Fight for the Rights

When Nixon apologist William Safire and the Cato Institute's Robert Levy agree with progressives like Sen. Russell Feingold that the Bush administration is trampling on the Constitution, it's time to recognize that we are, indeed, at war -- to protect the Bill of Rights.

Bush has claimed dictatorial powers, suspending habeas corpus for aliens, holding them in prison for indefinite periods of time without accounting for them and announcing that he would try suspected terrorists in special military courts. Dubya said the kangaroo courts are needed to protect potential jurors as well as intelligence-gathering techniques. He cited the precedent of a military tribunal that convicted eight Germans who landed in the US on a sabotage mission in 1942.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was wrong when he let J. Edgar Hoover bully the Justice Department into running that secret tribunal during World War II to cover up FBI lapses [see "Dispatches," page 5], but at least Roosevelt had a declaration of war. Bush has no such declaration, just a congressional authorization to pursue those who planned the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But Dubya appears willing to manipulate the current panic over terrorism for his partisan advantage.

Levy, a fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote for the Wall Street Journal website (opinionjournal.com) Nov. 25 that the Bush executive order not only "takes a perilous step toward eviscerating the time-honored doctrine of the separation of powers, a centerpiece of our Constitution," but is "morally indefensible."

Safire wrote Nov. 26 that Bush's "advisers assured him that a fearful majority would cheer his assumption of dictatorial power to ignore our courts. They failed to warn him, however, that his denial of traditional American human rights to non-citizens would backfire and in practice actually weaken the war on terror," since European allies are unlikely to extradite terror suspects who are likely to be subjected to death sentences by "try-'em-and-fry-'em" kangaroo courts.

We welcome the reinforcements from these and other editorialists who have "gotten religion" on the Bill of Rights. Those who dismiss our fears as overreaction apparently haven't been paying attention. Ever since Nov. 7, 2000, the Bush leaguers have shown they will stop at nothing to get what they want. Whether it is sending a gang of thugs to interfere with vote canvassers in Florida or getting their confederates on the US Supreme Court to overrule the state court and stop the election before their man could lose his lead, the Bush team has shown that they are prepared to get the job done by whatever means necessary. These guys play hardball.

So who's to stop them from dismantling the Bill of Rights? Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft apparently believes the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are merely suggestions, so he dusted off the FBI's wish list on circumventing civil liberties. The attorney general demanded that Congress pass him a bill that would reduce the Bill of Rights to a dead letter when it comes to dealing with "terrorists." And when rights can be suspended for aliens, it is only a short step from suspending those rights for citizens.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was the only senator with the guts to stand up to Bush and Ashcroft on the terror bill (along with 66 House members). Feingold, in Austin Nov. 26 to speak to more than 800 at the University of Texas, said he was disappointed by the failure of leadership in Congress. His Democratic colleagues slowed down Ashcroft's bill long enough to moderate some of the worst overreaches in committee, but then they capitulated. Democratic Leader Tom Daschle fought Feingold's attempts to remove more objectionable provisions on the Senate floor. "It's one thing to worry about the guy in the other party who's in the White House but when your own leadership is demanding that you not vote on the merits, when many of my colleagues told me they thought I was right on this amendment, that really cut the legs out from under me," Feingold said.

Many senators are now embarrassed by their vote for the grandly moniquered "USA PATRIOT Act," Feingold said. They are speaking out against the next steps -- such as the military tribunals and the Justice Department's eavesdropping on attorney-client conversations.

Feingold said his lonely dissent was not in vain. "I think people thought I'd be run out of town on a rail because I voted against the bill and in fact just the opposite occurred," he said. "People from the right -- Bob Novak said I was right. So I think people realized that the American people still care about the Bill of Rights. ... People are waking up to the fact that it's not political suicide to stand up for the Bill of Rights."

Feingold said he would continue to fight for domestic justice and reform, including proposals to end racial profiling, abolish the death penalty and reform campaign financing. The bill he co-sponsored with Sen. John McCain that would restrict "soft money" in campaigns is still stuck in the House, but lacks only seven House members to bring it up for a vote. Contact your representative at (202) 224-3121. Call your senators too, and put some steel in their spines about the Bill of Rights.

The Green Party of the United States announced that it already has targeted five Democratic congressmen and a Republican congressman in the 2002 elections "based upon their support for Fast Track legislation currently before Congress." However, the vote has not occurred and, according to Congress Daily, as of Nov. 16 only one House member targeted by the Greens, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., was on record supporting Fast Track. Rep. Gerald Kleczka, D-Wis., and Rep. Bob Clement, D-Tenn., are opposed, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., Rep. Mark Green, R-Wis., and Ron Kind, D-Wis., are fence sitters. And Kleczka, Dicks, Kind and Clement all have more than 80% voting records with organized labor and 60-85% support for issues tracked by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. That is likely to have Green sympathizers wondering why the Greens are intent on causing them trouble.

Ben Manski of Madison, Wis., a national co-chairman, said the Greens hope to have an impact on the Fast Track vote and will mount challenges in areas where they feel Democratic and Republican incumbents have neglected issues important to Greens, such as jobs, clean air and water, and family farms. "Frankly, Barbara Lee doesn't have anything to fear from the Green Party, at least in the short term," he said, referring to the Berkeley, Calif., Democrat who was the only Congress member opposing the military authorization to pursue the Sept. 11 attack organizers. "The Democrats are selling us down the river just like the Republicans," he said. "You'll find the Greens picking and choosing races where we're taken for granted or treated like crap ... We'll take our vote elsewhere."

Republicans will be glad to see that happen. They were caught last August promoting Green candidates in tight Washington state legislative races. Green officials repudiated the Republican interlopers but noted that Democrats have colluded with R's for decades in blocking third-party and independent candidates, by maintaining at-large election systems and ballot access laws designed to give the major parties a virtual monopoly on elections in many states.

But this is a time when the left needs a united front to protect basic rights. Democrats might disappoint us, but we can count on Republicans to do worse. We support electoral reforms such as instant runoff voting and proportional representation that would empower minority parties such as the Greens, but until then the majority rules in at-large districts. Greens can help the D's achieve majority status and perhaps restore populist ideals to the Democratic Party. Or they can help the Republicans achieve plurality status.

Greens have made some inroads in electing candidates to local offices. We hope they will join in coalitions with Democrats where possible, and choose wisely in fielding their own candidates in state legislative and congressional races. Ultimately, voters will make the final decision. Unless Dubya decides that he needs to "protect" the voters, too. -- JMC

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