Hierarchy of Values

The House has approved a measure, previously approved by the Senate, that expands President Bush’s wiretapping powers:

The Democratic-controlled House last night approved and sent to President Bush for his signature legislation written by his intelligence advisers to enhance their ability to intercept the electronic communications of foreigners without a court order.

The 227 to 183 House vote capped a high-pressure campaign by the White House to change the nation’s wiretap law, in which the administration capitalized on Democrats’ fears of being branded weak on terrorism and on a general congressional desire to act on the measure before an August recess.

The Senate had passed the legislation Friday night after House Democrats failed to win enough votes to pass a narrower revision of a statute known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The original statute was enacted after the revelation of CIA abuses in the 1970s, and it required judicial oversight for most federal wiretapping conducted in the United States.

In reflecting on the relatively easy passage of this bill which, if you pay attention to the rhetoric that’s been coming from the Democratic Congressional leadership over the last several months, must seem extremely surreal, let’s consider three quotations. First, from The Talking Dog, one of my favorite Left Blogosphere blogs, in reaction to the Senate passage:

As in 2002, when, lest we forget, the Senate Majority Leader’s name was Tom Daschle, the President quite literally says “boo!” and Democrats in Congress fall over each other to give him what he wants, in this case, the Senate overwhelmingly passed legal ratification of the ability to conduct warrantless surveillance on American citizens for political purposes by modifying the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) to eliminate judicial oversight, at least for the next six months.

Harry Reid voted against it in every way except the one way that mattered: he had the power to keep this piece of shit off of the Senate floor altogether, and to tell the President that when the President started respecting the Constitution and the rights of the American people, then he could start suggesting legislation of this kind… and not dictating to another branch of government what it should pass or when it should recess. And instead, on this, we get “an up or down vote”. Jebus.

But, as digby suggests, we can presume that the D.C. cocktail party circuit is all abuzz about fear of terrrrrrrrrorists attacking Washington any God damned moment… and, unbelievably, Democrats believe that they would be blamed for it. And again, methinks, why was it I worked so hard to get this party in the majority again, so we could get exactly the same results as if they weren’t?

Now from E. J. Dionne:

Daily Kos is often described as liberal, but it is, more than anything, partisan. Its core assumption is that ideological conservatives made the Republican Party their vehicle and rallied in lock step against Democrats. The party of FDR and JFK needed to find the same discipline. The key litmus tests for Kos and his many allies in the blogosphere involve not long lists of issues developed by the American Civil Liberties Union or the AFL-CIO, but loyalty in standing up against Bush and doing what’s necessary to build a Democratic majority.

And, finally, Country Joe MacDonald:

It’s one, two, three what are we fighting for?

President Bush is weaker than at any other time of his presidency, a lame duck president with a job approval rating of 25%, and Democrats have majorities in both houses of Congress. Democratic partisans rail against Bush arguing either that the dangers posed by terrorism have been exaggerated for political purposes (an argument that seems to become weaker as Bush’s approval rating falls and Republican numbers in Congress wane), is completely fictional, or that Bush and his administration don’t have the ability to use these powers prudently. So what gives?

I believe that the Democrats in Congress are sincere in their disdain for President Bush but Democratic partisans should understand that Democratic politicians like all other human beings don’t operate from single motives. They have many, frequently conflicting motives and must prioritize their values in a hierarchy when arriving at a course of action and I think that the action of the Democratic Congress must be understood in that light. Opposing President Bush is a value for them but it’s not their most closely held one.

Higher in their hierarchy of values is the desire not be blamed. This is sign of the bureaucrat. Better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. Go along to get along.

Highest yet in the hierarchy is the desire to be re-elected. Most of our Congressmen, Republicans and Democrats, are career politicians. The desire to be re-elected is a necessary quality in a career politician. Those who, like Henry Clay, would rather be right than president, will find themselves as unable as Clay was to become president or, indeed, to hold onto their current seats.

If we continue to elect the same career politicians regardless of party, we’ll continue to get the same results. Reassuring for some, infuriating for others.

So what are we fighting for? Why all the vitriol and acrimony if it’s only a question of who wears the hats rather than what they’ll do when they’re wearing the hats?

I think the answer is that for some politics is war. Total war. You must demonize and dehumanize your enemy because that makes it easier to do whatever you’ll need to do to secure victory. Slander your opponent. Lie. Cheat. Steal. All fully justified because the enemy is so heinous.

I think that’s what the heat is all about.

For other politics is a sport. The ball changes hands every so often. We root for the home team. It doesn’t really make a great deal of difference who wins. We shake hands at the end of the match. Better luck next week.

My own view differs somewhat from each of those. Politics is not war. These are are countrymen. They are not our enemies. Nor is it a sport. Results do matter.

I tend to view politics as a tool, a means for solving problems like any other tool. The problems can’t be solved by shoving the solutions down the throats of your political opposition with power politics. Solutions require their agreement.

3 comments… add one
  • Chris Link

    Dave, that’s all well and good about various perceptions of politics, but I’m curious – what’s your opinion on this particular bill? What does your theory of politics-as-tool tell you the Democrats should actually do here, as far as balancing their principles with political necessity?

  • I have no idea about this particular bill; I have not read it; it’s possible I wouldn’t understand it even if I did.

    I think that the temperature of discourse should be lowered. By everybody. I think we should distinguish more clearly between what is posturing and what is unshakeable principle. Posturing and street theater should end. Unshakeable principle should be…unshakeable.

    At this point I have a pretty good idea on what the Congressional Democrats (at least the leadership) think constitutes political necessity. I have no idea whatever what their principles are. I attribute at least part of that to the idea that’s got abroad in the world that symbolic action is something that’s good.

    I think I may have more confidence in the Democrats’ ability to govern well and the electorate’s ability to discern that than the Congressional Democrats (again, at least the leadership) do. I think that they should say what’s in their hearts and do what’s in their hearts and, if they’re right, political rewards will follow.


    I’ve now read a half dozen commentaries from as many different perspectives as I could identify (although, admittedly, mostly from Left Blogosphere blogs since they’re commenting more) and I find the commentary fully supports my first-glance reaction: where you sit depends on where you stand. The only thing I have to add is this. My first immediate reaction on September 11, 2001 (right after the surprise and shock) was that if the conflict is protracted our country will become unrecognizeable. I continue to believe that and we’re well under way.

  • When a country is not safe and people are questioning core values of the head of state, wire-tapping is a filmsy excuse to scape real issues.

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