Feingold’s Censure Adventure

What should Democrats do with their Senate bomb-thrower?

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“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.

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.

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.”