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COMMENTARY:

An Open Letter to Barack Obama

You should not change a correctly reasoned and principled decision because it appears to be politically expedient to do so.

by Sheldon H. Laskin

Dear Senator Obama:

The FISA bill is a product of a "backroom deal" that is being shamelessly mischaracterized as a compromise when it is, again in Senator Feingold's words, a "capitulation" to the Bush Administration.

Russ Feingold has bought you time.

Time for you to decide to act consistently with your previously declared principles, and to both vote against the proposed FISA bill and to publicly denounce it.

Last August, you publicly and correctly described the FISA bill as a "false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand" and promised "no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens.... That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works." Now, you appear to be prepared to vote in favor of this shameful and unnecessary assault on American civil liberties. What has changed?

Certainly, the threat posed by this bill to the right of all Americans to be secure against unwarranted government snooping in their private conversations has not changed. As Senator Feingold explained, the current bill grants the Bush Administration—an Administration that has demonstrated time and time again that it is not to be trusted where civil liberties are concerned—"expansive new authority to spy on Americans' international communications." The Senate is poised to grant the Administration these dangerous new powers, notwithstanding that 70 Senators still know nothing about the previous illegal warrantless wiretapping program because the Administraion refuses to share that information. What you do know is that the Adminstration's supporters do not view this bill as a compromise. As Senator Bond has said, it looks like Bush will get a better deal than even he hoped to get. To quote Senator Feingold, the bill is a product of a "backroom deal" that is being shamelessly mischaracterized as a compromise when it is, again in Senator Feingold's words, a "capitulation" to the Bush Administration.

As far as I can see, the only thing that has changed is that you have locked up the Democratic nomination for President and feel the need to tack rightward. If this is true, it is a betrayal of your ardent supporters, such as myself, who really believe in your potential to bring much-needed change to our sorely ailing institutions of government.

Circumstances change, and we all need to be flexible—and courageous—enough to change our previously declared positions as new and better information becomes available.

Let me be clear—I do not believe that anyone, including a candidate for President, must always act consistently with his prior statements and actions. Indeed, one of the greatest weaknesses of the current occupant of the White House is his total inability or unwillingness to acknowledge error and to change course. A foolish consistency is truly the hobgoblin of small minds. Circumstances change, and we all need to be flexible—and courageous—enough to change our previously declared positions as new and better information becomes available. It is for that reason that I fully support your change of position regarding accepting public financing for your campaign—the public financing system is truly broken and you would have been at a tremendous disadvantage had you limited your ability to receive private donations from your many small donor supporters.

But you should not change a correctly reasoned and principled decision because it appears to be politically expedient to do so. First, as the howls of derision calling you a FISA"flip flopper" currently being hurtled at you by your political opponents demonstrate, a politically crass change of position will not work. Such political expediency will not gain you votes, and may indeed lose you votes as some of your previously energized supporters either stop urging their friends to support you, or abandon you entirely.

Even if you are serious about improving the FISA bill once you take office, you will find that a vote in favor of it now will make it that much more difficult to undo next year.

But even if you manage to win the election as a result of your politically motivated tacking on a matter of principle, the more you allow yourself to do this the more you will become, not an agent of change, but a prisoner of the seemingly expedient choices you have made. Even if you are serious about improving the FISA bill once you take office, you will find that a vote in favor of it now will make it that much more difficult to undo next year. You are handing the Far Right a very strong argument—if the FISA bill was good enough for you to vote in favor of under a Bush Administration, what will have changed in a few short months to make it unacceptable in an Obama Adminstration?

I believe you are better than this. As I said, Senator Feingold has bought you time to reconnect with the change agent I believe you to be. And, since you have said you would work to strip out the retroactive immunity provision, a vote to do so and to kill the bill if it is not removed will not subject you to a charge of "flipflopping." It is only if you support the bill that you will open yourself up to such a charge.

Whatever you choose to do at this time, I will vote for you in November because I believe the alternative to be so much worse. But my enthusiasm and advocacy for your candidacy, and your Adminstration, will be gone. I know I am far from alone in my feelings. At the end of the day, is it worth it? Is it worth it to abandon your principles and to support this pernicious bill because of your—incorrect—belief that your election requires you to do so? Your support comes largely from younger and more independent voters; precisely the constituency that will lose respect for you if you do not vote to reject the bill and if you do not publicly condemn it.

I hope you find it within you to do both the morally correct and politically expedient thing—oppose the FISA bill.

Thank you.

Sheldon H. Laskin
Sheldon H. Laskin is a a Baltimore attorney and activist.


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This story was published on June 30, 2008.