Commentary: Democrats must learn to harness own activists

WASHINGTON -- Russ Feingold tossed a political grenade at President Bush this week, but it fell into the middle of the Senate Democratic caucus. Many Democratic senators ran away.

WASHINGTON -- Russ Feingold tossed a political grenade at President Bush this week, but it fell into the middle of the Senate Democratic caucus. Many Democratic senators ran away.

The grenade was the Wisconsin senator's proposal to censure the president for violating the law by ordering electronic surveillance on Americans without explicit congressional or court authorization. While the episode says more about Bush's political frailty than the first blush accounts have suggested, it also underscored the difference between Democratic activists and their leaders.

The president has lost so much support and credibility that Republicans were simply grateful that Feingold briefly changed the political subject from the Dubai port controversy, the mess in Iraq and Bush's anemic poll ratings.

But at a moment when Democrats have Bush on the run, Feingold's proposal was inconvenient, a conversation-changer at a moment when Feingold's colleagues liked the way the conversation was going just fine.

Consider the disparity between the response to Feingold's initiative among Democratic senators and the reaction among Democratic activists.


Senators mostly scampered away from the cameras earlier this week because they didn't want to say publicly what many of them said privately. Most were livid that Feingold sprang his censure idea on a Sunday talk show without giving them any notice.

Some Democrats want the party to forget the warrantless wiretapping issue because engaging it would let Bush claim that he's tougher on terrorists than his partisan enemies. Some groups were furious that Feingold grabbed headlines away from those delicious stories about Republican divisions and defections.

But at the grass roots and Net roots, Feingold has become a hero -- again. They already loved him for his courage in opposing the Patriot Act and his call for a timetable for troop withdrawals from Iraq. His latest move only reinforced Feingold's image for being "a Dem with spine," as the liberal Web site called him.

In an interview, Feingold was unrepentant, arguing that before he made his proposal, "the whole issue of the president violating the laws of this country was being swept under the rug."

He warned that "the mistakes of 2002 are being repeated," meaning, he said, that Democrats should never again "cower" before Bush on security issues, as so many in the grass roots saw them doing before the 2002 elections.

And it's a sign of Feingold's view of some of his Democratic colleagues that he defended his decision not to let them in on his plan. Had they known what he was up to, he said, "they would have planned a strategy to blunt this."

Here's the problem: Feingold and the activists are right that Democrats can't just take a pass on the wiretapping issue because Bush's legal claims are so suspect. The opposition's job is to raise alarms over potential abuses of presidential power.

But Democrats, unlike Republicans, have yet to develop a healthy relationship between activists willing to test and expand the conventional limits on political debate and the politicians who have to calculate what works in creating an electoral majority.


For two decades, Republicans have used their idealists, their ideologues and their loudmouths to push the boundaries of discussion to the right. In the best of all worlds, Feingold's strong stand would redefine what's "moderate" and make clear that those challenging the legality of the wiretapping are not extreme nor soft on terror.

That would demand coordination, trust and, yes, calculation involving both the vote-counting politicians and the guardians of principle among the activists. Republicans have mastered this art. Democrats haven't.

Turning a minority into a majority requires both passion and discipline. Bringing the two together requires effective leadership. Does anybody out there know how to play this game?

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is .

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