Carl Levin – A Retrospective

It’s been quite a long time since I made good on my promise to confront the Senior Senator from Michigan with homemade signs and a heartfelt plea. It was perhaps the first time I’ve met with someone of such power, and certainly the first time I did so alone.

Mr. Levin met with a bunch of people – probably adminstrators and suchlike – in a room on the third floor of the Shapiro Campus Center. A room, mind you, with a fully glass wall facing into the hallway. I had the bright idea of writing “Sen. Levin please protect the constitution” and “stop the FISA sellout” and so on on huge pieces of paper (procured from the student union office) and plastering them right against that glass wall, so that he could read them.

Let be clear on how bootleg the whole arrangement was. Once I got his attention, I pulled out a marker and wrote another message on the backs of one of those earlier messages and posted *that* on the glass wall. No real planning, no real coordination.

Well, it turns out that due to lighting and so on he couldn’t actually *read* anything I was saying but I guess I captured his attention long enough to be invited inside to state my case.

So here I am, with little sleep and preparedness and so on, trying to argue with a US Senator to get him to vote a certain way on a pretty important bill. I don’t remember the whole conversation (it was pretty brief and I was probably incoherent with terror) but I do remember one exchange that went something like this:

Carl Levin: You really feel deeply about this issue?

Me: Yes I do, and several of my friends feel the same way. We hope that you’ll not only vote against this bill but also join Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold’s filibuster against it. We’re tired of spineless Democrats in Congress.
Carl Levin: Spineless? Do you really think we’re spineless? Like on what?
(Flabberghasted and at a loss for what do say) Well there’s the War. SCHIP. Everything really.
Carl Levin: Hm.. Well in any case I doubt it’ll come to a filibuster
Me: Um… yes it will.
Carl Levin: Well thank you very much young lad out you go.

And that was that. Turns out that Carl Levin not only voted the right way on the FISA bill of February but also on the bill of July (which eventually did get passed into law). So that’s hopeful.

So what can we learn from this encounter?

1. Rather than being annoyed at me, the rude student who basically disrupted his meeting, the Senator seemed pretty interested in the unvarnished opinion of a lowly Brandeis student. This jives with what I’ve learned talking to people at the Capitol. Legislators really do care about the mail they get. They might get weekly meetings with staff asking about the top 10 issues that constituents phoned or mailed in about. I’m sure Rivka could expand on this more (she interned for Ted Kennedy) but constituent mail is vitally important, even if the legislators mind is already set. Either it provides the political cover so that they can vote their conscience or it might deter them from pulling a similar move again.

2. As Chris Hayes, (Washington Editor for The Nation magazine) put it, “Democrats want to pass legislation. It’s in their DNA. They want to go home and tell their constituents that they passed a government program to solve whatever problems need fixing.” We saw this impulse both in the FISA spectacle and in funding the war. Democrats in general were so eager to pass a bill, any bill, to amend the FISA process / deal with the war that they didn’t have much leverage with the Republicans. Why not, after all, refuse to pass any FISA bill at all? That would certainly keep our cilvil liberties and our security intact. But no! Democrats had to pass a bill, Republicans could credibly threaten to leave the table if they didn’t get what they wanted, and the Dems couldn’t.

3. Senators are people too. Carl Levin looks like a grandfatherly, cuddly sort of man. In fact, it’s rather uncanny, the way he looks like the father of my childhood friend, Joey Polsky. Lobbying, etc, isn’t that scary after all.

4. Be Prepared! It would have better if I had real signs, perhaps more people around with me, of course. But imagine how much more powerful my statement would have been if I were able to rattle off 7 or 8 examples of Democrats’ Capitulation in Congress, rather than the obvious two. Remember that the students at Knox College were able to absolutely pwn John Ashcroft and his slippery “answers” to their questions by having the text of the Geneva Convention and the judgement of the Tokyo War Tribunal at hand. Always have supporting facts and documents physically at hand, if not memorized.

So that’s my memory, preserved for posterity. I think we can all learn from both my mistakes and my successes.