[Note: This article is the first in a series that examines the extent of Democratic support for Bush's most criticized policies. This essay examines Democratic endorsement of "Bush's" wars and his administration's restraints on civil liberties contained in the Patriot Act and amendments to FISA. Subsequent articles will examine other aspects of Democratic support for Bush's policies.]
The end of Bush's disastrous presidency has generated a lot of commentary, which describes him as the worst president in U.S. history. Although I believe the claim is debatable, I will, for the sake of argument, agree with the assertion. Accordingly, I hereby proclaim that Bush is the worst president in U.S. history. He ranks lower than presidents who presided over the slaughter and brutal relocation of Native Americans. His actions are worse than the decisions by presidents who extended slavery and whose inaction led to the Civil War. He has done more damage than presidents who grabbed land during the westward expansion and "negotiated" treaties to seal the deal.
Presidents Do Not Act Alone
But a president's actions do not occur in a vacuum. Many other individuals and institutions influence and "check" the president's behavior. The constitution, for example, distributes governmental power horizontally among the three federal branches and vertically between the national government and the states. Also, the behavior of corporations, nonprofits, and individuals influences policy and the macroeconomy. The transactions among financial institutions, home purchasers, and other investors, for example, contributed greatly to the housing bubble and its subsequent implosion and to the spread of risky securities, which have wreaked havoc upon financial markets.
Political Parties Can Dissent from Irresponsible Behavior
The two major parties can also help make public officials more accountable. For most of Bush's presidency the Democratic Party has been the minority party in Congress. As such, a vigilant Democratic legislative caucus could have monitored and challenged the president, in order to prevent him from implementing the worst decisions in U.S. history.
The remainder of this essay considers whether the Democrats provided a useful "check" or a dissenting voice in response to Bush's "bad" decisions. If Democrats voted for or failed to challenge the policies which critics assert make Bush the worst president, then they must share some of the blame for the existence of those policies.
Even if the Democrats could not persuade enough Republicans to cross party lines in order to defeat Bush's bad policies, Democrats could still express dissent by voting against his terrible agendas. Let's see how they performed.
The Two Wars: Afghanistan and Iraq
Bush's critics often cite his decisions to lead the country into two costly and deadly "wars" as the leading reasons why his presidency ranks at the very bottom (Congress has not formally "declared war" since 1941). Although many liberals believe the Afghanistan War was justifiable, they almost uniformly disagree with the Iraq War, citing Bush's failure to uncover "weapons of mass destruction." Many liberals also disagree with the execution of the war and lament its rising costs and human toll. But what position did Democrats in Congress take on the wars? [Editor's Note: For the record, I disagreed with both wars.]
If the decision to invade Afghanistan helps to make Bush the worst president, then Democrats cannot claim the moral high ground whatsoever. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, which permitted the invasion of Afghanistan, passed in the House 420-1 (and 10 abstentions); it passed in the Senate 98-0 (and 2 abstentions). Most Bush critics, however, reserve their deepest anger for the Iraq War.
The resolution to authorize the invasion of Iraq produced mixed results among Democrats. A majority of House Democrats voted against the resolution. Although the measure passed in the House by a vote of 296-133, the vote among Democrats was 82-126 (with 1 abstention). In the Senate, however, the measure passed by a vote of 77-23; among Democrats, the vote was 29-21. So, while House Democrats declined to authorize a war that a majority of the public supported, Senate Democrats agreed with Bush and the public -- but not to the same extent as Republicans.
Although Democratic lawmakers split their votes on the Iraq War, a closer look at "who" voted in favor of the resolution reveals an interesting pattern. The group of Democrats who voted in favor of the Iraq War includes some very powerful figures, such as: Hillary Clinton, Obama's Secretary of State; Joe Biden, Obama's Vice President; Tom Daschle, Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services; John Kerry, Democratic Presidential Nominee 2004, and Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader. If supporting the war shows a "lack of judgment" (as Obama said) or, if it helps to make Bush the worst president, then Democrats must share part of the stigma they assign to Bush.
Bush's critics rightfully condemn his administration's infringement of civil liberties. But many Democrats supported the very legislation and other practices that liberals believe make Bush's presidency the worst in history.
Liberals have very passionately criticized the Patriot Act, which gives the President greater access to people's private records and communications under the guise of hunting terrorists. Despite liberal criticism, the Patriot Act passed with wide majorities in both Houses of Congress. Furthermore, the same powerful Democrats (see above) who supported the Iraq War voted for the Patriot Act as well. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, also voted in favor of the measure.
