Obama's Response To FISA Critics: A Vital Exchange With An Empty Center

07/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, on these pages, Senator Barack Obama responded to critics of his position on telecom immunity. I found the occasion to be a strange one - there was something very exciting and vital about seeing Obama engage with his constituents in the way that he did. As an evangelist for the virtues of blogging in general, it was thrilling. But as a citizen, engaged in the issues, I found the substance of the exchange to be wanting. Over the Independence Day holiday, I found myself looking over the wise words of one of this nation's founders, Thomas Jefferson, and I found a quotation that managed to encapsulate the experience quite neatly:

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

If the candidacy of Barack Obama can be said to have a singular virtue, it is the way he has swum with the current. He's built a cutting-edge campaign, harnessing information technology and the emerging force of social networks to forge a relationship with voters that is truly engaged. His decision to stick with the million-plus individuals who have carried this campaign through the primary season on the backs of small-dollar donations was a decision that honored that engagement. The grassroots have taken center stage, and it is precisely this high level of citizen involvement that has enabled the dream of a 50-state strategy.

Of course, it is also that level of citizen involvement that gave rise to Obama's response to his FISA critics. Last week, at Obama's social networking site, MyBarackObama.com, a group urging Obama to "Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity" became the "largest self-organized group" on the site. It couldn't be clearer that this was the tipping point that necessitated Obama's response.

There is a lot of virtue here, and the candidate can be credited, at the very least, for having created the environment for this sort of exchange to take place, and honoring his commitment to it. This level of openness, and responsiveness, marks a stark contrast to the Bush administration, who were always happy to ignore the concerns of Americans (even when they're engaged in the act of drowning). And it's especially gratifying to see that Obama is willing to speak to the public without the condescending, hectoring tone that President Bush deployed - the way an overcaffeinated Ayn Rand might speak to a two-year-old.

Furthermore, by allowing this level of in-your-face accountability, and responding to it with seriousness, Obama does a great service to those who tirelessly seek to advocate for progressive causes. It sends a clear message that the Obama White House will neither credit, nor seek, sycophancy, and that intelligent criticism won't be swept under the rug for the sake of making things easier on the candidate. All of this is a great good and a marked change from politics as usual.

And yet . . . as virtuous as all this framework for engagement is, one cannot ignore how lacking Obama's response has been on this issue. There's no firm principle standing as a rock amid all this exciting current.

We've all heard variations on that worrisome theme of the Move To The Center. Speaking only for myself, I'll say that there's nothing inherently wrong with having a centrist position. If you boldly stake out a position in the center, it sends a message of principle to voters. But when I hear critics speak of the "shift to the center," I know that they're not talking about making a bold stand - they're talking about making no stand at all. They're talking about navigating to a place where one's position becomes so indiscernible, so wishy-washy, so undefined, as to make it seem like you are taking all positions at once. Obama's response - which includes a vague promise to join the effort to strip immunity from the bill, even while signaling that its preferable to a worse bill - seems designed to be as innocuous as possible.

This perplexes me greatly, because I simply am unable to see how taking a bold stand against telecom immunity could possibly hobble his presidential aspirations. It is precisely this sort of lawlessness, precisely these sorts of policies, that have driven up public discontent with the Bush administration. Opposing telecom immunity - really, opposing just about any aspect of the Bush White House's un-American series of executive power grabs - is a winning stance at all points on the Democratic spectrum. And true conservatives, who abhor intrusive government and who believe that liberty should not be sold to finance false security, despise Bush's warrantless wiretapping as well. If Obama is in need of an issue that both resonates with his base and also appeals to disaffected Republicans, telecom immunity would appear to be a slam dunk.

Obama states that he is willing to "take his lumps" from his supporters on this issue, but one wonders: why take lumps at all? As long as he remains mealy-mouthed on the matter, those lumps are going to keep coming. If Obama truly believes that we ought not pursue legal recourse against the telecoms, the only solution, in my mind, is to tell us why, and be as forthcoming as possible.

All of which raises a question: Is it possible to come out in favor of telecom immunity, and do so with the same sort of boldness that would come from opposing it? Ever since Obama posted his response, I've wrestled with that, trying to play devil's advocate and get on the other side of the issue, as a debater might. As before, it was Thomas Jefferson who offered an avenue:

If our house be on fire, without inquiring whether it was fired from within or without, we must try to extinguish it.

If there is a fitting metaphor for the way the Bush administration will leave this nation to his successor, it is a house on fire. But even as the next President decides how to extinguish the blaze (or pour kerosene on it), there will remain a strong call, urging that the Bush administration be held to accounts. Indeed, many believe that this process will be hamstrung until such time as the opposing party takes full control over the reins of the state.

Pursuing the telecoms has the potential to reveal much of the Bush blueprint for wrongdoing and expose just how widespread the rot at the root of our civil liberties was. Nevertheless, it's possible that Obama believes that the resources he will have at hand when he takes office will be insufficient to both pursue the outgoing administration for their crimes as well as tending to the damage they will leave in their wake. It is possible that Obama is signaling a desire to simply move forward.

These possibilities are bolstered by a strong undertone of reconciliation, redolent in Obama's rhetoric. Amid the call to hang the telecoms high, it is possible that Obama recognizes that we have nonetheless forgiven many men and women who aided and abetted the Bush administration. Senators who authorized the war. Representatives who backed the PATRIOT ACT without reading it. Democrats who heard of these abridgments to our liberties firsthand and stayed mum. Why must these telecoms face the brunt of our righteous, libertarian anger, when so many others - men and women of good standing, who have been re-elected to office, who will be considered as viable running mates and cabinet members - shall receive a pass?

Of course, all of this is but a mere indulgence from somebody trying to fill in the blank space that Obama left in his own response to the matter. That I can conceive of a boldly attempted argument for allowing telecom immunity to remain in the bill is a meaningless, academic exercise. I'm not the one running for President.

But Barack Obama is, and he's doing so on the back of a great promise: that his will be a different sort of campaign and a different, better form of governance. Thomas Jefferson said "The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object." This back-and-forth that has transpired between the candidate and his critics demonstrates that Obama is willing to make this virtue a thrilling new standard. Now, the candidate must rise to the same standard, and honor the virtue of this exchange, by responding in a way that shows bold, rock-hard principles stand in the current.