Democrats and Civil Liberties

Back during a blogosphere brouhaha about “libertarian Democrats,” Jesse Walker of Reason offered this advice to Democratic candidates who wanted to attract libertarian votes:

The short answer – and this applies to Republican candidates too – is: (a) Don’t be as bad as the other guy, and (b) Be actively good on at least one important issue.

He went on to urge Democrats to “Be good on the issues where the left is supposed to be good.” Like, you know, peace and civil liberties. And the problem for libertarians who are tired of being yoked to an increasingly less libertarian Republican party is that the Democrats aren’t following this advice. Not only have they seized on their narrow 2006 victory to start pushing for national health insurance, more regulation, public housing, and a budget that implicitly requires a massive tax increase, they have dithered about the war in Iraq and completely ignored real civil liberties reforms. Democrats are far more concerned about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys than about the authority the president claims to arrest American citizens and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge.

Now two leading lefty pundits have called the Democrats out on these issues. Arianna Huffington wants to know when the Democratic presidential candidates are going to say something about the war on drugs. She’s embarrassed to have to admit that a conservative Republican senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, thinks the penalties for crack cocaine use are excessive, while liberal Democrats look the other way.

And John Nichols of the Nation thinks Democratic candidates ought to be able to endorse a package of constitutional reforms being supported by the chairman of the American Conservative Union. The American Freedom Agenda, endorsed by several prominent conservatives, envisions such reforms as

  • Restore habeas corpus to prevent the illegal imprisonment of American citizens;
  • Prohibit torture and extraordinary rendition;
  • Prohibit unconstitutional wiretaps, email and mail openings via warrantless searches.

Nichols thinks Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards don’t endorse such goals because they’re cautious politicians. Maybe. Or maybe it’s because they want to be president, and they want to exercise just as much power as President Bush exercises.

So far it’s hard to find the issue(s) on which Democrats are “actively good.” Maybe their 2008 strategy for attracting moderates, centrists, and libertarian-leaning voters is to hope the Republicans keep on spending, centralizing, preaching, incarcerating, and struggling in Iraq.