Wisconsin Democratic senator Russ Feingold's introduction of a motion to censure President Bush for his illegal domestic wiretapping program has drawn a number of unfair attacks.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist responded that "the signal that it sends that there is in any way a lack of support for our commander in chief, who is leading us with a bold vision, in a way that we know is making our homeland safer, is wrong. And it sends a perception around the world."
Does Frist really think the world believes Bush is popular? The three recent polls showing a mid-30s approval rating would seem to make it pretty obvious to the world there is "a lack of support" for President Bush.
Frist later attacked Feingold again, stating, "This is a political stunt, a political stunt that is addressed at attacking the president of the United States of America when we're at war." The implication, of course, is that it's illegitimate to criticize the president during wartime - a dangerous and anti-democratic notion.
Other attacks on dissent came from Speaker Dennis Hastert's spokesman, Ron Bonjean, and Vice President Cheney. Bonjean asked the rhetorical question, "Just who is the enemy to the Democrats, the president of the United States or the terrorists working to destroy our way of life?" And Cheney said in a speech that "Some Democrats in Congress have decided the president is the enemy." By this pseudo-logic, which Republicans have used repeatedly since 9/11, criticism of the President means that Democrats aren't serious about fighting the terrorist enemy.
Republican chairman Ken Mehlman also used this approach in an email to supporters (PDF), stating that "Democrat leaders never miss an opportunity to put politics before our nation's security. And now, they would rather censure the President for doing his job than actually fight the War on Terror." Again, the implication is that Democrats are weakening national security and choosing not to fight the war on terror.
Another tactic was to attack absurd straw men. White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said, "I think it does raise the question of how do you fight and win the war on terrorism, and if Democrats want to argue that we shouldn't be listening to al Qaeda communications, that's their right. And we welcome the debate."
This claim, which Republicans have repeated before, bears no resemblance to reality. No major Democrat has said that "we shouldn't be listening to al Qaeda communications," and censuring the President for breaking the law governing wiretaps certainly doesn't indicate opposition to such wiretaps. Yet Cheney claimed that Democrats want to "protect our enemies' ability to communicate," stating, "The outrageous proposition that we ought to protect our enemies' ability to communicate as it plots against America poses a key test of our Democratic leaders."
Republicans are denouncing Senator Russ Feingold's proposal to "censure" President Bush for his warrantless wiretaps on al Qaeda, but we'd like to congratulate the Wisconsin Democrat on his candor. He's had the courage to put on the table what Democrats are all but certain to do if they win either the House or Senate in November.
In fact, our guess is that censure would be the least of it. The real debate in Democratic circles would be whether to pass articles of impeachment. Whether such an inevitable attempt succeeds would depend on Mr. Bush's approval rating, and especially on whether Democrats could use their subpoena power as committee chairs to conjure up something they could flog to a receptive media as an "impeachable" offense. But everyone should understand that censure and impeachment are important--and so far the only--parts of the left's agenda for the next Congress.
...In other words, everything that Mr. Bush has been accused of during the last five years, no matter how Orwellian or thoroughly refuted, will be trotted out again and used as impeachment fodder. And lest you think this could never happen, Judiciary is the House committee through which any formal impeachment resolution would be introduced and proceed. As the country heads toward 2008 and a Democratic nomination fight, John Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton would be hard-pressed to avoid going along with Mr. Feingold, Al Gore, and others feeding the bile of the censure/impeach brigades.
Which brings us back to Mr. Feingold's public service in floating his "censure" gambit now. He's doing voters a favor by telling them before November's election just how Democrats intend to treat a wartime President if they take power.
Not only do they want to block his policies, they also plan to rebuke and embarrass him in front of the world and America's enemies. And they want to do so not because there is a smidgen of evidence that he's abused his office or lied under oath, but because they think he's been too energetic in using his powers to defend America. By all means, let's have this impeachment debate before the election, so voters can know what's really at stake.
This is just speculation, of course, and the legal analysis from the editorial is even worse:
As a legal matter, Mr. Feingold's censure proposal is preposterous. The National Security Agency wiretaps were disclosed to Congressional leaders, including Democrats, from the start. The lead FISA court judges were also informed, and the Attorney General and Justice lawyers have monitored the wiretaps all along. Despite a media drumbeat about "illegal domestic eavesdropping," Mr. Bush's spirited defense of the program since news of it leaked has swung public opinion in support.
Disclosing the program to a handful of Democrats and informing "lead FISA court judges" is not the same as following the rules and procedures created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The WSJ presents these actions as if they are somehow exculpatory in a legal sense, hoping that ill-informed readers will believe these steps were sufficient under the law.
As a political matter, Feingold's resolution was a poor tactical choice. Bush is extremely unpopular; dividing Senate Democrats, turning the conversation back to the war on terror, and raising the specter of impeachment does not serve his party well. But the spin barrage that the GOP has unleashed deserves nothing but scorn.
Update 3/15: Media Matters reports that "Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called Sen. Russ Feingold's introduction of a resolution to censure President Bush 'borderline treasonous behavior'" -- yet another anti-democratic attack on dissent.