07/05/2008 07:39 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

FISA and Beltway Dems Strictly by the Numbers

The current disconnect between the Democratic Congressional leadership and the party base over amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) can be best summarized numerically since,like pictures, numbers too can speak a thousand words.

Over the past few years, faithful Democrats have stood by while many Congressional Democrats aided President Bush in passing the Patriot Act, authorizing the Iraq War and continuing to fund it without restriction, endorsing torture and confirming an attorney general who refused to take a stand on water-boarding. Democrats finally had reason to cheer when, earlier this year, House Democrats refused to rubber stamp the White House' attempt to gut FISA's protections, recognizing that, in the words of Congressman Silvestre Reyes, "[w]e are a strong nation [and] cannot allow ourselves to be scared into suspending the Constitution."

Unfortunately, an outraged base would soon discover that this moment of courage was short-lived as party leaders were eager to once again get in bed with the administration on this issue. The base's dissatisfaction is illustrated by the number 1,463 which is the result of a Google blog search using the term "Democrats cave" (the number for "Republicans cave" is only to 155).

57 and 14
What is especially galling to the Democratic base is that their leaders refused to stand up to a president whose approval rating among non-Republicans is only 14 percent (and only 25 percent overall according to a recent CBS poll) but were willing to defy the voters and support a bill that at least 57 percent of Americans opposed. That may explain why the only people less popular in America today than President Bush are O.J. Simpson, the MySpace mom who drove a girl to suicide and Congress.

2,300 and 5,000
The impact of these poll numbers on party leaders may be muted by a different set of numbers -- $2,300 and $5,000 which are the contribution limits for individual donors and PACs -- as some reports speculated that the FISA vote was intended to placate the party's donor base. This focus on fundraising creates a further disconnect with the political base since not only does it lead to poor policy choices, it is leading party brass to choose candidates favored by donors and not the grassroots.

This is exactly what is happening in Arizona's First Congressional District where activists are up in arms because the party is pushing a candidate who did not even have a position on Iraq or abortion when she entered the race simply because of her edge in fundraising (largely due to Emily's List) over a candidate that has the support of the grass roots.

The other problem is that too often since 9/11 (if not before), Democrats have voted out of fear on national security issues in order to insulate themselves from Republican attacks. Consider the fact that in the vote for the first Gulf War in 1991, 46 Senate Democrats voted against the war powers resolutions and yet, while only two would later be defeated and almost half were still members when the vote came in 2002 for the Iraq War, political consultants managed to convince Democrats that voting against the war would be political suicide. As a result, only 21 Senate Democrats voted against the war (with 9 Democrats who had voted against the first war switching sides).

There is an old proverb that he who fears something gives it power over him. In 2002, Democrats acted out of fear in the hope that they could put the war vote behind them and steer the election back to the economic issues, but President Bush had other plans. Bush has continued to prey on that fear time and time again and will continue to do so until November.

The key number here is zero, since Democrats must recognize that is precisely their chance of winning the national security debate if all they do is mimic Republican positions and do not put forth their own. Seven years after 9/11, we are still mired in an unnecessary war in Iraq, the Taliban is growing stronger, bin Laden remains at large and our standing in the world has never been lower. It is time that the party summoned the courage to go toe-to-toe with Republicans on national security.

This is the most critical number, since it represents the number of words in the oath of office in which each member of Congress swears to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." That is the number history will judge them by. As Congress recesses and members return to their districts for the upcoming holiday they may be unpleasantly surprised to find that some of that judging is already occurring.

Originally published in the Santa Monica Daily Press