coolhandluke.jpg Like Jane and just about everyone else here, I agree that we should thank Chris Dodd for stepping up to block (at least for now) the FISA bill that would give retroactive immunity to the telecoms for surrendering private data. Whether Dodd needed the push or not, watching the call spread across the blogosphere this morning was exciting and rewarding. And after years of seeing Republicans use parliamentary fine print and trickery to prevent good legislation from passing, it’s good to see politicians on the Democratic side of the aisle using it to stall the progress of bad laws.

But how did it come to this? The New York Times told a disheartening story this morning:

At the start of the day, Democrats were confident that the measure would gain approval in the House despite a veto threat from President Bush. But after an afternoon of partisan sniping, Democratic leaders put off that vote because of a competing measure from Republicans that . . . declared that nothing in the broader bill should be construed as prohibiting intelligence officials from conducting the surveillance needed to prevent Mr. bin Laden or Al Qaeda “from attacking the United States.” Had it passed, it threatened to derail the Democratic measure altogether.

Democrats denounced the Republicans’ poison pill on Mr. bin Laden as a cynical political ploy and “a cheap shot.” But Democratic leaders realized that they were at risk of losing the votes of a contingent of more moderate Democrats who did not want to be left vulnerable for voting against a resolution to stop Al Qaeda, officials said. So the leaders pulled the measure, promising to take it up again next week once they could solidify support.

. . . The episode revealed, once again, fault lines within the Democratic Party over how to tackle national security questions without appearing “soft” on terrorism in the face of Republican criticism.

Indeed, Republican leaders immediately praised their ability to block the N.S.A. measure as a sign of the Democrats’ weakness on that issue. Representative Heather A. Wilson, Republican of New Mexico, said Speaker Nancy Pelosi “underestimated the intelligence of the American people and the bipartisan majority in the Congress to understand what matters most: preventing another terrorist attack.”

This is just embarrassing, and it’s particularly galling to me since I’ve been writing about this exact problem since nearly two years ago, when I wrote with unfortunate prescience (even in the midst of Dubya’s post-Katrina decline in the polls) that “Republicans are going to keep beating Democrats with the national-security stick until we grab it out of their hands and break it.”

By “grab it out of their hands and break it,” I didn’t mean just urging Democrats to stand up for principle as Dodd did today. Unfortunately, that’s always going to be a low-odds bet when you’re talking about getting politicians to have a spine… and, as I wrote back in 2005, it inadvertently helps the Bushite framing, since it “reinforces the consciously crafted image of a Strong Daddy who will stop at nothing (even the Constitution!) when it comes to defending the national family.” But then, I also sure as hell didn’t mean what Democrats have done instead: pray the issue goes away, trying to “change the subject” only to be gobsmacked by Republicans when they haul out the tattered Osama bogeyman yet again.

I meant that Democrats need to engage in a wholehearted, full-tilt effort to redefine themselves as the party that knows the best way to defend the country. It’s ridiculously easy, with Iraq offering one-sentence proof that the Bushite path is the wrong one. Indeed, John Edwards’ speech in September was an excellent example of how to make the case.

But then, even Edwards hasn’t done much with the theme since that speech. The problem is that the payoff is long-term — spend a year or two hammering on Bush choosing to defend the country with bluster and ill-considered wars, while Democrats will do so based on moral principles and common sense, and then in 2008 you won’t need to be so scared of those 30-second ads featuring shadowy-looking Arabs. Just like if they’d started in 2005, they wouldn’t have to be running around in fear now. When are they going to wake up?

(Just to make certain Our Elite Media doesn’t lose the Dodd hold in the midst of doing something really important like sniffing the Clinton’s panty drawer, please consider using the “spotlight” button on the bottom of our posts to send the announcement to your favorite journalists — jh)