Feingold’s Censure Motion

FEINGOLD’S CENSURE MOTION….Everyone wants to know how I feel about Russ Feingold’s motion to censure President Bush over the NSA’s domestic spying program. I’ll give you two and a half answers:

First, substantively: Sure, censure away. God knows Bush deserves it.

Second, politically: I’m not so sure on this score. Anytime a congressman introduces a measure that’s certain to fail, it’s done for reasons of political theater: to make a point, to get some attention for an issue that’s being ignored, or to reach out to some constituency or other. So the relevant question is: is this good political theater?

For example, when Harry Reid shut down the Senate last year to protest the slow progress of the investigation into prewar intelligence, that was good theater. He highlighted something that the press had been ignoring, he worked Bill Frist into a practically incoherent rage, and he embarrassed Pat Roberts into (sort of) promising to speed things up. All in all, a good day’s work for the minority party.

Conversely, it’s not clear what Feingold hopes to accomplish with his censure motion. Bush’s shortcomings are already getting plenty of attention, so he’s not galvanizing any new media attention. He obviously didn’t bother telling his fellow Democrats about his plan, which has had the result of making the party look muddled and stupid. And Republicans, far from being nonplussed by his censure motion, are having a field day with it.

Political theater has its own rules, and fair or not, the only measure of success is success. So while I’d vote for Feingold’s motion, I don’t think I’d hire him as a political theater consultant.

POSTSCRIPT: And what about my half answer? It’s this: all the people complaining about Democratic senators who are waffling on Feingold’s motion even though they voted to censure Bill Clinton need to lighten up. As I hope everyone knows, the censure motion against Clinton was an attempt to derail the impeachment proceedings, not a genuine expression of censure. And Feingold, as I hope we also remember, was the only Democratic senator to side with Republicans and refuse to vote for dismissal of the impeachment charges. So let’s keep the holier-than-thou stuff down to a dull rumble, shall we?

UPDATE: The Clinton censure stuff is complicated for a number of reasons, but Elton Beard points out that although the House censure motion was indeed intended as a way of derailing impeachment, the Senate censure motion was introduced after the impeachment proceedings were over. I still think it’s important to keep the political background in mind here, but I was wrong to suggest that senators who sponsored the Clinton censure motion were trying to do Clinton a favor. Sorry about that.