Friday, July 4, 2008

FISA and Fearmongering

If the Fourth of July has any meaning for me, it's not feeling "proud to be an American." It's reflecting on the importance of our constitutional liberties. And so it's an ugly irony that on this Fourth, Barack Obama is taking a lot of well-deserved heat for going along with the evil FISA bill that passed the House and is now headed for the Senate, from whence it will corrode our liberties.

Sure, Obama is saying on his website that he’s as committed as ever to constitutional protections and the rule of law. He’s insisting he’ll work in the Senate to improve the bill. Among its many problematic provisions, the bill will exempt telecom companies from civil liability for violations of the law they may have committed, ostensibly in the name of national security.

Obama says he opposes telecom immunity, but he will vote for the bill regardless. There's no way the Senate can muster enough votes to weed out this corrupt provision (which also nicely protects the Bush Administration from fact-finding). His willingness to vote for the bill anyway blatantly contradicts his earlier position and undermines his credibility as a defender of the Constitution.

Now, I think Dawn Teo at the Huffington Post is right that on the pragmatic level, those of us who are enthusiastic (or reluctant) Obama supporters just have to swallow this, though that doesn't make it okay:
The real quandary for Obama is that he has to win the "low-information voters" in November in order to win the election, but he needs the "high-information voters" now in order to field his grassroots operations leading up to November. Low-information voters are never going to understand FISA. It is a subject that takes time and energy to master. Low-information voters look at FISA and only see the ability or inability of the government to investigate potential terrorists. Yet a large number of high-information voters in both the left and right wing of politics understand that this is much more than an issue about national security -- it's an issue of balancing national security and individual rights. At the same time, most low-information voters only understand that FISA relates to national security. In other words, low-information voters are susceptible to fear mongering on this issue. ...

After eight years of George Bush treating the law as his own personal wiki, an Obama presidency would be a welcome change even with his imperfections.
I can see that triangulation and pandering may sometimes be necessary to win elections. But I am appalled that Obama caved on this issue. He won my loyalty by promising a different kind of politics where hope would outweigh fear and principle would trump pandering. I'm not at all convinced that Obama's FISA position has anything to do with principle. From here, it sure looks like he's surrendered to the merchants of fear.

I'm not going to start agitating against Obama or threatening to withhold future donations. But I'm not willing to make excuses for him on this, either. Glenn Greenwald lays out the case much better than I ever could for exactly why it's inexcusable. I won't rehash it here except to say that there are no substantive national security reasons for Obama's spineless flip-flop on the FISA bill. This is all about not being painted as soft on terror.

This is different in kind than the Obama's other betrayals of progressive principles, which today's New York Times lays out in a painfully well-argued editorial. Consider, for instance, Obama's problematic embrace of faith-based programs. That, too, may constitute pandering, but it does not bow to the politics of fear. If Obama still has any plan to usher in a new kind of politics, one driven by hope rather than fear, he needs to start standing up for hope again.

And so, if Obama doesn't revise his FISA position (and his statement today gave no indication that he will), his rock-bottom minimum obligation is to speak out against fearmongering. If he votes for this bill, he needs to start speaking out again against the right wing's obvious manipulation of terrorism - which is a form of terrorism in its own right, if you think about it. He needs to say, look, I voted for this bill as a stopgap, but we need to chart a course where we can keep people safe without gutting our Constitution.

If he fails to do so, it won't just be a moral collapse. It will be political suicide. Because when the terrorists win - when fear rules our polity - so do the Republicans.

As for the rest of us, we too have a choice. We can be adult citizens who rely on reason in our political lives. Or we can be ... scaredy cats.

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

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