when a former President ran. Perot had a staggering array of disadvantages: The absence of even a bare bones third party infrastructure, no political experience whatsoever, an untelegenic face and somewhat high pitched (and grating) voice, a running mate who seemed simultaneously authentic and buffoonish, and a continually prickly reaction to the prying and publicity that comes with any serious bid for the White House. And then of course there was the epic freakout. Ahead in the polls, he abruptly dropped out of the race, then dropped back in several weeks later and accused the Republicans of trying to sabotage his daughter’s wedding. He seemed, literally, to be having a nervous breakdown in full public view. And after all that he still captured nearly a fifth of the electorate!
He had some advantages as well obviously. Sometimes in politics anti-charisma can be charisma. Washington has famously been described as Hollywood for ugly people; physical disadvantages can come across as genuine, the common touch, lack of affectation and so on. He was also in possession of a gigantic pile of money. A good chunk of it came via government contracts, but he still successfully played the “private sector hero” card. He also used his money exceptionally well - in addition to other spending he bought entire 30 minute blocks of time and used them to focus on the issue that catapulted him to popularity seemingly overnight: The budget deficit. Americans were terribly anxious over the unwillingness of our leaders to pay for their spending (seems quaint now doesn’t it?) and Perot focused on it to the exclusion of just about everything else. And people responded with wild enthusiasm. His disadvantages were substantially muted because he spoke directly and maturely to an issue of vital importance to many of his countrymen.
Now, there are plenty of dissimilarities in 2008. I don’t think Bob Barr is the second coming of Perot; at this point in the 1992 cycle the “Ross For Boss” rocket had already launched. Also, if anyone was going to catch lightning in a bottle this time I think it would have been Ron Paul, who no longer has an obvious route to the ballot. And while the GOP base is suspicious with a “waited his turn” nominee and a lot of Democrats are fired up about a charismatic newcomer, these parallels are mostly superficial.
What is real and very similar, though, is the restlessness of a good part of the electorate. Last week may have seen the start of a new alliance between civil libertarian-minded citizens on the right and the left with the creation of The Strange Bedfellows. It began largely in response to the FISA reform bill, and look at the events surrounding it: Steny Hoyer negotiated it behind closed doors, introduced it and less than 24 hours later engineered a vote (with the blessing of Nancy Pelosi), all in the face of outrage from the left. A site was created for contributions to oppose it and it raised six figures literally overnight. Democratic capitulation on the burgeoning surveillance state has created tension that seeks an outlet. The party’s continued rubber stamp of the President’s hugely unpopular Iraq policy is another source of tremendous frustration.
Democrats are playing a dangerous game. They apparently reason that Republicans will bear the brunt of dissatisfaction over Washington’s unpopular policies. That may well be true. The GOP faces a disaster this year because they gained control of all major parts of government and then engaged in an orgy of excess, alienating moderates and depressing their loyalists. Having achieved their electoral goal they spent all their credibility very quickly. Democrats seem to be in the process of a sellout of a different sort. They seized control of both houses of Congress but seem oblivious (or indifferent) to the public’s anger. Instead they seem to be playing a game of political jujitsu, using the overexertions of the right to give them leverage to flip them totally off the mat. It may be a brilliant tactical move but one with long term risks. First, urgent policy issues fester because no meaningful action can happen under such a strategy. That leads to the second problem, deep dissatisfaction with what comes to be seen as a lesser of two evils. By eschewing opposition the Democrats are creating a pool of thwarted activists. Such people are primed to create new realities or respond to the latest version of a quirky billionaire with homemade charts. I’ve written before about the Republicans’ implosion; the ground may be shifting underneath the Democrats as well.
Well, a very good week was followed by a very bad one. The capitulation on FISA tells me that a lot of representatives think they can disregard strenuous opposition from the left (when it comes from the right - see immigration - they comply). One of the few positive developments was the new alliance formed with civil libertarians on the right. If it endures and projects a more diverse spectrum of opposition to the erosion of our freedoms it could end up as more than just a silver lining. It also increases my sense that the ground is shifting under the politicians’ feet and they are largely ignorant of it.
Speaking of which, there’s a good deal of ignorance or worse in how the legislation is being characterized. Glenn has some details. He writes it is “vital to target and defeat selected Democrats in Congress who are enabling these unconstitutional and lawless assaults”, but I’d say anyone who voted for it should be targeted. No reason to single out one party, especially if we are trying to create a broad coalition. And let’s face it, if you really want to get Washington’s attention send a few GOP incumbents down to defeat in primaries over this issue.
This week the action is in the Senate and it doesn’t look good. There is a lot of debate on the left over how Obama stands on this and how much he can do. While the ideal situation would be for the entire bill to be defeated I don’t think most people are taking an all-or-nothing approach towards him. If telecom amnesty was stripped and the rest of it went through I think most would grudgingly accept it. He’s the leader of his party and even though it has a reputation for being undisciplined he could make a difference if he really wanted to. If the bill goes to the President’s desk in its current form he can be faulted for practicing politics as usual in Washington DC.
