I must vigorously dissent from the views expressed by my friend The Moose about the president’s NSA domestic surveillance adventure. I’m proud that we can have this kind of useful debate within the big-tent confines of the DLC. And I hope this post won’t be misused and abused to bash my antlered colleague, whose defense of Bush on this one subject is but a small tree in the forest of his condemnations of W.The heart of The Moose’s argument is that freewheeling executive power is essential to the prosecution of the War on Terror, and that those of us–not just Democrats, but many Republicans–who would fence in that power by requiring observance of the rule of law are either mindless of the threat we face from Jihadism, obsessed with civil liberties absolutism, and/or blinded by Bush-hatred to the need for extraordinary national security measures.I plead innocent to all three counts of this indictment, and suggest The Moose is missing three characteristics of the War on Terror that make some limits on executive power not only advisable but essential: (1) this is a protracted, Cold War, that cannot be successfully waged in an atmosphere of permanent emergency; (2) congressional and judicial oversight of executive counter-terrorism activities is the only way we can ensure an effective war on terror; and (3) conspicuous respect for the rule of law is the only way we can sustain domestic support for the war on terror, and the only way we can successfully offer our own institutions and values as an alternative to Jihadism in what is preeminently an ideological battleground.There is one, and only one, exception I would make to these three principles: the possibility of nuclear terrorist acts. As of yet, no one in the administration has claimed the NSA surveillance program was in any way targeted on that possiblity (indeed, it wasn’t targeted at much of anything, best we can tell), and moreover, this administration seems determined to do as little as it can to actually deal with the nuclear terrorist threat, if it requires multilateral action or spending money on things like port security.More generally, the administration has been painfully slow–despite warnings from the 9/11 commission and congressional mandates to get moving–to deal with reforms in how intelligence agencies compare, analyze, and act upon raw intelligence data. U.S. law enforcement agencies had plenty of data on the 9/11 conspirators before they acted; more data swept up by the kind of program Bush later authorized wouldn’t have addressed the inability of the system to understand and act on that data.In addition, any consideration of emergency executive powers has to involve a close look at the alternatives to scofflaw behavior. If FISA was deemed inadequate by the administration, it could have and should have gone to the Congress controlled by its own party in 2003 and asked for amendments, which most Democrats would have supported as well. The habit of demanding unlimited executive power when it’s unnecessary is one of the most unsavory aspects of this administration’s behavior, as illustrated most recently by the president’s statement that he would not feel constrained by the prisoner treatment rules sponsored by Sen. McCain, and duly enacted by Congress.And that, in the end, is probably the heart of my difference of opinion with my friend The Moose. The legal case for the president’s NSA ukase is shabby at best; the editors of The New Republic, hardly wimps when it comes to the War on Terror, demolished it in an editorial last week. You can be hard-core on the War on Terror and still be hard-edged in criticizing the administration’s we’ll-do-what-we-see-fit position, and even those who agree with Bush on this particular subject need to begin with the presumption that his critics have a legitimate and patriotic case to make. (After all, even Joe Lieberman joined the Democratic filibuster against the Republican effort to make the Patriot Act permanent with little debate).The Moose concluded his latest post by proudly calling himself a “Hamiltonian mammal” who favors a strong executive. Well, I’m a Jeffersonian mammal by temperament and tradition, and though both strains of the American political dialogue have much merit, Jeffersonians tend to understand that while Lincoln, TR, and FDR, among others, have vindicated faith in a strong executive, we also have to have a system that deals with presidents like Harding, Nixon and George W. Bush. That means no executive blank checks without balances, especially when those balances are entirely consistent with a robust defense of our country.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.