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Obama and FISA

June 26th, 2008

There’s very little to like here. I can’t explain why Obama is caving so completely on FISA. Simply put, this should not be happening; Obama has no really good reason to do this. He could even make an issue of fighting the current bill, stressing the importance of security in some parts of FISA, but railing against the complete sop to the Telecoms (for which, as you should know from reading this blog, I have no love for whatsoever).

Even if he fought against the immunity and lost, he would still be taking a popular stand. Let’s face it, few voters, especially the ones who would ever vote for Obama, really approve of Telecom immunity–the issue is either so obscure or removed from the idea of terrorist threats that few people are out there marching for the Telecoms to be given immunity. And frankly, I doubt that McCain could say “Obama’s weak on security because he failed to support making Telecoms immune from civil suits based on their violation of customers’ civil rights!” There’s just not much of a ring to that.

The worst Obama could have suffered was to have the Republicans able to say that he opposed the FISA bill altogether, and thus hurt national security, smearing him with the broader brush; in this sense, Telecom immunity is not a hot button issue, it’s a poison pill. And maybe this really is the key to it: maybe Obama, who is concerned about McCain hitting him on security issues, feels it necessary to cave on this in order to prevent those kinds of attacks. If that’s it, then it’s not a very smart move (in addition to being a weak move), as McCain will attack Obama on security no matter what, and having FISA to throw at him won’t make that much of a difference.

There is one half-way positive scenario for understanding this. Maybe Obama, in his wonkish and both-sides-of-the-aisle fashion, simply made calculations based upon considerations of each of the issues involved, and came to the conclusion that Telecom immunity simply wasn’t that big a fish in the overall picture. We do know that Obama tries to see all sides on most if not all issues, and takes opposing views into account–this could simply be the down side to that attribute. After all, if the man considered all sides and took opposing views seriously but then always came down on the liberal side, never compromising–well, that wouldn’t mean very much, would it? It would make such bipartisan consideration rather hollow. Perhaps this is the price we pay for someone willing to consider all sides of an issue: he may sometimes be swayed by the other side.

But then there’s the less positive scenario: maybe Obama really just doesn’t care about this. Maybe he genuinely believes that national security trumps civil rights. We tend not to see him that way because of his decision on the Iraq War, but more careful thinking would reveal that the two are not really related. Opposing a dumb war does not mean you value civil rights over security. Of course, there are Obama’s positions on civil rights, his insistence that the Constitution must be respected more than it is now. But there are shades and versions of this, and Obama might not be on the same page as many of us on these issue. I very much hope that this interpretation is not the right one.

Then there’s the “maybe he’s holding back” scenario, which some, including Keith Olbermann, seem to believe in. In this scenario, Obama is caving on the civil suits because he’s planning to go after the Telecoms on criminal grounds once he gets into office. However appealing this idea is, it does not feel right. Somehow I just don’t see a President Obama starting that kind of charge, unless he felt so strongly on the issue that it overrode all other considerations. But this whole idea simply smacks of a desperate desire to believe completely in the candidate, instead of a reasoned analysis. I hope it’s true, but I don’t expect it is. And it still would not really explain why not fighting against this FISA bill is a good idea.

In the end, we’re simply left with the fact that our candidate did something we didn’t like. And, let’s face it, it was bound to happen–and it will likely happen again. No surprises there. I don’t think Obama lost any votes here–even those passionately opposed to the FISA bill still see him as the best candidate. McCain is all the way for this bill, and so there’s no sense in pretending that this somehow puts Obama across a line. And Obama’s other good qualities did not simply vanish with this decision; he’s still the far-superior candidate.

But Obama might take a hit in vital areas, such as fundraising: the passionate support which has driven a lot of his fundraising probably got rained on pretty bad this week–just as Obama made official his decision to forego public financing, he also made a decision which could seriously hurt his ability to raise large amounts of cash from small donors. I kind of cringe a little when I read about people wondering how Obama is going to spend the hundreds of millions he’s going to raise. I hope the passion re-ignites, I hope he makes that tidal wave happen–but it’s not as sure a thing to me now as it once was.

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  1. June 26th, 2008 at 20:28 | #1

    It seems to me that this is Obama’s Ricky Ray Rector.

    For all of his messianic baggage, Obama is still a politician, and he hasn’t completely transformed the practice of politics yet. (Personally, I’m skeptical that he ever will.) This seems to me to be a calculated maneuver to better position himself with those who might be susceptible to the “terrorist-connected” whispers, and it seems to assume that it won’t hurt him with his base. And so far, it doesn’t seem to have hurt him with his base, who’ve imagined several scenarios (some of which you’ve listed above) under which they can excuse this.

