Constitution Day: Can we please talk about it?

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Constitution Day has arrived without major statements from Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain on the need to restore this country’s commitment to the rule of law.

— John Nichols, Constitution in Crisis, Candidates in Denial, The Nation

At the risk of showing my age, I grew up with the impression that the Constitution was supposed to guide us 365 days a year … ah well.  Times change.

In Get FISA Right: on the air in St. Paul I lamented the lack of discussion of Constitutional issues in the election campaign.  Turns out that Dahlia Lithwick and I weren’t the only ones who are disturbed by this:

With the Wall Street meltdown, it’s not real likely that we’ll get a lot of focus on the Constitution today.  Still, there are seven weeks left between now and the election.  If the press wakes up and starts shifting some of its attention from lipstick, Troopergate, and the candidates’ families, it’s not too late to get this issue on the agenda.

A lot of Obama supporters, even those who see themselves as progressive, seem to think it’s a distraction to be talking about the Constitution when “we’ve got an a election to win”.  The Democrats as a whole seem to want to steer clear from this issue; Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island was the only other Democratic Senator to show up at Feingold’s hearing.  I don’t get it.  Check out a few of the points on the ACLU’s I’m a Constitution Voter pledge:

  • I believe that no one—including the President—is above the law.
  • I oppose all forms of torture, and I support both closing the Guantánamo Bay prison and ending indefinite detention.
  • I oppose warrantless spying.
  • I believe that government officials, no matter how high-ranking, should be held accountable for breaking the law and violating the Constitution.

These are all issues that resonates with people across the country and across party lines.  Americans are tired of giving up rights — and the fact that we haven’t gotten anything in return just makes it more acute.  Yeah, okay, the Democrats are far from perfect on this topic … still, the Democrats are in general much  better than the Republicans — and Obama and Biden are much better than McCain and Palin.  In an election as close as this, highlighting these issues can help drive voters away from McCain, ideally towards Obama but even shifting votes from McCain to Barr or Baldwin would work to the Democrats advantage.  And while there might be worries about shifting votes from Obama to McKinney or Nader, realistically the people who are single-issue voters on this have long since made up their mind, either staying with Obama despite their reservations or moving on.

Of course, the politicians — with rare exceptions like Feingold — aren’t the only ones not talking about it.  There’s also the press, those well-known protectors of a free society.  As the arrests of journalists in St. Paul show, they’ve also got a personal stake here.    And there are some great reporters covering this issue; still, on the whole there’s very little coverage if you compare it to topics like gaffes and Bristol Palin.

Quite a few reporters have told me they want to write more about these topics.  The way I see it, activists can help in a couple of ways: by showing these are issues people care about, getting enough noise in the blogosphere that the story breaks through to the mainstream media, and highlighting stories related to the overall themes of the election worth telling.

Get FISA Right logoThe reaction to Get FISA Right’s recent attempt to spark some discussion was really disappointing to me.  Our timing was perfect: running pro-civil liberties ads on Fox News and CNN in St Paul at the Republican convention as people were getting arrested outside in the streets and the Republican Vice Presidential nominee went out of her way to mock Obama for supporting habeas corpus.  We had several solid articles about it on Ars Technica, the Washington Independent, and Raw Story, which supports the theory that the press does want to cover this.   At which pont … nothing.  Nobody picked it up — not even in the progressive blogosphere, not even our anti-FISA allies in Strange Bedfellows.  Sigh.

It’s not just us, either.  A quick Google search today showed virtually no coverage of yesterday’s Feingold hearing in the progressive blogosphere or mainstream media, with the notable exceptions of Bob Geiger in the Huffington Post, Nick Juliano in The Raw Story, and John Nichols in The Capital Times and The Nation.  How bad is it?  Right now, this blog post is showing up on the front page of the Google blog search for “Feingold restoring rule of law“.  Sigh.

Oh well; back to the basics: writing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces,** emailing the debates’ moderators and asking them to cover these topics, calling up radio stations, signing petitions.  Oh, and joining groups on social networks of course :-)  These actions strengthen the hands of those who want to cover the stories — and with enough volume, at least some people will pay attention.

We also need to get more creative about tying civil liberties issues to other issues facing the country.  The battle over Real ID, a privacy-infringing proposed national standards for drivers licenses, is an example of doing this successfully: the seemingly-unstoppable momentum of the bill was been blunted as states started to drop out of the program.  In the first states to kick off the Real ID rebellion (Montana, New Hampshire) it was the states rights and privacy issues that drove the decision.  For California, though, it’s the economics that are the deciding factor, and no wonder: the cost to the states and individual drivers is estimated at $20 billion.

[And not to sound like a broken record here: Montana and New Hampshire are potential swing states this November.  McCain supports Real ID; Obama opposes it.  Why isn’t Obama bringing this up?]

FISA doesn’t have the same direct economic aspects, but especialy on telecom immunity — the core of the difference between Obama’s and McCain’s positions — it does tie into the powerful themes of change and accountability.  Supporters of telecom immunity are putting corporate interests above the interests of the American people … hmm, aren’t there some remarkable similarities to the deregulation that’s created the mess on Wall Street?   There might well be a Pulitzer waiting out there for the investigative journalist who writes this story in a way that cracks through — and wow, what a great way for the mainstream media to show the blogosphere that they’re not dead yet.

Alas, as you can probably tell from my tone, I’m not particularly optimistic that we’ll hear a lot more about the Constitution in the next seven weeks. Logically, it really seems like there are so many good reasons to have this conversation that it’s hard to believe it isn’t happening.  Like a lot of people, I believe that this election’s a choice between restoring the Constitution and continuing down the path to fascism and a police state.  Okay, maybe that’s not the most pressing issue to everybody … but it certainly seems worth talking about.

* the podcast with Paul Waldman of Media Matters for America, Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation, and James Rucker of Color of Change goes into more detail as a whole.

*** speaking of which, we’re working on a collaborative op-ed piece from Get FISA Right — please get involved!