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The Russ Fuss

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2006 10:06 AM

One thing is clear about Russ Feingold's move to censure President Bush: Republicans love it and Democrats hate it.

Rarely has a maneuver with as much chance of passing as Barry Bonds hitting 73 homers without steroids sparked such a reaction. Feingold's own party wishes the thing would just go away, while the other party would enjoy talking about it for days on end, which is why Bill Frist tried to call a vote on it, only to be blocked by the Dems.

This, of course, does not reflect the parties' true feelings about the underlying issue. Most Democrats believe Bush probably did break the law in approving warrantless eavesdropping, and most Republicans think the president acted properly. But the proposed censure--a word we haven't heard since some Dems were pushing it as an alternative to impeaching Clinton--is scary to most senators with D after their names, many of whom have been ducking reporters or hemming and hawing as a way to avoid commenting.

Plus, why take the political heat if the resolution is certain to go down in flames? Some folks are into the politics of symbolism, but that group generally doesn't include those who have to run for reelection (unless it's cheap, no-risk symbolism, in which case everyone is happy to indulge).

Does Feingold have 2008 motivations in pushing an official scolding that excites the liberal base? Maybe. But given his long struggle to pass campaign finance reform, he's someone who clearly believes in quixotic missions.

"Republicans, worried that their conservative base lacks motivation to turn out for the fall elections, have found a new rallying cry in the dreams of liberals about censuring or impeaching President Bush," says the New York Times .

"With the Republican base demoralized by continued growth in government spending, undiminished violence in Iraq and intramural disputes over immigration, some conservative leaders had already begun rallying their supporters with speculation about a Democratic rebuke to the president even before Mr. Feingold made his proposal."

With momentum going the Democrats' way, says the Philadelphia Inquirer , "Feingold broke the flow and allowed the Republicans to get off the mat and crank up the old arguments about Democrats playing fast and loose with national security. True, some of the Republicans' retaliatory arguments are not accurate; Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, referring to the censure proposal on Monday, said: 'If Democrats want to argue that we shouldn't be listening to al-Qaeda communications, it's their right' - yet not a single Democrat is on record arguing any such thing."

National Review is rather grateful to Feingold:

"If it could be arranged, surely Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman would hug Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold right now. As the White House struggles to find its political footing, Sen. Feingold has offered it a handy crutch with his proposal to censure President Bush for the National Security Agency surveillance program. The Democrats had just concluded a successful two-week bout of eroding the president's national-security credentials with baseless attacks on the Dubai ports deal."

Um, what about the Republican attacks on the ports deal? Baseless too?

"Now, the party's Left apparently believes it's time to switch back to type and bolster Bush's national-security credentials by demonstrating the Democrats' own lack of seriousness in the War on Terror.

"The Feingold proposal is a disaster on all levels for the Democrats, but it is a boon to the Wisconsin senator, thus capturing the current Democratic political dilemma in microcosm. The left-wing netroots are rallying to Feingold's proposal, and posting the phone numbers of Democratic senators, so Bush haters everywhere can call to urge them to vote for the Feingold's censure resolution. These bloggers and their readers are a key part of Feingold's constituency for a run for the 2008 presidential nomination from the left. Anything Feingold does to please them helps himself, even if it is irrational and harmful to his party's interests. . . . The resolution will surely strike most Americans as mindless partisanship."

Partisanship, maybe, but why mindless?

Is this proposal a stalking horse for impeachment? The Wall Street Journal editorial page thinks so:

"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.

"And not just the loony left either, though it's getting harder to distinguish them from the mainstream variety. Mr. Feingold is hardly some Internet crank. He's a third-term Senator from a swing state who has all but announced his intention to run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008. He was the first major Democrat to call for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq, and half his party was soon demanding the same.

"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.

"But as a political matter, the Wisconsin Senator knows exactly what he's doing. He knows that anti-Bush pathology runs so deep among many Democrats that they really do think they're living in some new dictatorship."

Pathology? Now it's a medical disease?

Power Line's John Hinderaker is chortling at the way this is playing out:

"Those with a sense of deja vu may recall the similar episode of Congressman Jack Murtha's resolution calling for immediate termination of the Iraq mission. The Democrats hailed Murtha's 'courage' and welcomed the headlines that followed--did you know that Murtha is an ex-Marine?--but considered it dirty pool when the Republicans actually wanted to vote on Murtha's proposal. The vote was something like 402-3, but no matter--the Democrats got anti-administration headlines, which is what they were looking for.

"Feingold's absurd resolution will meet a similar fate when it is finally voted on, but by then the Democrats will have moved on to something else--something equally frivolous, in which the news media will cooperate gladly. All of which may cause some voters to wonder how serious the Democrats are about the issues that concern the American people."

As for the media, the Feingold maneuver hasn't gotten all that much coverage (although The Post did run a front-page profile yesterday, right under the design for the Nationals' new baseball stadium).

GOP Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado isn't laughing; he charges that Feingold "has time and time again taken on the side of the terrorists that we're dealing with in this conflict."

On the left, some commentators, such as Bill Press , are applauding:

"I have a new hero: Senator Russ Feingold.

"He's the only Democrat in the Senate with [courage]. And he proved it by introducing a resolution to censure President Bush over his illegal NSA wiretapping.

"Now, here's what I don't get. You expect those knee-jerk Republicans to line behind Bush and attack Feingold. But what happened to the Democrats?

"Once he called for censuring President Bush, Democrats ran away from Feingold faster than cockroaches running away from Tom Delay. Why? What are they afraid of? This is not complicated. Did Bush break the law? Yes! Does he deserve censure? Yes! So do it!

"Instead, Democrats gave all kinds of bogus reasons for abandoning Feingold."

