Shortly before noon last Saturday, about 20 House Democrats huddled in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office to decide what to do about a surveillance bill that had been dumped on them by the Senate before it left town.
Many of the Democrats were furious. They believed they had negotiated in good faith with Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence. They sought to give the Bush administration the authority it needed to intercept communications involving foreign nationals in terrorism investigations while preserving some oversight.
At one point, according to participants in the Pelosi meeting, the passionate discussion veered toward the idea of standing up to the administration -- even at the risk of handing President Bush a chance to bash Democrats on "national security," as is his wont.
Several members from swing districts -- including Reps. Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Patrick J. Murphy of Pennsylvania -- expressed openness to having Congress stay in town to fight if important constitutional issues were at stake.
But the moment passed. Even some very liberal Democrats worried about the political costs of blocking action before the summer recess. That Saturday night, the House sent the president a bill that, as a disgusted Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) put it, with just a touch of exaggeration, "makes Alberto Gonzalez the sheriff, the judge and the jury."
And so Democrats emerge from the "debate", snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In a climate where about 30% of the American public trusts the Bush administration, and even less trust Gonzales, the Democrats turned around and granted the administration even more authority (and cover) to conduct surveillance, an authority the administration has proven highly willing to abuse. And they did this over fears they'd be attacked on national security, an approach that didn't work in the 2006 elections Democrats overwhelmingly won. This is a glaring illustration on how not to be taken seriously on national security, a lesson that Democrats seem programmed to be unwilling to learn. Whatever minor political points they hoped to score by avoiding charges of being "soft" on terror, they completely lost by appearing-rightfully-to be a party without principle. Apparently one overwhelming mid-term victory is not enough to undo years of psychological damage, but that's hardly an excuse.
UPDATE:For more detail (but less opinion) on Democratic spinelessness, see this NY Times article.