A FRAME UP….When it comes to the debate surrounding Bush’s warrantless-search program, most Dems, and a surprising number of Republicans, have been pretty vocal about their concerns that the president exceeded his authority. It’s interesting, though, to consider why some Dems are hesitant to criticize Bush on this.

“I get nervous when I see the Democrats playing this [civil liberties] issue out too far. They had better be careful about the politics of it,” said [Michael O’Hanlon, a national-security analyst at the Brookings Institution who advises Democrats on defense issues], who says the Patriot Act is “good legislation.”

These Democrats say attacks on anti-terrorist intelligence programs will deepen mistrust of their ability to protect the nation’s security, a weakness that led in part to the defeat of Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, last year.

“The Republicans still hold the advantage on every national-security issue we tested,” said Mark Penn, a Democratic pollster and former adviser to President Clinton, who co-authored a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) memo on the party’s national-security weaknesses.

Marshall Wittmann expressed similar concerns last week when he argued, “[T]he donkey is effectively “rebranding’ and ‘framing’ itself as weak on national security.”

First, I’m not at all convinced Dems are focusing excessively on civil liberties as the principal problem with the White House’s conduct. Most of the criticisms seem to emphasize the rule of law, the constitutional process, and Bush circumventing the judiciary while ignoring the separation of powers. There’s a civil liberties angle to these concerns, but the criticisms have gone considerably further than ACLU talking points.

Second, there’s no reason for any Dem to help the right frame the debate in a way that helps the administration downplay its significance. If the controversy boils down to “Bush wants to spy on bad guys and Dems aren’t happy about it,” it’s a phony debate that skirts the real issues. However, if it’s “We need to eavesdrop in order to protect the country” vs. “Go right ahead, just follow the law and allow for some checks and balances,” it’s at least a fair fight based on the facts.

The White House and its allies would prefer that all criticism of the warrantless-search program be dismissed as petty ideological squabbling over civil liberties. Why any Dem would want to help in that endeavor is beyond my understanding.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.