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Dems Should Project Clarity, Unity On Government Spying

by Pete Ross

Dem candidates up for election in November already have plenty of knotty issues to chew on. Not to add to that burden, but a new Salon.com post "Fear of Spying" by Walter Shapiro merits their attention. Subtitled "Democratic strategists say opposing Bush on NSA spying makes the party look weak. Of course, that's what they said about Iraq," Shapiro's article makes the case that the party is not well served by indulging its ostrich reflex on this issue.

He quotes a Democratic party official, who noted ""The whole thing plays to the Republican caricature of Democrats -- that we're weak on defense and weak on security." He notes the trepidations of unnamed democratic strategists, "obsessed with similar fears that left-wing overreaction to the wiretapping issue would allow George W. Bush and the congressional Republicans to wiggle off the hook on other vulnerabilities."

Shapiro cites a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press indicating that the public is evenly divided on the issue, with 48 percent agreeing that it was "generally right" to monitor those suspected of terrorist ties "without court permission," and 47 percent saying it was "generally wrong."

Osama bin Laden's recent threat of terrorist violence in the U.S. won't help leaders voicing concerns about government surveillance much. Yet, in his MLK Day speech, broadcast on C-SPAN, Al Gore made a strong impression as a champion of civil liberties, opposing unbridled government spying on Americans as a serious threat to freedom. Shapiro notes further,

the Democrats' positioning on the eavesdropping issue invites comparisons to their fetal crouch in the run-up to the Iraqi War. A majority of Senate Democrats voted for Bush's go-to-war resolution -- including John Kerry, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton -- at least partly because the pollsters insisted that it was the only politically safe position, a ludicrous and self-destructive notion in hindsight.

The article quotes Clinton and Gore advisor Elaine Kamarck's observation that by ignoring the issue, Dems will

leave the critique open to the far left. And that will exacerbate two problems the Democrats have: one, that they look too far out of the mainstream, and the other, that they don't believe in anything...a political party that is always the namby-pamby 'me too' party is a party that isn't going to get anyplace.

Hearings on illegal eavesdropping are scheduled to begin Feb. 6 in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Shapiro worries that Dem supporters may be seduced by "the frail hope that the Republicans will self-destruct" and won't get that "politics sooner or later becomes a test of character and not merely a paint-by-numbers exercise in low-risk electioneering."

The hunch here is that Kamarck and Shapiro may be right, and Dem candidates and strategists should get a copy of Gore's speech (available here), which did a good job of addressing mainstream concerns about government spying. Dems can differ about how much the issue should be emphasized with various constituencies, but a clear, unified position can only help.