07/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On Progressive Path, Jeff Merkley Questions Even Obama

Oregon senatorial candidate Jeff Merkley admits that his race against incumbent Gordon Smith will be one of, if not the, closest fought this cycle. But Oregon's Democratic House Speaker isn't venturing toward the political center in an effort to pick up votes or protect himself against potential criticism. Rather, he's sticking to definitively progressive positions, whether on FISA, Iraq, trade, or environmental policy. And on occasion he's digging his party's presumptive presidential nominee for venturing away from those battles.

"We disagreed on FISA," Merkley said when asked how he differed with Barack Obama. "And I think we have an emerging difference on NAFTA, where I am very concerned about jobs being swept out of the United States by these trade treaties combined with tax policies, and I gather we were closely aligned but as we go to the general election here, we find that Barack is changing a little bit."

Merkley, who according to a very recent Rasmussen Reports poll has a slim 43-41 lead over Smith, said that a large portion of his campaign success would be predicated on the desire of Oregonians to shift the way Washington works. As such, he heaped praise on Obama for the type of campaign he has waged, predicting that the Senator would win Oregon by eight to twelve points.

But the majority of Merkley's interview with the Huffngton Post this past weekend was spent pinpointing areas in need of political improvement, even calling to task the Democratic-controlled Senate for not showing the requisite backbone.

"A major mistake has been not to force the Republicans to filibuster day and night on these issues," he said. "The public does not see that obstruction because they don't see on their televisions a senator on the floor of the senate going through the night reading out of a thick tomb of law, if you will, in order to block bills from being considered. We have to put that on show to the American public and show that it's unacceptable... And I am [prepared to start standing up]. FISA is a good example right there. I was proud of Senator Dodd and others for what they did. They lost the vote, but I'm proud of them."

A Oregon Democrat who spent time in D.C., Merkley won a hotly contested primary campaign against underdog Steve Novick that pitted - ostensibly - the party establishment (backing Merkley) against much of the netroots (in Novick's corner). And yet, Merkley's philosophical underpinnings seen tailor-made for the progressive community. In addition to being a fierce proponent of environmental protection and health care expansion, he is insistent that the United States withdraw troops from Iraq in an expeditious but responsible manner without any residual bases.

"We have turned a nation that while run by a terrible dictator was not an enemy of the United States at the time we invaded them and, in fact, was very hostile to al Qaeda [into] a California sized terrorist training camp," he said.

He argued that John McCain's Iraq policy was "absolutely" dangerous to the country and insisted that Congress had an imperative to investigate the Bush administration's politicization of the justice department even after the president left office. "I agree," that criminal proceedings should be on the table, he said.

He even weighed in on one of the thornier issues facing Democrats today: what to do about Sen. Joseph Lieberman, whose surrogacy on behalf of McCain has been infuriating to many elements of the party.

"It is very disturbing," Merkley said. "I was there in 2000 as a delegate when he was our vice presidential nominee. I remember losing my voice for him and Sen. Gore and I am really disappointed in some of the stances he is taking and I understand he is addressing the Republican convention. Essentially we need him as a clear member of the team and I hope that we see it that way after the election."

As for kicking him out of the caucus should he address the GOP convention in Minneapolis: "I will leave that to Sen. Reid," Merkley said.