|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
What if we faced a constitutional crisis and hardly anyone noticed? As he quietly mastered the tiresome cat-and-mouse game inside the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Judge Samuel Alito gave few hints of where he stood on a matter that goes to the heart of what it means to live in a republic. With a few exceptions, the media coverage didn't help. It's so much easier to talk about Joe Biden's big mouth or a right-wing Princeton alumni group or Mrs. Alito's tears than to figure out how the country should prevent a president of the United States from castrating the United States Congress.
Remember, this is not about whether it's right or wrong to wiretap bad guys, though the White House hopes to frame it that way for political purposes. Any rational person wants the president to be able to hunt for Qaeda suspects wherever they lurk. The "momentous" issue (Alito's words) is whether this president, or any other, has the right to tell Congress to shove it. And even if one concedes that wartime offers the president extra powers to limit liberty, what happens if the terrorist threat looks permanent? We may be scrapping our checks and balances not just for a few years (as during the Civil War), but for good.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Russ Feingold ably raised some of these questions last week; Al Gore is about to weigh in, too. But the Democratic Party as a whole cannot stay focused on the issue. Some activists keep jumping ahead to the remedy for the president's power grab, which they say is impeachment. But that's a pipe dream and a distraction from the task at hand, which is figuring out how to reassert Congress's institutional role. This must by necessity involve Republicans, who control Congress. Unfortunately, most have so far shown little concern about being defenestrated by their president.
Alito embodies the inherent contradiction of the conservative movement. The nominee is an "originalist," which means, as he said last week, that "we should look to the meaning that someone would have taken from the text of the Constitution at the time of its adoption." But at that time, the 18th century, the Founders could not have been clearer about the role of Congress in wartime. As James Madison put it, "In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war and peace to the legislative and not to the executive branch."