Reauthorization of the Patriot Act
Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act in 2006. A majority of House Democrats voted against reauthorization, but only 9 Senate Democrats voted against it. Some of the biggest power brokers in the Democratic Party supported reauthorization of the Patriot Act, including former Representative Rahm Emanuel, who is now Obama's Chief of Staff. Senators Clinton, Biden, Kennedy, and Reid also voted for reauthorization. And the most powerful Democrat -- President Obama -- voted for reauthorization. If passage of the Patriot Act makes Bush the worst president, then Democrats who voted in favor of the law deserve condemnation as well.
After the news media leaked that Bush was administering a secret program of warrantless wiretapping, liberals rightfully criticized the scheme, which violated the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act and, arguably, the Fourth Amendment. Despite the outcry from liberals and conservatives who embrace civil liberties, Congress has amended FISA to expand the president's authority and to immunize companies that helped the government monitor communications without a warrant. The immunity provision sparked a tremendous amount of outrage among liberal activists.
2007 FISA Amendments
Despite liberal criticism of Bush's spying program, many Democrats voted to expand presidential power and to immunize companies that conducted warrantless wiretaps under Bush's illegal program. Congress passed the "Protect America Act of 2007, which amended FISA to permit warrantless surveillance of communication if the government believes that one or more of the parties to the communication is located outside of the United States. This is precisely the expansion that Bush sought.
Most Democrats voted against the 2007 changes to FISA. In the Senate, the measure passed 60-28 (with 12 abstentions); 27 Democrats, however, voted against the measure, including Senators Clinton and Obama. 16 Democratic Senators, however, voted in support of the measure, as did Senator Lieberman (who retains seniority in the Democratic caucus, but who won his Senate race as an Independent).
In the House, the measure passed by a vote of 227-183 (with 23 abstentions); Democrats, however, voted against the amendment by a vote of 181-41 (with 9 abstentions). The Democratic vote against this amendment is one of the strongest moments in the party's opposition to Bush on civil liberties issues.
2008 FISA Amendments
The 2007 amendment to FISA contained a sunset provision, which provided that the newly added terms would expire in 180 days. But Congress has now passed new amendments that substantially expand presidential authority. The FISA Amendments Act of 2008 allows the government to conduct warrantless wiretapping of foreign targets for up to seven days, after which it must obtain a warrant. But the amendment gives the FISA court 30 days to review a request for a warrant, while the government can continue its surveillance. Under the original version, the government needed to obtain a warrant within 48 hours. Congress also approved the most controversial provision, which immunizes companies that assisted the government with its illegal warrantless surveillance, thus preventing wronged parties from recovering damages for improper invasion of their privacy.
The 2008 amendments to FISA passed in the House by a vote of 293-129 (with 13 abstentions); a slight majority of Democrats voted against the measure, 127-105. In the Senate, the measure passed by a vote of 69-28, with 3 abstentions. Among Democrats, the vote was 27-21 against the measure.
Although a small majority of Democrats voted against the 2008 amendment to FISA, the list of Democrats who voted for the measure, include Senators Feinstein and McCaskill and Representatives Emanuel and Pelosi. But the most prominent and controversial Democratic support for the amendment came from President Obama. Although Obama promised unequivocally to vote against the legislation during his campaign, he ultimately broke this promise. This vote represented his first major clash with the Left. Senator Clinton voted against the measure, while McCain abstained.
Although Democrats failed to support the Iraq War, many of the Democratic leadership authorized the military action. Furthermore, virtually all Democrats voted for the war in Afghanistan.
Also, while liberals consider the Patriot Act the "poster child" of abuse by the Bush administration, strong majorities of Democrats voted for the legislation, and Senate Democrats, including President Obama, voted to reauthorize the provision.
With respect to FISA, Democrats, particularly members of the House of Representatives, have strongly opposed the expansion of presidential power. Nonetheless, many of the most powerful Democrats, including President Obama, voted to augment presidential power under FISA and to immunize companies that helped Bush conduct warrantless wiretaps.
Although presidents have a lot of control over the legislative agenda that Congress pursues -- particularly with respect to war -- this does not deprive Congress, including members of the minority party, from organizing against the president's initiatives. And while many liberals consider Bush the worst president in U.S. history, many Democrats voted in favor of policies that commentators cite as Bush's most disastrous.
As liberals welcome an era of "change" in Washington, we must remember that Democratic leaders endorsed some of Bush's most injurious policies. Bashing Bush might seem fun, but it fails to hold Democrats accountable. Change, however, cannot occur unless liberals act consistently. Otherwise, we look like unprincipled hypocrites.
Related Readings on Dissenting Justice:
Hold Them Accountable Part II: If Conservatives Caused the Economic Crisis, They Had a Lot of Help from Democrats!
Get a Grip People: Bush Is not the Worst President in U.S. History