Side notes: Obama pledged to comply with Congressional subpoenas. Atrios notes that abuses Republicans are blind to at the moment will become outrages under a Democratic President, so look for subpoenas to become sacred. Those of us blogging from the left will face a test of our own: Will we be as vocal about them then as we are now? I hope so. The right loudly proclaimed principles of limited foreign intervention, fiscal responsibility, obedience to the law and so on during the 90’s and promptly trashed all that when it controlled all the levers of power. The past eight years have been an uninterrupted lesson in conservative hypocrisy, and one of the reasons I’m proud to be a liberal is that I think we are more likely to stand on principle even when it means being critical of our own. If November produces another Democratic wave we will probably be tested on that frequently.
The following people solemnly swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Yesterday’s vote gutted the Fourth Amendment; can any of them explain how their actions did not actively damage the Constitution?
It looks like the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 is going to be voted on in the next 24 hours. Here is a good summary of why it is terrible. Please contact your House and Senate representatives, tonight if possible.
I hate to sound breathless or alarmist about this but it looks like we don’t have much time to make our voices heard. Steny Hoyer seems to want a very quick vote. Please - call, fax, email, do whatever you can. Simon Owens has more on the kind of broad alliance that is starting to unite against it.
UPDATE: You can send two free faxes per day at http://faxzero.com/. Send two tonight and two tomorrow. Some suggestions:
Barack Obama (202) 228-4260
Steny Hoyer (202) 225-4300
Nancy Pelosi (202) 225-8259
Let ‘em hear from you.
U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled this week that the White House’s Office of Administration (OA) does not have to turn over documents relating to the disappearance of potentially millions of emails. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and in her decision Kollar-Kotelly wrote “the Court concludes that OA is not an agency subject to the FOIA”. CREW plans to appeal.
She acknowledged that until the administration decided otherwise “OA considered itself an agency subject to the FOIA and operated as such.” Why should a decades-long practice under Republican and Democratic administrations alike be so casually disregarded? Considering the reverence for precedents in the judicial system it would seem logical that longstanding conventions elsewhere would be granted some measure of respect. Instead she concludes that even though the OA always considered itself bound by FISA and responded accordingly, all that was required to end this long-running practice was for the current President to order it.
Such logic is fine in the abstract. There are lots of things we’ve done for long periods of time without ever having a formal blessing, and many of them would not stand up to official scrutiny. But principles are not formulated in a vacuum, nor should they be interpreted in one. The lawsuit sought to preserve an area of transparency from the government. The OA is by all accounts not some kind of top secret agency that deals in national security secrets. Releasing documents under FOIA may reveal embarrassing details of incompetence or corruption, and that would certainly be one reason for an administration to want to suppress them. But it also makes it even more important that responsiveness and openness be adhered to.
Consider the source for the lawsuit, too. How has the White House acted regarding routine access of information requests like this, or testimony of top officials, or willingness to share ordinary (but important) details on its decision making methods? It has generally acted with an unrivalled level of opacity. This is a group that does not want what it is doing to be visible to the public. Of course, based on what we have seen from them it appears there is good reason for them to want as little openness as possible, but why on earth would Kollar-Kotelly continue to enable such behavior?
Finally, think about it in simple terms of a turf battle. The judicial branch is confronted with an executive branch that does not respect it. It has relentlessly politicized the Justice Department and attempted to render terms like “voter fraud” and “civil rights” meaningless. It has tried to evade the courts by going to great lengths to stay beyond their jurisdiction - black sites, Guantánamo Bay, extraordinary rendition. (At what point do we start to ask the President what he finds so offensive about American soil?) Now in the wake of Boumediene they are indicating they will attempt to defy a ruling by the Supreme Court itself. Spokesman Tony Fratto said “[t]his was not a slam-dunk by the Supreme Court - this was a deeply divided decision - but there’s no question it has done damage to our ability to protect the country.” Or consider the President’s exchange with Adam Boulton:
BOULTON: But the Supreme Court have just said that — you know, ruled against what you’ve been doing down there.
THE PRESIDENT: But the district court didn’t. And the appellate court didn’t.
BOULTON: The Supreme Court is supreme, isn’t it?
THE PRESIDENT: It is, and I accept their verdict. I don’t agree with their verdict. And it’s not what I was doing down there. This was a law passed by our United States Congress that I worked with the Congress to get passed and sign into law.
BOULTON: But it looked like an attempt to bypass the Constitution, to a certain extent.
THE PRESIDENT: This was a law passed, Adam. We passed a law. Bypassing the Constitution means that we did something outside the bounds of the Constitution. We went to the Congress and got a piece of legislation passed.
Note how he gives weight to the district and appellate court rulings; notice how he emphasizes the law passed by Congress. He will not so much as lift a finger in response to this ruling. He will publicly ignore it and work to undermine it. This is the environment judges are ruling in. It would seem reasonable for them to take such casual contempt for the law by a petitioner into account, but clearly not all of them feel that way. Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, this is the man you deferred to.