By John Russonello
July 15, 2008
It was not the fear of terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists that motivated Barack Obama, many Democratic senators and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to grant President George W. Bush expanded powers to wiretap Americans in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Instead, it was the fear of Republican campaign operatives who paralyze Democratic lawmakers with these words: "My Democratic opponent is weak on terrorism."
The advice that Washington wise men give to Democratic incumbents is that, even if you think it is wrong, vote for the president's anti-terrorism bills or the Republicans will do to you what they did to Max Cleland. A decorated Vietnam War hero, Cleland lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 2002 when Georgia lawyer Saxby Chambliss ran ads declaring Cleland was soft on fighting terrorism.
Although it was six years ago, the shadow of Chambliss ads still looms large over the 21 Democratic senators, including the party's presumptive presidential nominee, who voted last week to loosen court checks on government wiretaps.
It is the same Chambliss ghost that coaxed 12 Democratic senators and 32 House Democrats to help pass the Military Commissions Act in October 2006. That law gave the president the authority to imprison people indefinitely and torture them based only on suspicions rather than on evidence. The legislation violates the Constitution and the basis of our laws going back to the Magna Carta. Never mind, they said, it is six weeks before the elections, and we can fix it later.
The presumption by political consultants is that voters are incapable of dealing with choices, especially with emotional issues such as terrorism.
Our focus groups and surveys over the last several years show the opposite. In fact, people can become emotional about the loss of their constitutional rights and what they perceive as government abuse if the point is made clearly.
One example: A 2007 national survey my firm conducted for the American Civil Liberties Union reported that 51 percent of the public believed Congress was right to give the president "the authority to listen to telephone calls of U.S. residents the government believes may have ties to terrorists without getting a court warrant." Forty-six percent thought Congress was wrong to give the president this authority.
But the numbers reverse when voters are asked to choose between two points of view: 57 percent said "government can just as effectively combat terrorism by getting court warrants before eavesdropping on phone calls of U.S. residents," while only 40 percent said that "in order to fight terrorism the government needs to be allowed to listen secretly to telephone calls of U.S. residents the government believes may have ties to terrorists."
Even with the president's approval rating at an all time low, Democrats are unwilling to offer voters a clear choice on issues as fundamental as our constitutional rights.
I can only explain this as a phenomenon of the "incumbency class" in Washington. These are the politicians and consultants who share an interest in avoiding distinctions on issues in order to get re-elected and rehired with the least amount of effort.
This may work for Democrats in the Congress, but Barack Obama should be careful not to play this game of blur the lines. People do not want their president to be afraid, they want their president to lead.
John Russonello is a partner in the public opinion research and strategic communications firm Belden Russonello Strategists in Washington.