What Is It Like To Be a Democrat?

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

On Thursday night, the Senate voted to confirm Michael Mukasey as the next attorney general.

The 53-40 majority included all the Republicans present and six Democrats who crossed over. Love of power, privilege, and punishment express the soul of the Republican party today.

The Democrats are a sadder story. When you have given up this much, what is there left for you to be?

Four Democratic senators were not present to cast a vote: Biden, Clinton, Dodd, and Obama. One of three Republicans who did not vote was John McCain.

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act legitimated the expansion of slavery, Abraham Lincoln said in a great speech of 1854: "Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it." He had in mind a retrogression in the manners of American democracy, which showed in a new contempt for the meaning of the words "all men are created equal."

By Cheney and Bush, our republican robe has been soiled, and trailed in the dust. They have done it by contempt for the unavoidable meaning of the words of the Bill of Rights: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The founders knew what they meant by cruel and unusual punishments; and what they meant was torture.

Within the category of torture, they included the drowning torture; and they knew about the drowning torture because it goes back to the Spanish Inquisition.

They knew it as an instrument of tyranny and "the dark religions." They banished it because of what it meant, and because of what it was.

And now we find ourselves watching, as our representatives are reduced to a set of men and women who are also merely watching. They took an oath to uphold the laws, but they shift and rearrange, and ask a nominee to high office whether he will consider saying that torture is torture.

Nobody can know better than John McCain the humiliation of the victim and the degradation of the victor that come with the infliction of torture. When the president asked Judge Mukasey to refuse to condemn the drowning torture, McCain knew that the president had made the United States as dirty in the eyes of the world as his North Vietnamese captors were dirty in the eyes of John McCain.

And McCain did speak the truth about the torture; but then, with his party, he threw himself on the "hope" that the nominee would change his mind when once in office. Thus McCain abetted his party's drive to place in charge of the laws a man who--by his sworn testimony--will be compelled to prevent the prosecution of the torturers of an Arab John McCain.

Obama, Clinton, Biden and Dodd had declared their opposition to Mukasey earlier in the week. They could not find the time to leave their campaigns for an election a year away, to show up for a vote more critical than any they are likely to see for months. Nor did they use this occasion for a major statement. Their formulae of dissent afforded no larger view of the meaning of such acts of acquiescence by the Senate.

Patrick Leahy is one of the few Democrats with a constitutional bone in his body; and he voted against Mukasey. Yet Leahy when provoked, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, appears able to pass only from irritation to extreme "disappointment" with the breakers of the law in government. He has not yet used his power to enforce the subpoena of high officials to testify under oath about the things they have done and hidden. His disapproval of Mukasey stayed within the bounds of decorous and formal protest.

Brutal measures for a brutal time is the message of George W. Bush. And it is a simple and intelligible message. The lesser members of the Republican swarm approve. This is what they have been taught, in many cases it is all they know, and they could not imagine ever dissenting. But what can explain the continued passiveness of so many Democrats and moderates?

It seems likely that many deplore the message and posture of this president who would by no means wish his actions undone.

Given the chance to resist as a formed majority, their opposition has, in less than a year, been whittled down to ceremonial remonstrance. And the pattern is now almost ingrained. After all, this was the first president in our history to boast of assassinations: "All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries," he said in his State of the Union address of 2003. "Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way--they are no longer a problem." President Bush, in his own words, told us that he was talking about suspects, not men convicted on evidence of a crime. The president made us all his accomplices when he remarked that the murdered men had not been given a legal process. That easy slide into the argot of hoodlums by the leader of the free world was noticed by a few at the time. But it still echoes in the minds of the Democrats, because it puts a question to them. Do they have as convincing a cry? A summons to nobility and principle that could rival the coarse efficiency of the snarl of vengeance?

While they dispute the merits of several plans of medical care and the licensing of immigrant drivers, a more passionate subject has been emerging.

Rudolph Giuliani aspires to lead an administration that will resemble that of George W. Bush without the self-restraint. Giuliani would enter office with his emergency in place: a war-without-end against Terror. To this war, both parties have given their assent, and the executive branch is poised to bequeath to the next chief executive a handsome array of arbitrary powers.

The politician who has spoken the strongest words against the recklessness of Giuliani is not a Democrat, but Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. It was Hagel who had the nerve to denounce the self-indulgence of Giuliani, when the latter pushed hard to outbid the president in rhetorical posturing against Iran. This was speaking of war in such a way as to make a war inevitable, said Hagel; and it put our own soldiers at risk. Hagel rightly included Hillary Clinton in his condemnation. For her vote to declare the Islamic Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, and her scorn of the "naivete" of talking to Iran, added up to another attempt to overmatch the president in the game of who is the toughest.

One other thing sets Hagel apart from Clinton and Giuliani, as it also sets him apart from Cheney and Bush. He has fought in a war, a war on the ground, and has seen what it is for soldiers and civilians to die.