Some thoughts on where all of this is headed:
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- The president says that his highest duty is to protect the American people and our homeland. And it is true that, as commander-in-chief, he has sweeping powers to, as his oath says, faithfully execute the office of president. But the entity he swore to preserve, protect and defend isn’t the homeland per se but the Constitution itself.
- The Patriot Act will be extended, but it’s just the beginning, not the end, of the never-ending argument between the Bill of Rights and national security. The act primarily covers the activities of the FBI; the sheer volume of intelligence-gathering across the government has yet to become apparent, and voters will blanch when they see it all laid before them. The department most likely to get in trouble on this: the Pentagon, which doesn’t have a tradition of limiting inquiries, and which, in the name of protecting domestic military installations, will want to look at everyone.
- If you thought the Samuel Alito hearings were going to be contentious, wait till you see them now. Sen. Arlen Specter, the prickly but brilliant chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said that the issue of warrant-less spying by the NSA and the larger question of the reach of the president’s wartime powers is now fair game for the Alito hearings. Alito is going to try to beg off but won’t be allowed to. And members who might have been afraid to vote against Alito on the abortion issue might now have another, politically less risky, reason to do so.
- Arguably the most interesting and influential Republicans in the Senate right now are the libertarians. They’re suspicious of the Patriot Act and, I am guessing, pivotal in any discussion of the NSA and others’ spy efforts. Most are Westerners (Craig, Hagel, Murkowski) and the other is Sen. John Sununu. He is from New Hampshire, which, as anyone who has spent time there understands, is the Wild West of the East Coast. All you have to do is look at its license plate slogan: Live Free or Die. It’ll be interesting to see how other nominal small-government conservatives Sen. George Allen of Virginia comes to mind handle the issue.
- For months now, I have been getting e-mails demanding that my various employers (Newsweek, NBC News and MSNBC.com) include in their poll questionnaires the issue of whether Bush should be impeached. They used to demand this on the strength of the WMD issue, on the theory that the president had lied us into war. Now the Bush foes will base their case on his having signed off on the NSA’s warrant-less wiretaps. He and Cheney will argue his inherent powers and will cite Supreme Court cases and the resolution that authorized him to make war on the Taliban and al-Qaida. They will respond by calling him Nixon 2.0 and have already hauled forth no less an authority than John Dean to testify to the president’s dictatorial perfidy. The I-word is out there, and, I predict, you are going to hear more of it next year much more.
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