Bush in the Briar Patch

Why the president wants hearings on spying.

Bring on the hearings

George Bush wants congressional hearings to look into his administration’s domestic eavesdropping. At first he wasn’t so keen on the idea, but yesterday he said they’d be “good for democracy.” Hearings are good for Jon Stewart; good for C-SPAN; good for fundraising. But good for democracy? Has he watched Alito this week? The political acrimony reached such a pitch yesterday that Judge Alito’s wife left the hearing room in tears. It’s hard to conceive of hearings on any topic being good for the commonweal in this environment.

But that’s precisely why George Bush wants hearings on domestic spying. He’s inviting Democrats to another round of self-immolation. In 2002, the Republican Party used the debate over the Department of Homeland Security to attack Democrats in the off-year election by arguing the party was soft on terror. The president and his aides hope the NSA hearings will offer the same opportunity in 2006.

It is true that in the Alito hearings it was a Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, and not a Democrat, whose remarks made Judge Alito’s wife cry. It’s also true that Alito’s limited answers contributed to the atmosphere that forced Democrats like Ted Kennedy to act out. It’s also true that the Democrats are desperate. But you don’t have to come down on one side or the other of these issues to know that it’s not good for members of the Democratic Party to look like bullies. (For teeing up the moment, Sen. Graham should get a trip to the Northern Mariana Islands.)

George Bush normally resists congressional oversight. Hearings are a venue for second-guessing and exposing secrets. Administration officials should be doing their jobs, not wasting time at the witness table. But Bush and his aides are eager to talk about the National Security Agency’s activities because they think the issue benefits them politically. While Democrats are often confusing, with too many leaders and no clear message to push back against the commander in chief, the president is passionate when he talks about fighting terrorists, and a majority of voters still approve of his handling of the issue. And because the spying program was initiated soon after 9/11, it offers Bush an opportunity to discuss his more popular days as a take-charge executive after the 2001 attacks. “We’re very comfortable discussing the issue for as long as they want,” says Counselor to the President Dan Bartlett.

It’s a familiar playbook. But it’s not 2002, when the president’s approval rating was 83 percent and Democrats were losing the battle to shape the Department of Homeland Security. The president’s current approval rating is 43 percent, according to the latest Gallup Poll. * Half the country supports the idea of domestic spying. That’s not a slam-dunk for Bush. Forty-six percent of those asked are against domestic spying even on terrorists. Presumably the numbers of those against broader eavesdropping is higher. The poll questions also don’t test how people would feel if the president broke the law when he authorized secret spying. While the president says that he didn’t, hearings might offer another view.

The president’s opponents have tried to compare him to Nixon. That’s likely to seem like a stretch to voters for whom domestic terrorism is more of a concern than the White Panthers. Democrats are more likely to have luck arguing that Bush used his authority recklessly than that he abused it. The number of people who think the president has gone too far in fighting the war on terror has increased to 38 percent, up from 11 percent in 2002. By arguing this line, Democrats link domestic spying to the Iraq war: At home and in Iraq, Bush moved too quickly and without consideration.

Whether the president will be able to make his case, or whether his opponents will be able to make theirs, depends on the conduct of the hearings. As with the Alito hearings, Republicans will have the advantages of majority, as well as the authority of the commander in chief. Democrats will be frustrated and antagonized. The president hopes they will get red-faced and obstinate. That would be good for him, though not necessarily good for democracy.

Correction, Jan. 13, 2006: The article originally and incorrectly stated that Bush’s approval rating was 46 percent. It is 43 percent. Return to the corrected sentence.