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[Washington Babylon]

The Cost of Caving

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A few days ago, I took issue with a Washington Post op-ed by Michael Tomasky that argued against publicly discussing the possible impeachment of President Bush on the grounds that to do so would hurt the Democratic Party’s chances in the 2008 elections. My view is that the possibility of impeachment should be pursued if Bush has committed high crimes and misdemeanors—and abandoned if he has not. Tomasky’s op-ed implied that even if there are solid grounds for impeachment, the president should be elevated above the law in order not to damage the political chances of the Democrats. Elsewhere, it has been suggested that the Democrats are not eager to impeach Attorney General Alberto Gonzales because he’s such a rich target and political albatross for the administration.

E.J. Dionne has a column in today’s Post that well illustrates the fallacy of this type of calculation. His piece, “Why the Democrats Caved,” says that last weekend, “about 20 House Democrats huddled in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to decide what to do about a surveillance bill that had been dumped on them by the Senate before it left town.”

According to Dionne, many of the Democrats “were furious.” They felt that they had “negotiated in good faith with Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence,” and given the administration all the room it needed “to intercept communications involving foreign nationals in terrorism investigations while preserving some oversight.”

But the administration wanted more and Democrats in the Senate gave it what it wanted. Hence, it was up to the House to draw a line:

At one point, according to participants in the Pelosi meeting, the passionate discussion veered toward the idea of standing up to the administration — even at the risk of handing President Bush a chance to bash Democrats on “national security,” as is his wont . . . But the moment passed. Even some very liberal Democrats worried about the political costs of blocking action before the summer recess. That Saturday night, the House sent the president a bill that, as a disgusted Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) put it, with just a touch of exaggeration, ‘makes Alberto Gonzales the sheriff, the judge and the jury’.

Dionne describes the Democrats’ collapse as yet another example of how national security and civil liberties issues have been “debated in a climate of fear and intimidation, saturated by political calculation and the quest for short-term electoral advantage.” And he points out that the Republicans came out winners on two points:

They got the President the bill he wanted and, as a result, they created absolute fury in the Democratic base. Pelosi has received more than 200,000 e-mails of protest, according to an aide, for letting the bill go forward.

Which makes you wonder about the wisdom of this sort of political calculation. And it also makes you wonder what sort of political advantage there is in betting on this type of Democratic Party.

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