What Dems should do with Feingold.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 16 2006 6:55 PM

Feingold's Censure Adventure

What should Democrats do with their Senate bomb-thrower?

Download John Dickerson's weekly political podcast here, or sign up for Slate's free daily podcast on iTunes.

"Selfish," "idiotic," "boneheaded," were some of the first characterizations I heard from Democratic political strategists about Sen. Russ Feingold's resolution to censure President Bush for the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program. Why, when Bush was on the ropes, would Feingold want to pick a distracting fight that divides the party and makes it look weak on fighting terrorism? "He is running for the position as the most loathsome person," said one party insider.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

That was one story line: A senator running for president upsets the careful plans of the Democratic leadership in order to pander to the rabid base. But Feingold's attack may be playing differently outside the party's elite circles. For a party that supposedly celebrates its diversity, Democrats sure do have trouble accommodating it. Liberal activists tell it this way: Faced with a man of virtue and rectitude, Democratic leaders jumped behind the couch, hoping they could capitulate quickly so they could get back to appeasing Republicans. Activists cheered when Feingold said, "I'm amazed at Democrats, cowering with this president's numbers so low." It looked like the censure battle would turn into a fight about the party as much as a fight about whether the president broke the law.

Advertisement

But, alas for journalists, the factions in the Senate seem to have found their script and toned down the infighting. Feingold did not renew his challenge to his colleagues' manhood in his press conference Thursday morning. Democrats who disagree with Feingold were talking less about how he was helping his presidential primary chances and more about how they share his frustration with incomplete answers from the White House and lackluster oversight by the Republicans in the majority.

Perhaps this will help Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid realize that it's not such a bad thing to have a bomb-thrower around. The firestorm may provide an opportunity for Reid to define what the majority of Democrats in Washington want. It is certainly getting the media to pay attention to the long-limp Senate Dems. Feingold has gathered an audience bigger than any Reid and Co. might have drawn to their dutifully planned events. If Reid and other Democrats want to make the case that the party understands security issues and wants the government to use every tool at its disposal—two things Feingold's critics say are imperiled by his move—then Reid can make that case in front of all of those microphones now pointed at Democrats. Reid can disagree with Feingold on censure while agreeing with him that Bush has exceeded his authority and misrepresented the wiretapping program to the public by saying that no eavesdropping occurred without a warrant.

What Reid shouldn't do is pull a Pelosi: respond to a bomb-thrower with confusion and delay. As the Senate minority leader met with other Democrats and his advisers after Feingold introduced the measure on Monday, they all recognized the press would leap on Feingold's idea the way it had on Rep. John Murtha's call for the quick redeployment of troops in Iraq. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had first opposed Murtha and isolated him, but then several days later said she supported him. It was a twofer: She reanimated the cartoon of the Democratic flip-flopper, while offering no more clarity on the party's position on troops. So, Reid called for calm without endorsing Feingold but also without slapping him down for his unpredictable and untimely move.

The test now is whether Democrats can have it both ways, allowing Feingold to continue agitating while not letting Republicans use him to define the party as weak on terrorism. How will activists react when Democratic leaders return to their preplanned messages on health care, prescription drugs for the elderly, and Iraq without pushing Feingold's charge? On that, the senator from Wisconsin may give his party leaders an assist by declaring an early symbolic victory. "Although I am sincere in wanting to pass this resolution," he said Thursday, "my objective has already been achieved."

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 9:19 PM The Phone Call Is Twenty Minutes of Pitch-Perfect, Wrenching Cinema
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.