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Dems Run Away from Feingold's Censure Resolution

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release April 7, 2006

Democrats Fall for GOP Spin, Run Away from Feingold Censure Resolution

Interview with John Nichols, Washington correspondent for the Nation magazine, conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

President Bush's admission that he ordered warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens' international phone and email communication over the past four years captured national headlines, but the Republican-controlled Congress seems eager to legitimize the apparent illegal action. GOP Senators Dewine, Graham, Hagel and Snowe have sponsored legislation that would retroactively make legal the president's refusal to seek court warrants required under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

But the issue took an unexpected turn on March 13 when Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, introduced a resolution that would censure President Bush for authorizing the warrantless spy program conducted by the National Security Agency. However, only two Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer of California and Tom Harkin of Iowa stepped forward to co-sponsor the measure. The U.S. Senate has only censured a president once -- Andrew Jackson, back in 1834.

A Newsweek poll taken March 16 and 17 found that 50 percent of those surveyed opposed censuring Bush while 42 percent supported it. Sixty percent of Democrats polled favored censure. The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to begin hearings on Feingold's motion on March 31. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with John Nichols, Washington correspondent for the Nation Magazine. Nichols examines the reasons why so many Democrats have run away from Feingold's motion of censure.

JOHN NICHOLS: It is very tragic what I think has happened over the last two weeks for the Democratic party, because they were given the opportunity to do two things: One, politically define themselves as a clear opposition party -- a party that stands for a basic set of principles, and something that we know from polling, the majority of Americans agree with. They could have taken that stance; they didn’t. They refused to back Feingold on his censure motion. Two, though, at the same time, in failing to do what was politically smart, they also failed to do what was right for the nation. And that’s where it gets really scary, because when you are in a moment where the opposition party won’t even do the right thing if it’s good for the country, you end up asking yourself, I mean, what do we do? How do we get out of this mess?

Now, some wise folks will counsel that maybe we ought to go for a third party route. I’m very sympathetic to that, except, that, really outside of a handful of places around the country, third parties don’t begin to be viable. They don’t have the resources, the ballot position or the capacity to do it. And so, we’re stuck in a very bad place in the country. And, I think that the Feingold challenge has really put a lot of pressure back on activists to make a tough call, and to do something very bold, which is to go into Democratic primaries around the country and pull the lever for the opposition. Pull the lever for somebody who is going to try to change the thing; and that means opposing a number of sitting incumbents and also in open primaries choosing the candidate who says that they’ll back censure, that they’ll oppose the Patriot Act, that they’re for a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, and if they’re not, don’t back them in the primary, but also, really ask yourself whether they deserve backing in November.

It’s that serious of a situation because this party is clearly not waking up and it runs the risk, the very real risk of repeating the exact same set of mistakes that were made in 2002 and in 2004 when the Republicans didn’t win; the Democrats lost. And if they do it again in this cycle, at this point of the nation’s history, giving George Bush two more years of really uncontrolled presidency, unrestrained presidency with no checks and balances, I think they will have done, not just their party, but the American experiment an extreme disservice.

BETWEEN THE LINES: John Nichols, I just want you to dissect the timidity of the Democrats for a moment here, because it’s said by the political strategists that support for this censure resolution by Russ Feingold could wake up, could energize Republican party voters and thereby diminish the chances that the Democrats could win the House or Senate in the midterm elections. What do you make of that reading of the tea leaves?

JOHN NICHOLS: If the Republican party really thought that Russ Feingold's censure initiative was going to help the Republican party, they would have shut up and let the Democrats do it. They would have pretended they were terribly scared, and led the Democrats into the trap because they would have wanted it not to simply be Russ Feingold raising the issue, they would have wanted a lot of other Democrats to get onboard. Instead, even before Russ Feingold had formally filed his censure motion, Republicans were going wild. They were sending e-mails all over the country, they had a whole website developed attacking Feingold. They were preparing to air ads in Wisconsin attacking Feingold, even though Feingold wasn’t up for election.

So, it was clear from the start, that the Republicans knew that what Feingold was doing was actually a very serious political threat to them and they wanted to create the fantasy, spin the fantasy that it would be something that would energize their base and this would be harmful to the Democrats, because they wanted to scare the Democrats off. Unfortunately, most Washington Democrats are so dumb and so susceptible to Karl Rove’s spin, that they fell for it -- they did in fact back off.

And the amazing thing about it was, when they went out and polled this stuff, despite the fact that the whole Democratic leadership avoided the issue, that there’s been virtually no education on this issue whatsoever; that Feingold’s been the only person speaking out for it basically -- and that even he has not had that good a national platform. But, even without that national exposure, we find in polling that it’s an even split on censure. Imagine if the Democrats had embraced the issue and actually talked it up and educated people about the need for it -- about why this is a good idea. And why it is not a particularly dangerous thing to do, why it’s absolutely appropriate and necessary in the current moment. I think the polling numbers would be through the roof. But even without that, we’ve got a tie.

And the incredible thing was that in polling on censure, several of the polling companies also threw in an impeachment question. What they found was that the majority of the Democrats favored impeachment but also, that 42 percent of independents, without any education on the issue, without any real national discussion on the issue, favor impeaching George Bush -- at this point, 42 percent of independents. The fact of the matter is, the American people are totally ready for an accountability moment with George Bush. They are totally ready to hold this guy’s feet to the fire.

Read John Nichols' columns online at Nichols is a co-author with Robert McChesney of the book, "Tragedy & Farce: How American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections and Destroy Democracy."

Related links on our website at

* "Feingold Proposes Bush Censure Over Spying"
* "Why I Fully Support Bush Censure"
* "Feingold Stands Alone Again When Standing on Principle"
* "FBI Keeps Watch on Activists”


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending April 7, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.

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