WORLD

Turning on their own

A Democrat’s move to censure Bush sparks anger -from other Democrats

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE April 3 2006
WORLD

Turning on their own

A Democrat’s move to censure Bush sparks anger -from other Democrats

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE April 3 2006

Turning on their own

A Democrat’s move to censure Bush sparks anger -from other Democrats

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

Russ Feingold is a

penny-pinching three-term Democratic sentor from Wisconsin, a former Rhodes Scholar and anti-corruption crusader whose chance of running for president was written off last year after he divorced wife number two. But his sudden jump for George W. Bush’s jugular with a bill to “censure” the President is reigniting talk of 2008 and re-energizing liberal Democrats in a way not seen since the bursting of the Howard Dean bubble.

Feingold, 53, claims Bush has crossed into “the strike zone” of “high crimes and misdemeanors” by authorizing wiretaps on Americans’ international phone calls and emails without a warrant, despite a law requiring one. Bush says he had the authority to launch his “terrorist surveillance program” as a commander-in-chief in wartime. Many experts say he’s wrong; Feingold wants a reckoning.

The censure bill has made Feingold the runaway favourite Democratic candidate on liberal blogs, and websites have been popping up pressing him to run. MoveOn.org— the powerful group originally created, ironically, to censure Bill Clinton and then urge the country to “move on” past his impeachment scandal—has embraced his cause, as has late-night comedian Jon Stewart. And his bill has wide appeal. A recent national poll by New Hampshire-based American Research Group showed that more American voters support censuring the President over spying, 48 per cent, than oppose it, 43 per cent. “There is a fair amount of support for it,” says Dick

Bennett, president of the non-partisan polling group, who notes that at 37 per cent approval, “Bush is about as low as he can go.”

Of course, the censure bill is purely symbolic; it would never pass a Republican-controlled Senate, and even if it did, it has no legal effect. It’s merely a formal chiding, one that’s been used against a president only once before, in 1834 against Andrew Jackson. The Senate judiciary committee will hold a hearing on it this week, but so far, Feingold’s biggest obstacles are Democrats—particularly those up for re-election to the House and Senate in November. Only two of Feingold’s fellow Democrats had co-sponsored the bill as of last week, and most have been entirely silent on it. Some said they need more information, while others slapped him down. “It’s an overreaching step by someone who is grandstanding and running for president at the expense of his own party and his own country,” said Minnesota Senator Mark Dayton.

Analysts agree. “It is beautifully designed to benefit his presidential bid, and potentially a disaster for other Democrats running in 2006, which is why they are avoiding it like the plague,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, who studied at Oxford with Feingold. The calculation is this: mid-term elections are all about getting out the vote. But turnout falls, on average, 13 percentage points for elections held in

non-presidential years, according to Sabato, and it always falls more for one party. This year, Democrats are counting on Republicans disenchanted with Bush and the Iraq war to stay home. The possibility of censure or fear of impeachment could get those people to the polls. It’s happened before: in the midterm elections of1998, Republicans lost seats despite the Clinton sex scandal because of a Democratic backlash against their tactics.

Already, GOP television ads are publicizing his move and urging voters to “Call Russ Feingold and ask him why he’s more interested in censuring the President than protecting our freedom.” For his part, Bush has accused Feingold of “needless partisanship.”

Feingold, meanwhile, is starting to swing back at his party. “Why would people cower at a time when the President’s numbers are so low?” he asked at a press conference. “There is a tendency in our party to be afraid of taking a strong stand and stick to it. And I think that just shows us to be weak rather than a party that’s ready to govern the country.”

How far can this tough talk take Feingold? Like Dean, he could electrify liberals but alienate moderates. In August, Feingold became the first senator to call for a specific date for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq. He was the only member of the Senate to vote against the Patriot Act in the weeks following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,2001. But like Dean, Feingold is not a consistent liberal. During Clinton’s impeachment trial, he broke ranks with his party and voted to hear the evidence against the president. In September, he voted to confirm Bush’s judicial nominee, and Harvard law classmate, John Roberts as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and he was the only Democrat on the judiciary committee to vote to confirm conservative John Ashcroft as attorney general in 2001. He has also been a long-time critic of high government spending—going so far as to return his government raises to the U.S. Treasury.

His censure bill may raise his profile, but it may also play into Republican talking points that Democrats criticize the President on national security without offering alternative plans. “American voters want a vision of hope for the future,” says pollster Bennett. “So talking about how bad Bush is may open the door a little, but you’ve got to give them something else.” M