The Civil Liberties Candidate?

If you judged it only by the general lack of daily protest, it would appear that people have adapted easily to increased security at airports and buildings, stepped-up surveillance, and various other manifestations of the war on terrorism in everyday life. "We're ordered to disrobe [at airports] and we just do it," said Dan Johnson-Weinberger, a lawyer and director of the Midwest Center for Democracy in Chicago.

But that doesn't mean everyone is happy about it. The three largest cities in the U.S., representing over 20 million people, have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act and reaffirming the Bill of rights. People of all walks of life and across the political spectrum have a general sense that the government is going too far with its security measures and incursions into private lives.

But are these concerns reflected by the presidential candidates? Between talk of the war in Iraq, the war on terror, NAFTA and other free trade agreements, tax cuts, corporate corruption, race relations and the usual squabbling between candidates, there hasn't been a whole lot of talk specifically about civil liberties during the build-up to the election so far.

Of the presidential candidates, Dennis Kucinich is the most vocal proponent of civil liberties. But if he continues to draw such low numbers in the primary, his role may be more to remind other candidates of this issue. "In opposing the Patriot Act, Kucinich leads in the defense of civil liberties," former New York Green Party candidate for governor Stanley Aronowitz said in his endorsement statement. "I believe his stand against the war on Iraq and for popular elections to choose a new government is consistent with his strong pro-democracy position."

In the view of Johnson-Weinberger, Howard Dean initially stood out as a champion of civil liberties, but the other candidates were quick to follow, not necessarily singling out the issue but making it a given part of their platforms.

"Everyone has taken on Dean's position as far as civil liberties, so you can't really say anymore that there's one candidate who is the civil liberties candidate," he said. "No one's made it a centerpiece but it's always included as part of the Bush administration's failings and over-reachings. The flip side of the administration's arrogant and abusive foreign policy is an arrogant and abusive domestic policy. Anytime [the candidates] mention Ashcroft that's code for civil liberties. He's the only cabinet member that the candidates talk a lot about wanting to remove."

One of the points in Sen. John Edwards' campaign platform specifically mentions Ashcroft's attacks on civil liberties. His web site says that, "Edwards believes that we don't have to sacrifice our liberties or our equal rights in order to preserve our security. America cannot allow this administration and John Ashcroft to use the war on terrorism to take away our civil rights, take away our liberties, and take away our freedom."

However voters don’t seem to be voting based on where the candidates stand on the Patriot Act. Sen. John Kerry, who has won every primary so far voted for the PATRIOT Act. So has Edwards, the only other candidate so far to win a primary (in South Carolina).

Kucinich's director of communications, David Swanson, notes that he is the only candidate who has flat-out promised to repeal the PATRIOT Act. (Spokespeople for the other Democratic campaigns did not return calls for this story.)

"Some of these other candidates are saying they'll review the act line by line and decide what to do with it," said Swanson. "Dennis has already read it line by line and he voted against it. He's committed to completely reversing it and other policies that aren't doing us any good."

While they don’t speak directly about the Patriot Act, most of the Democratic candidates have made equal access to education, access to health care, pay equity and fighting hate crimes and racial profiling parts of their official platforms.

Johnson-Weinberger noted that two key groups of voters are likely to care most about civil liberties. One would be the traditional liberal Democrats -- "ACLU members, they tend to be white, better-educated, wealthier," he said. The other group would be conservatives who have been specifically alienated by attacks on civil liberties. And among this group, a core constituency is socially conservative Muslims who previously might have voted for Bush .

"It's not just the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, it's the detentions and registrations and harassment," he noted. "But there is also the fact that many Muslim immigrants don't vote in primaries. Their vote will figure more into the general election."

In an interview before the New Hampshire primary, Johnson-Weinberger said he thought civil liberties would be an especially important issue in that state's primary because it is an open primary, where voters don't have to be registered Democrats to vote, and there is not a moratorium on registering to vote within the month before the primary, as there is in some other states. This means that the vote is more accessible to people besides Democrats who feel strongly about a particular issue like civil liberties.

"You get swing voters, the Perot-type people, [who aren't necessarily Democrats but] think Ashcroft is going too far," Johnson-Weinberger said. "These people don't figure in primaries much except in states like New Hampshire."

However Kucinich, one of the stronger candidates on civil liberties, wasn't even in the top four in the New Hampshire primary while Kerry, who voted for the PATRIOT Act, won. Does this mean that civil liberties will be a non-issue in the general election, despite the fact that the Bush adminstration has done more to erode civil liberties than any President in at least fifty years?

Come the general election, most agree that the Bush administration will continue their tactic of using fear to motivate the public and gain acceptance for more repressive policies. "The Bush administration uses fear very powerfully," said Swanson. "It was used very effectively to promote the war in Iraq."

The Democratic candidate will have to counter this tactic by casting the defense of civil liberties as patriotic and essential to maintaining our "freedom," a task which shouldn't be too hard to do given that civil liberties, -- as opposed to Bush's military might and authoritarian domestic policies -- really are what freedom in this country is all about.

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at karilyde@aol.com.

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