Thursday, September 28, 2006

NYT: “Democrats betray their principles to avoid last-minute attack ads.”

If this had appeared on the news pages of the Times, I might have been upset by another instance of the Gray Lady’s habitual Dem-bashing. But, in the context of the New York Times’ opinion pages, I read today’s editorial assessment as spot on.

I suppose the real takeaway from the detailed editorial is that the Republican Congress, acting as a rubberstamp for cynical Bush administration moves to hold on to power, is about to pass a law that does as much to destroy the foundations of our democracy as it does little to protect us from future terrorist attacks—but it is because the consequences of this Republican action are so great that the Democrats attempt to finesse this vote is so disappointing.

Perhaps Democrats (who, it should be pointed out, will record votes in overwhelming numbers in opposition to the detainee torture bill, but will lose because they are the minority party in both houses), sensing that many parts of this bill will not stand up in court, feel they can do a parliamentary head-fake—voting for a few mollifying amendments (all of which will fail) and against the Bush Administration’s bill—while still escaping the label of “obstructionist” by not (in the Senate’s case) filibustering and really stopping the legislation.

But litigation will take time, and there is no guarantee that freshly-packed federal courts will be a bulwark against the goals of the party that did the packing. In the meantime, real people may be detained and tortured, show trials might be used to influence the midterm elections, aid workers and soldiers captured abroad might come to greater harm, and America’s ability to move through the world as an honest and moral nation will be even further denigrated.

And, perhaps most pathetic of all, is that Democrats, thinking that they are being so smart politically, have missed a great opportunity, and reinforced their worst stereotypes. By trying to outwit Republicans, Democrats are seen as taking calculated risks rather than taking a stand. They are playing politics with a moral issue. They are not deeply anti-torture or staunchly pro-Constitution—they are not really even strong or weak on terrorism—they are simply the party of politics as usual. Hardly a good place to be in a year of anti-incumbency.

Worse, Congressional Democrats have once again missed a chance to define what they are for: For the rule of law, for honoring our Constitution and our international treaty commitments, for a strong, moral government. For human rights, for safeguarding our troops, for protecting our own citizens. For real homeland security, for protecting America from future attacks, for actually prosecuting and convicting terrorists in open courts that would serve as a model of fairness for all the world to see.

In defining themselves in this way, Democrats wouldn’t have had to leave their voters behind, either. It is hard to imagine—and polls back this up—issues more winning. Democrats want to communicate that they have moral values; opposing this legislation provides moral values to own by the bucketful. Democrats have trouble breaking into the Republican-controlled news cycle; weeks of visible wrangling on the big issue of our time (or so we are told, anyway) provides the perfect establishment media stage. Democrats desire to frame the issues on their terms; what better issues to contrast Democratic morality and competence with the Republicans’ lack of each?

In fact, in a world of complex problems with nuanced solutions, there are few opportunities for more clearly-drawn distinctions. To stand with Bush is to stand for torture. To endorse the White House language is to endorse arbitrary and indefinite detention. To allow the president to get his way on this bill is to allow the president—and only the president—to decide who is an “unlawful combatant” and who still deserves the rights previously accorded to all.

Of course, Democrats still have the opportunity to use these arguments in specific races and individual interviews, but by failing to really stand and fight this bill in this session of Congress, they have squandered the chance to redefine and enhance their image on a grand, national scale.

Don’t believe me? Just look at what failing to do this has wrought.

From the New York Times editorial:

There is not enough time to fix these bills, especially since the few Republicans who call themselves moderates have been whipped into line, and the Democratic leadership in the Senate seems to have misplaced its spine. If there was ever a moment for a filibuster, this was it.

From Wednesday’s Washington Post editorial:

Senators -- and this includes Democrats who have been largely and cravenly absent from this month's debate -- would do best to postpone action on the bill.

Remarkably, both the often liberal and assertive Times and the often warmongering and calcified Post editorial staffs agree on just how terrible the Bush bill and the Republicans’ behavior is for our country. Sadly, both also seem to agree that the Democrats played to type when they failed to stop them.

(cross-posted over at DialyKos)


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