Friday, June 20, 2008

The Chutzpah that Keeps on Not Doing

As far as I can tell, Barack Obama's only Chutzpah of the Week award is the one I awarded last November 9. This was an award that he shared with three other Senate Democrats, all of whom, at that time, were vying to be the Democratic candidate for the next President: Joe Biden of Delaware, Hillary Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut. For those who do not recall such ancient history, the occasion was the Senate vote to approve the appointment of Judge Michael Mukasey as Attorney General. All four Senators opposed the nomination, but none of them showed up for the vote. As the title of my blog post that day indicated, I was faced with the question of whether or not chutzpah could be attached to inaction, rather than action; but I think I can dodge the question by saying that the chutzpah was attached to a choice. The choice was the decision that it was more important to be out on the campaign trail than to be hard at work at your "day job," particularly when that "day job" is "doing the people's business." Put another way, if this decision reflected how these four would-be candidates felt about representing their state, would it not also presage how they would feel about representing the entire country in that new "day job" they were seeking?

I offer this little bit of retrospection, because, at least as far as Obama is concerned, it really is not "ancient history," because he still seems to be making the same decision. Here is how Ari Melber reported this particular repetition of history in his post to the Campaign '08 blog on the Web site for The Nation:

Democratic leaders in Congress are poised to grant new spying powers to President Bush and arrange retroactive amnesty for telecommunications companies accused of illegal surveillance, according to a deal announced Thursday evening. Today's New York Times describes the legislation, which the House could vote on today, as "the most significant revision of surveillance law in 30 years" and a "major victory" for the lame duck president. If passed, the bill would constitute the largest capitulation by Democratic leaders since winning control of Congress, an especially striking setback as Democratic voters rally around a presidential nominee who has flatly opposed Bush's spying policies -- and repeatedly promised to challenge the corruption, doubletalk and "politics of fear" that rule Washington.

Yet Barack Obama has been mostly silent as the House caved into White House demands for more surveillance power this week. He has advocated civil liberties and accountability during previous clashes over surveillance, voting against a White House spying bill in August, but Obama has sidestepped the issue this week, despite pleas from supporters. "If Obama remains missing much longer, it may be necessary to issue an Amber Alert for him," wrote Glenn Greenwald, an attorney and Salon blogger who rallied activists to raise over $115,000 in two days to run primaries against Democratic incumbents who undermine the rule of law.

Obama's quiescence on this fundamental issue is disappointing, but not new. In February, I criticized him and Clinton for going MIA during an earlier spying stand-off, when a coalition of liberal incumbents, netroots activists and the civil liberties groups ACLU and EFF successfully beat back Bush's threats to stop a similar bill. Now things are just worse, for Obama and the Congress.

That last paragraph indicates that I am far from alone in my grounds for criticism. Indeed, last February that criticism extended far from the blogosphere, since, at that time, even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was not afraid to speak about that problems of doing his day job when so many of his most important "workers" were not there! The good news is that it is not too late for Obama. This time the bill in question has yet to come to the Senate floor, but I agree with Melber that Obama's silence is a bad sign. Like deciding that other things are more important than showing up for an important Senate vote, decided to keep silent on legislation as ugly as this counts as chutzpah no matter what rationalizations Obama may choose to contrive. This time, however, he gets to keep the Chutzpah of the Week award all to himself!

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