Indeed, the most surprising aspect is that the reports on domestic spying ever saw the light of day, given the complacency of the corporate media. The New York Times, in fact, admits to holding off for a year on revealing the NSA's use of warrantless wiretaps at the request of the administration.
No doubt we will see in coming weeks hair-splitting legal and constitutional debate over the precise wording of presidential orders, evocations of executive privilege and withholding of information in the name of national security, and mind-numbingly dull citations from dozens of obscure court cases. The administration will attempt to complicate, bluster, lie and attack its way out of answering for its spying on American citizens in the hopes that the electorate will give up on understanding the issue and will continue to sleep.
It's up to the minority party now to not let this happen. It's up to the Democrats, shut out of power, to keep the nation focused by using the only tool left to them: their voices. This is a challenge, and not one Democrats are historically successful at meeting. But this is, whether we feel up to it or not, a turning point in the national debate if we have the will, the clarity and the unity to make it so.
The truth is, the constitutional questions raised by the secret spying strike at the very heart of our form of government. This is no longer Republican versus Democrat, left versus right. In fact, for true rank-and-file conservatives, this should bring on a crisis of conscience and self-examination. Distrust of the government and its motives runs deep in American conservatism; witness the recoil from relatively benign "nanny state" interventions such as social welfare programs and anti-smoking laws. How much more repugnant is wiretapping, surveillance and massive record-keeping by the feds?
I am not naïve enough to believe elected GOP officials or the chattering chuckleheads of Sunday cable shows will acknowledge framing the issue this way. But if Democrats can break through the blizzard of bullshit that is ramping up to come our way from all sides, we can reach across the partisan divide to the average American with a focused, simple message:
This is about the very foundations of democracy: Is the government our servant or our master? And is the president, who is elected to execute our laws, allowed to suspend them?
We are heading into an election year when every House seat will be up for grabs. It's up to us to make every race about these constitutional issues. As concerned citizens, we can urge Democratic leaders to force the argument in this direction, but there is another action we can take as individuals to make this more of a reality.
I suggest that those of us who are represented by Republicans in the House contact our representatives and get them on record over the next few weeks on three specific questions:
1. Does the president have unlimited power in a time of war, particularly an undeclared one?
2. Do you believe the government has a right to spy on its citizens with no regulating oversight?
3. Do you support a full and open Congressional investigation into the executive branch's authorization of spying on American citizens?
These questions, depending on how they are answered, may well prove to be a gift we can give to every Democratic challenger in the year ahead. It will force GOP reps to take a stand, if as constituents we don't let them get away with obfuscating. Insist on a clear-cut answer. Demand a yes or no. And keep ready at hand the letters or emails you receive back. It's time to force this issue. It's time for all of us to do our part. It's time to re-deliver this government into the hands of the people it was elected to represent.