Calls for Censure Show a Divide in Democratic Party

The Democratic base — the blogosphere and liberal activists — want President Bush censured. The Democrats in the Senate, except for two co-sponsors of Russell Feingold's censure resolution, are running from it.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The muted reception that Senator Feingold's censure resolution is receiving from Democrats points to a serious divide in the party. Among liberal activists, censuring President Bush is a very popular goal. Many would go further, saying he needs to be impeached. But as we heard in David Welna's piece, only two Senate Democrats are cosponsoring Feingold's resolution. We're joined now by NPR's Mara Liasson to talk about all this. Mara, we've heard over and over about the split among Republicans on the immigration issue. It looks like Democrats are dealing with their own split over the censure issue.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

Well, yes, but it's a different kind of split. Among liberal activists, in the base of the party and certainly in the blogisphere, censure is very popular. And censure even gets a lot of support in polls of registered Democrats, not just activists. But in the Senate, the Democrats have pretty much treated the Feingold proposal like a piece of kryptonite. As you said, he has only two cosponsors, senators Harkin and Boxer. Only Senator Leahy spoke today at the hearing. This is not what the Democratic leadership in the Senate wants to be talking about right now.

NORRIS: But with President Bush's approval ratings at a pretty low point right now, Mara, why are the Senate Democrats shying away from this?

LIASSON: Well just because the president's policies and performance are unpopular doesn't mean the public wants him censured or rebuked. And on this particular issue, which is about the NSA warrantless wiretapping program, the President's policies are not that unpopular.

Polls show the public either split or a small majority are actually in favor of them. There are also other reasons the Democrats don't want this to be their strategy. Even Democrats who feel the NSA program is illegal, believe that formally sanctioning a President is wrong. It was wrong for the Republicans to impeach Bill Clinton. It's wrong here. They also feel it diverts attention from the NSA program itself, and what should be done to bring some judicial oversight to it. And it allows Republicans to make the debate about whether it's appropriate to sanction the Commander in Chief in a time of war.

NORRIS: Now Republicans, on the other hand, seem to be welcoming this issue. In addition to today's hearing, the Republican National Committee has come out with an ad stating that the president is “taking the necessary steps to keep America safe. Who do you stand with?” And then you hear these Democratic voices. They begin with Senator Feingold.

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): The president broke the law of the United States of America.

Unidentified Male#1: The President of the United States has been breaking the law.

Unidentified Male#2: So you're saying that impeachment is a possibility?

Unidentified Male#3: I'm not ruling it in our out.

Unidentified Male#4: I'm not ruling anything out.

Unidentified Male#5: I want to tell you something. This is a lot more serious, a lot more like an impeachable offense.

NORRIS: Mara what are the Republicans trying to say with that ad?

LIASSON: Well they're saying a couple of things. One is the Democrats want to censure the president instead of keeping Americans safe by wiretapping terrorists. But also that Democrats have a secret agenda. That if they take over the House in November, they will impeach the president. And if nothing else, that prospect, however unlikely, of impeachment, the Republicans hope will fire up their own base at a time when conservatives are dispirited and angry at their own Republican leadership. You know back when this NSA story broke, the Democrats had hoped to frame this as an issue around the president thumbing his nose at the rule of law. They haven't been able to do that yet, convince the majority of the public that that is the most important issue here.

NORRIS: And back to the Democrats, is the split between the liberal base and the suits in the Senate a big concern for the party?

LIASSON: Well, in general it's a concern, the liberal base of the party think that Democratic leaders in Washington are wimps on many issues. You heard Feingold say today, we never stand up to Bush. However, the Democratic leadership is doing a very careful balancing act. That's why you heard the leaders like Dick Durbin the number two leader in the Senate, or Harry Reid saying they won't rule out censure or even impeachment. They don't want to alienate their base, but they also don't want to put themselves in a position where Republicans can paint them as extremists because they remember what happened the last time a president was punished, impeached, in 1998. There was a backlash against the Republicans.

NORRIS: Thank you Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you Michele.

NORRIS: NPR's Mara Liasson.

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