On Monday it was reported that Barack Obama would nominate Leon Panetta to be the next CIA director, and there was an immediate, sharp reaction from some fellow Democrats. The LA Times quoted incoming head of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein saying "I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director. My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time", while a senior aide to Jay Rockefeller said the Senator "thinks very highly of Panetta. But he's puzzled by the selection. He has concerns because he has always believed that the director of CIA needs to be someone with significant operational intelligence experience and someone outside the political realm."
There has since been some inside baseball - literally describing it as a "brush-back pitch" - about why it happened. At first blush Feinstein's snippy reaction brings to mind Glenn Greenwald's memorable formulation about politicians "acting far more out of resentment over the procedural treatment to which they [are] subjected...than out of any principled objection." Her first reaction to it had to do with her not having been informed, not on his fitness for the position (and heaven knows members of that club have majestic sensibilities that they expect to be catered to). Some groveling ensued, and everyone was happy. But there may be more to it. It also emerged that some key (via) lower level figures would stay in the system. Was that an unspoken assurance of maintaining the status quo?
I have written before about the compromised nature of this generation of leaders, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that much of the Democratic leadership during the Bush years is irretrievably tainted. In addition to Feinstein and Rockefeller, Jane Hamsher includes Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Jane Harmon; Matt Stoller mentions Hillary Clinton's AUMF vote as significantly damaging her in the caucus states. The fact is, almost all major Democrats during the current presidency had some opportunity to at least make some noise and try to slow the momentum towards lawlessness, but chose to not push back.
(Obama famously opposed the AUMF, but remember he did not have to vote on it. Given his consensus-building style he almost certainly wouldn't have been a lonely holdout had he been in Congress at the time. Such are the vagaries of life. He was able to take the position popular with his base at no political cost and it ended up being to his great benefit. And sometimes another team's star player suffers a season ending injury the day before playing yours. You deal with circumstances as you find them and not as they ought to be.)
Now that the president is about to leave town for good it sets up a revealing dynamic. It is probably safe to say a lot of Democratic leaders will miss him terribly because he was such an effective foil. His fearmongering and inflexible approach gave them room to claim helplessness in the face of insurmountable opposition. Whatever their motivation - whether they truly opposed the president but decided if you can't beat 'em join 'em, or if they just wanted cover for what they wanted to do anyway - the end result was the same. They decided to get read in to the programs and not object, stuff their pockets with telecom money, blandly endorse an Attorney General who clearly signaled his support of torture, and generally go along with the program.
Now that their favorite excuse for inaction is about to leave there seems to be some uneasiness descending. Speculation is swirling not just about what Panetta's nomination foreshadows; other nominees to sensitive positions are being chewed over as well. What may be shaping up is a battle not between parties but interests. The Washington leadership of both parties has a strong incentive to prevent any kind of shaking up. Leaks, revelations, investigations and lawsuits concerning this era can only end up badly for them. Getting everyone off the subject is by far the best solution for them. But the president-elect ran on a platform of change, and the Incredible Shrinking GOP is desperate for any glimmer of hope to turn around its fortunes. While I don't doubt the potential for Obama to move to a more establishment-friendly position or D.C. Republicans' ability to continue to act with no sense of self-preservation, it is possible that the two might - even inadvertently - put some powerful forces into play. Expect the likely targets to resist mightily.