Frustration Builds for Democrats

By: Wall Street Journal

Reversal of Fortune for Mukasey Highlights Struggles on Security Issues
November 5, 2007

WASHINGTON — The way in which Senate Democrats wavered and then consented to the confirmation of Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general reflects the party’s broader struggle to make headway on its national-security agenda, despite President Bush’s unpopularity.

On questions such as Mr. Mukasey’s stance on waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and the war in Iraq, Democrats have been stymied by Republicans in Congress and the White House. That has sparked frustration among supporters, especially those on the left, who anticipated that last year’s congressional takeover would force some policy changes.

These dashed expectations are one reason polls give Congress an approval rating lower than Mr. Bush’s. The difficulties faced by Democrats on these issues look certain to complicate the party’s bid to expand House and Senate majorities and regain the White House in 2008, a wartime election in which national security will be a major issue.

Democrats acknowledge the difficulty in speaking up for civil liberties while maintaining a tough stand on homeland security and terrorism.

“On issues of wiretapping or torture or any of the other tools used to fight terrorism, it’s a complicated message to sell,” says Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist in Washington who worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign. She says Democrats in Congress and their supporters have “faced a bit of an awakening that they’re not getting everything they wanted.”

On Friday, two senior Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, rescued President Bush’s pick to lead the Justice Department when they announced their plan to vote for his confirmation when it comes up for a vote tomorrow.

Mr. Mukasey had run into trouble earlier in the week after he refused to define waterboarding as torture and was imprecise in answering questions about the White House’s assertion of broad presidential powers. As a result, a handful of Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said they would vote against the nominee, threatening to spoil what had previously been thought to be an easy confirmation.

Liberal groups were stirred to action by the uproar over waterboarding — an interrogation technique that simulates drowning — and by President Bush’s public statements castigating Democrats for not giving Mr. Mukasey a speedy confirmation. Left-leaning groups and bloggers over the weekend renewed criticism that despite winning the House and Senate a year ago, Democrats were “caving in” to the president.
[Best Laid Plans]

Their complaints echo those made in September, when congressional Democrats passed a temporary law that granted most of the White House’s demands relating to surveillance of suspected terrorists without court oversight. Congress had initially resisted such efforts, and the reversal was roundly criticized by civil-liberties groups and the party’s base.

Last month, key Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee forged a deal with Republicans to extend most aspects of the law. They also agreed to an additional White House demand: providing retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that aided a controversial surveillance program run by the National Security Agency.

Nan Aron, president of the left-leaning Alliance for Justice, which turned against Mr. Mukasey’s confirmation over the torture question, said she was disappointed that Democrats would now likely approve the nomination. “I think George Bush put them in a bind,” she said.

The two Senate Democrats who turned the tide for Mr. Mukasey sought over the weekend to explain their planned votes. “The decision in supporting Mukasey was primarily motivated in continuing the work I had done in removing [his predecessor as attorney general], Alberto Gonzales, and to depoliticize and create the independence at the Justice Department,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview. Mr. Gonzales stepped down earlier this year after a series of scandals.

Ms. Feinstein, in a CNN interview, said that if Mr. Mukasey wasn’t confirmed, the president would likely make a recess appointment, thereby dodging the need for congressional approval. “That would bring about diminished transparency, diminished congressional oversight and would not be for the benefit of the [Justice] Department,” she said.

Democrats in Congress face institutional hurdles to challenging the president. Senate Democrats have a majority well short of the 60 votes needed to block Republican filibusters on issues — such as national security — where the president’s party is united behind him.

Also, Democratic senators represent more diverse constituencies than House members, whose districts are mostly safe. Yet even in the House, Democratic leaders know their narrow majority rests on the few members from moderate swing districts who may be imperiled by sharp left turns.

It is much easier, by contrast, for Democratic presidential candidates to jockey for positions on the left — as many supporters demand — before moving toward the political middle ground after they have won the nomination. All the major Democratic presidential aspirants, including the four senators with a vote on the issue, oppose Mr. Mukasey, just as they have also enunciated a tougher antiwar stance than their congressional wing.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, speaking at a recent news conference, said she doesn’t blame Americans for giving Congress low marks, given that the party hasn’t “been effective in ending the war in Iraq.” She added: “If you asked me in a phone call, as ardent a Democrat as I am, I would disapprove of Congress as well.”

Write to Evan Perez at and Jackie Calmes at

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