  2. June 27th, 2008 at 11:44 | #2

    I’ve taken down the Obama button from my blog. The FISA betrayal is a real wakeup call, and it raises questions as to whether the Democratic Party is a lost cause.

  3. Luis
    June 27th, 2008 at 12:11 | #3


    Look, you’ve got to be a tad more realistic than this. Sure, my Apple Mac crashes sometimes, and Apple’s mouse design sucks. That doesn’t mean that I suddenly lost faith in Macs when I realized these things; I know my Mac will disappoint me sometimes–but the key is that Macs are far better than the alternatives (in my humble opinion) and overall have far more positives than negatives. In that sense, Obama is a Mac. He’s not perfect, he’s just really, really good.

    Why is it that when Obama does the first thing that his supporters don’t like, we suddenly lose all faith and see him as “just another politician?” Did we really believe before that Obama walked on water and was a perfect liberal savior? That’s what the right-wingers claimed we were like (“Obamaniacs”), but I at least always thought that was incorrect; I knew that Obama would eventually disappoint me on some issues (just as Bill Clinton did when he was president), that’s a given in this game. It hardly means that he is now officially a sham and a sell-out who’s no better than anyone else. He still is almost exactly what I expected: a far superior candidate worthy of a great deal of respect and support.

    As much as I have been disappointed with Bill Clinton in this campaign, and as much as his philandering and many of his policies (when he swung to the center-right) disappointed me during his presidency, it does not change the fact that he was a superior president, and I would have much, much rather had him that Bush 41 or Bob Dole, far more than Bush 43 and a lot more than McCain.

    As I posted, the FISA thing is a disappointment, and there will be more. But to withdraw support for Obama over that is, I believe, a rather hasty over-reaction.

  4. June 27th, 2008 at 20:39 | #4

    I don’t know that you can use “we” to describe all Obama supporters, Luis. I think his supporters fall into two distinct groups: those who think he better represents their political positions; and those who think that he will help us to transcend politics as it’s currently practiced. I suspect you’re in the first group (which almost got Gore and Kerry elected), but I think it’s the second group that will actually get Obama elected. And for them to do so, they have to believe that he’s not “just another politician.”

    Or put another way, those who believe that Obama is a better politician than McCain and others will give 47% of the 49% who actually turn out to vote every four years. Those who believe that he’s more than a politician will get another 10% or more to turn out and go in his favor. They may be unrealistic, but they’re the ones he needs to get elected.. The rest will vote for him pretty much no matter what. So if Obama wants to maintain the kind of excitement he’s generated thus far, he can’t be “just another politician,” fair or not.

    Or put yet another way, people who say that there’s no real difference in who gets elected generally mean that whoever it is will still practice “politics,” and they’re no longer willing to accept that. They’re willing to believe that Obama will use some of those techniques to put an end to that. If he can’t keep them believing that, he’ll lose their support.

    Also, I was thinking more about my first comment above, and it occurred to me that if Obama is trying to send a message to someone with this particular stance, perhaps it’s to corporations, who seem to believe that McCain will be better for the economy, despite the fact that Republicans haven’t been in a century or more.

  5. June 27th, 2008 at 20:42 | #5

    Or actually, to put the whole thing more pithily, you say that this is “a given in this game,” or more slangily, don’t hate the playa, hate the game. But how can you hate the game without hating those who would play it?

  6. Tim Kane
    June 29th, 2008 at 05:09 | #6

    Quite possibly, Obama liked the idea of the ‘netroots’ crowd yelling at him. Maybe they feel it gives them better street cred with certain independents. I’m not sure. As a strategy I can understand him wanting to to do that. Personally, I think it was a mistake to do that with a core fundemental issue. Under any other Supreme Court, the law would not be constitutional. A constitutional right cannot be undermined by a piece of legislation. But these aren’t normal times, and there’s always a danger that a wrong decision still becomes a precedent.

    As far as luring swing voters, it would seem to me that he lost libertarian republicans with this maneuver. And they might have been the low hanging fruit of the flipable republican vote.

    It’s a mistake. So was health care without mandates. (The only plausible reason for not having mandates is that it sings to the libertarian crowd. But Health Care insurance falls in to the same economic model as utilities, and utility models to work require mandates. The reality of that fundamental means that his position will eventually get thrown overboard when the rubber hits the road, and he’ll caulk it up to the negotiations done at the bargaining table – but anyway, thats a different agreement for a different time.) But I’m a Democrat. So I’m voting for him.

    But he needs to quit making these kinds of mistakes. He already was polling double digits over McCain. The mistake was uncalled for.

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