But others on the left are parting company, including the Nation's David Corn :

"There is nothing wrong with arguing that a president who overstated the case for war to whip up popular support, all for a misadventure that has led to the deaths of thousands, deserves the ultimate penalty. But neither is there anything wrong with recognizing political realities in assessing political strategies. Republicans don't impeach Republicans and Democrats don't impeach Democrats. So why waste time demanding that the Republicans politically assassinate the leader of their party?...

"Calling for impeachment . . . cannot escape the obvious slap-down: impeachment is a dream; it is so far-fetched a prospect that it raises questions about the sensibility and political judgment of anyone who suggests it be adopted as a real-life goal."

Georgia10 at Kos says the Dems are laboring under a misconception:

"Democrats are reluctant to sign on to Feingold's censure measure because they have this odd perception that they're catching up with the GOP on the national security front, and they don't want to appear 'weak on terror,' which is the lie the GOP is using to repel Democrats from supporting Feingold. Sure, Americans may trust Democrats more on national security (by ONE percentage point, well within the margin of error) but they still trust generic Republicans more, by a five point margin. But abandon that myopic vision, Democrats, because that isn't going to win back the Congress in 2006.

"Here are the REAL numbers the Democrats should contemplate as they twiddle their thumbs on censure. 70% of Americans think Democrats are doing only a 'fair or poor' job. That is a WORSE job approval than in the days before the 2004 election. How much worse? Almost ten points worse. Sure, we've caught up in which party has stronger leaders, but as of mid-January, we were still six points behind the Republicans. And while the Washington Post still peddles misinformation about how the majority of people 'support wiretapping,' the reality is that a full 52% support impeaching the President 'if President wiretapped American citizens without the approval of a judge.' "

The question , in a survey by the liberal group AfterDowningStreet.org., actually says: "If President Bush wiretapped American citizens without the approval of a judge, do you agree or disagree that Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment." (Emphasis added.)

HuffPoster Eric Boehlert says Bush really is down in the polls:

"The silence from the Republican noise machine has been deafening this week in the wake of the updated CBS News poll that indicates president Bush is still stuck with an embarrassing 34 percent job approval rating; unchanged since last month. You'll recall that on Feb. 28, when CBS released polling data that showed Bush for the first time dropping to 34 percent, right-wingers, especially online, went bonkers, screaming how the always-liberal CBS had rigged the survey because its pollsters had contacted too many Democrats which meant the results were bogus, which meant Bush wasn't really unpopular.

"Off on a debunk fest and anointing themselves polling experts, Ankle Biting Pundits derided the survey as the 'latest MSM garbage poll,' Fox News' Brit Hume went on the air to talk down the CBS poll, while the always excitable partisans at NewsBusters.org announced the Feb. 28 poll was 'slanted.' (All, btw, have remained mum in the wake of the follow-up CBS poll, which confirmed the Feb. 28 findings.) It was the usual right-wing tactic, in which bad news for Bush was immediately painted as bogus, phony and purposefully misleading.

"Two things. The hysterical cries of bias looked increasingly silly when a conveyor belt of new polls from the likes of AP, Zogby, Harris, and CNN, published in the wake of the CBS survey, all confirmed the same findings; Bush has become widely unpopular among Americans. Secondly, the new CBS poll out this week specifically addresses the issue of response ratio between Democrats and Republicans. And guess what? Even after soliciting opinions from far more Republicans, Bush's approval rating remains stuck at 34 percent."

Speaking of that, another "new low" for Bush in the WSJ/NBC poll , even though, as I grumbled the other day, the comparison is not to other recent "new low" surveys but to the last Journal poll.

If you were Bush and being criticized for putting incompetent hacks in high office, would you try to give the top federal highway job to a guy who was fired as head of the massively screwed up Big Dig in Boston? John Kerry is having a field day with this one.

I quoted the other day from George Clooney's alleged blog posting on Arianna Huffington's site. Now the actor is crying foul :

"Clooney didn't backpedal from his political views but said they had been compiled from his interviews with CNN's Larry King and Britain's Guardian newspaper. Huffington acknowledged reprinting the comments but said she had permission from a publicist. "He says he gave permission to use quotes. 'What she most certainly did not get my permission to do is to combine only my answers in a blog that misleads the reader into thinking that I wrote this piece,' Clooney said in a statement. 'These are not my writings -- they are answers to questions and there is a huge difference.' "

Jack Shafer has a long list of journalists who could face jail time if the administration gets serious about prosecuting for receipt of classified information.

Over in London, the Guardian is blogging its editorial meetings.

Finally, Mark Jurkowitz has one of the weirdest media-spitting matches I've ever some across:

"We got this release from Verso publishing complaining that a writer for the Nation online had [cancelled out] out of an interview with NC-17 rated performance artist Karen Finley about her new book George & Martha. Here's Verso's version:

"The Nation, America's oldest left-wing magazine, has abruptly cancelled its story on George & Martha by Karen Finley (publishing on April 13th). The assigned journalist was 'offended by the anal sex,' and refused to meet with Ms. Finley, though an interview had been scheduled. George & Martha is an illustrated political satire which imagines a torrid hotel room encounter between George W. Bush and Martha Stewart on the eve of the Republican National Convention....

"What is offensive about this book? What is inappropriate about sex?

"Still hanging in there? Okay, here's a statement in response from the Nation:

"We did not cancel the web piece. The writer bowed out of the assignment. This sort of thing happens all the time . . . As Verso should have known, the statements of a freelance web writer do not reflect the views of the magazine. No one on the staff of The Nation is afraid of sex. In fact, we quite enjoy it as frequently as possible .' "

Insert your own punchline.

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