Liberal Defenses of Obama on FISA

While most on the left (including myself) have been critical of Obama for supporting the FISA compromise, there are some who do see this as a useful compromise. Before the vote Morton Halperin, executive director of the Open Society Policy Center and a former member of Richard Nixon’s enemies list, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times concluding that “it represents our best chance to protect both our national security and our civil liberties.” Lawrence Lessig has defended Obama against what he calls the immunity hysteria.

Lessig makes six points which are worth considering. He discusses a topic I discussed earlier in the day as he points out that Obama is not a 1970’s style liberal:

Obama is no (in the 1970s sense) “liberal”: There are many who are upset by this who believe this (and other recent moves) shows Obama “moving to the center.” People who make this argument signal they don’t know squat about which they speak. You can’t read Obama’s books, watch how he behaved in the Illinois Senate, and watched how he voted in the US Senate, and believe he is a Bernie Sanders liberal. He is not now, and nor has ever been. That’s not to say there aren’t issues on which he takes a liberal position. It is to say that the mix of views he actually has and has had doesn’t map on a 1970s spectrum of liberals to conservative. He is not, for example, “against the market,” as so many on the left still make it sound like they are. He is for same-sex civil unions. So if you’re upset with Obama because you see him shifting, you should actually be upset with yourself that you have been so careless in understanding the politics of this candidate.

With regards to immunity, Lessig reminds readers that, “He has promised to repeal the immunity as president.” Unfortunately once immunity is granted it is doubtful that it could be revoked. Lessig also writes that the vote “is a vote that reflects the judgment that securing the amendments to FISA was more important than denying immunity to telcos.” He writes that the amendments are good because, “getting a regime that requires the executive to obey the law is important.” While this is true, there were also many aspects of the law which still grant excessive authority to the Executive Branch and which infringe upon civil liberties.

While I disagree with aspects of the bill, there are some benefits as Lessig points out. Perhaps the bottom line is Lessig’s final point:

please, fellow liberals, or leftists, or progressives, get off your high horse(s). More on this with the next post but: it is not “compromising” to recognize that we are part of a democracy. We on the left may be right. We may be the position to which the country eventually gets. But we have not yet earned the status of a majority. And to start this chant of “principled rejection” of Obama because he is not as pure as we is, in a word, idiotic (read: Naderesque).

Personally I think that if the Democrats stood strong they could have demanded a bill which did more to respect civil liberties. I’ve previously discussed my objection to moving to the center on national security issues to avoid Republican accusations of being weak. With the Republicans being so unpopular, this is a time when the Democrats could have stuck to their principles. The Republicans certainly had no qualms about doing so when they were in power.The Democrats did manage to do this on the Medicare bill, but in that case they could frame it as being pro-doctor and pro-elderly, as opposed to being accused of being weak on national security on FISA.

The point is not really whether Obama and Lessig are right or wrong, but to consider that there is more than one side to this issue. This represented a compromise, not what Obama preferred. In such a compromise there were those who wanted more power for the Executive Branch and there were those, like Obama, who would have preferred a bill which showed greater respect for civil liberties. It is incorrect to claim that both parties to such a compromise are morally equivalent. While I disagree with both the strategy of the Democrats and Obama’s vote on the FISA compromise, I also agree with Lessig in opposing those who now reject Obama as impure. With the possible exception of Chris Dodd, who never really had a chance at the nomination, Obama was the strongest major party candidate on civil liberties issues to run this year. I’ve felt for months that the election of Barack Obama represents our best chance of strengthing civil liberties and, despite my disagreements on how Obama voted, this fact has not changed.

Be Sociable, Share!

1 Comment

  1. 1
    Mary Ellen Conroy says:

    Dear Senator Obama:
    Freedom is so American.  Don’t you think so, Senator Obama?  If you abbreviate that it is FISA!!!   I mean no disrespect to you senator, but as a very strong and dedicated supporter to your campaign, I am in such disbelieve that you would sign such a bill that in effect would violate our 4th Amendment of the Constitution of the U.S.  As a representative of many Americans who feel the same, we the people, will stand up and will find the way to fight this bill and uphold the integrity of our constitution.

Leave a comment