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The Logan Act, Redux: Why the Distraction Matters

03/16/2015 05:16 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

This is a follow-up to my recent post about the Logan Act on HuffPost. A number of folks got all excited because I hadn't shown exactly why the Logan Act was a joke. I offered a link to Lawrence O'Donnell's complete trashing of this meme, but some didn't want to use the link, perhaps because it required users to sign in to the MSNBC site. So for those who want to hear the whole argument spelled out, I offer this link to Joshua Keating's article in Slate, "The Law Tom Cotton Supposedly Violated is a Joke", here.

It's complicated because understanding an ancient federal statute written for a totally different purpose requires more than being able to read the words in the statute as if they were plain English. The people at the top at MoveOn.org and at Occupy Democrats, the two places pushing this meme, should have known better than to make a big deal about this obscurity. But when we fall into the rabbit hole of extreme partisanship, strange things happen. Otherwise reasonable people can get very unreasonable indeed.

Some accused me in the comments of being condescending in my previous post, so let me put what I say about hyper-partisanship, like calling the folks you disagree with evil, or labeling dumb stuff as treasonous, into a context. All have sinned in terms of political hyperbole and over-the-top partisanship, including me. I have a long history of political activism as a progressive, union-loving, racism-fighting, women's rights Democrat. Once I was even talked into running for Congress by the leader of my state's Democratic party; that's before I studied political science and didn't know any better. You can look me up in the Almanac of American Politics, Nebraska's First CD, 1984. I got totally shellacked by then-incumbent Doug Bereuter, running in one of the most Republican House districts in the country, in the Reagan re-election year. It was a humbling experience.

When I ran for Congress, I was desperate for any argument against the incumbent, and used a lot of hyperbole. The more I got attacked, the more I wanted to fight back. It's easy to cross the line when you feel passionately about things. But I didn't call him the Anti-Christ or accuse him of treason, maybe because I'm from Nebraska, and we aren't exactly known for gutter politics. We're the only state in the Union with a non-partisan state legislature. Up until recently, our Democrats sounded a bit like moderate Republicans, and our Republicans were closer to Eisenhower in tone than to Bill O'Reilly. Chuck Hegel, who served as Obama's Secretary of Defense, was one of our typical Republican senators. Former senator Bob Kerrey, a pretty conservative Democrat on many issues, is also one of ours.

Here was my real point in my previous post: when we start screaming "treason" and calling for people to be arrested and brought up on charges, we liberals take the focus off real arguments. And these are important arguments! It's important to explain why a strong agreement with Iran, coupled with frequent inspections, is crucial not just for stopping an Iranian nuclear weapons program before it exists, but for better relations with Iran, whose Shia militias are doing a pretty good job in disposing of the Sunni militants in ISIL.

Instead of debating an unenforceable law that wouldn't stand up to a Constitutional challenge based on First Amendment rights to free speech, the focus should be on the possibility of an agreement. Republicans line up lock-step with Netanyahu against it, based on an outdated 1979 picture of the nation of Iran. The Iranian government seems to be run completely by religious extremists, but that is just on the surface. There are modernizing influences, and moderating influences, which give the United States and our European allies a chance for success. Sanctions have hurt the Iranians, and some influential Iranians in the business community are nearly giddy at the prospect of getting them lifted. There is a lot at stake.

When the 47 Republican senators made fools out of themselves, I suggest that the better strategy was to let the world see just how foolish their behavior was, because they stood against something important for the national security of the United States, and the peace of the world. And in addition, they inserted themselves in the middle of foreign policy in such a way as to make our allies and our foes doubt the ability of the United States to lead on the world stage on any front, all because they wanted to embarrass President Obama. Way to be mature grown-ups, Republican senators. Way to go. That was the story, until liberal partisan activists got out over their skis pushing a ridiculous meme.

I know some people get a great deal of satisfaction from calling political opponents treasonous, regardless as to whether the actions rise to the level of treason under law. That's their right, they can happily sling mud all they want. We have freedom of speech in this country, hurrah. But is is highly debatable to suggest, as several people have in the reply section of my previous post, that this is the most effective way to "fight fire with fire." Liberals were winning here, on the issue of an agreement with Iran, and this distraction about the Logan Act changed the focus from policy, where our arguments can be persuasive, to an attack that Republicans can use for fundraising. Marco Rubio has already sent emails to his donors, asking for help to defend poor Marco from attacks on his patriotism. Help, they are accusing me of treason! Please send money!

For those of you who remain unconvinced, just watch and wait. If the day comes when a Republican senator gets charged under the Logan Act, you can have a good laugh at my expense. But if that never happens, because the law is, as Joshua Keating said, "a joke," then you might want to stop and think a little harder before you sign the next petition.