Politics & Government

‘Mind-bending’ reversal now has Dems defending FBI, Bush

Democrats have found themselves racing to defend the FBI over the last month, proclaiming fury that a sharply critical Republican memo would undermine public faith in an essential American institution.

Politics can indeed make strange bedfellows, especially in the Age of Trump.

Since the president took office, Democrats have become the unexpected allies of institutions and individuals who recently would have been considered anathema to everything the left — as self-described defenders of civil rights — represents. It’s not just the FBI.

Democrats have become defenders of the CIA and other intelligence and security agencies, and even of former President George W. Bush —the same Bush many Democrats would not long ago have rated among the country’s worst-ever presidents.

The change in attitude is at least partially driven by an unbridled animus toward Trump and a desire to take whatever position opposes his. Republicans engaged similarly during President Barack Obama’s administration, with the conservative base despising almost everything the Democratic leader touched.

But to some progressives, Democrats’ new affinity for the FBI, CIA and Bush is a worrying development, one they say could compromise the party’s long-term vision, and certainly one that overlooks the past. This, those progressives say, is a party that historically has had a rocky relationship with the bureau, which infamously wiretapped the phones of Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI’s headquarters in Washington still bears the name of its founder who oversaw the wiretapping, J. Edgar Hoover.

"The politics is a problem here," said Faiz Shakir, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Because at the moment, you have an administration who is attacking law enforcement, and across the board it raises the possibility of out-flanking to him the right."

"Too many Democrats are ready to seize that, because it’s a political opportunity," Shakir said.

Rep. Paul Ryan and Rep. Adam Schiff talked to reporters after Republican House members voted to release a memo containing classified information about the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.

Indeed, support among rank-and-file Democrats for the FBI and CIA has grown since the transition from Obama to Trump. A Gallup poll released last month showed 69 percent of them thought the FBI was doing a "good" or "excellent" job in 2017, a nine-point jump from 2014. Approval of the CIA, which took a rhetorical battering from Trump over its finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to benefit the Republican, jumped 10 points to 60 percent.

The polling about-face for Bush is even more dramatic. A CNN survey released in January found that a slight majority, or 54 percent, of Democrats have a favorable view toward the former president, up a whopping 43 points from 11 percent recorded a decade ago.

Democrats considered Bush a disaster while in office, blaming him both for a global financial meltdown and a disastrous war in Iraq built on false intelligence that Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction.

But with Trump in office, Democrats’ memory of the Bush presidency has transformed. Even progressive leaders say the Bush White House seems downright level-headed compared with Trump’s administration.

"It’s mind-bending to find oneself reminiscing about a war-mongering Republican president who at least took the time to rhetorically assert that the U.S. wasn’t at war with Islam," said Ben Wikler, Washington director for the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org.

If the reason for the shift on the left toward support for the FBI and CIA is clear, the implications are not.

For decades, leaders on the left have clashed with the FBI in particular. The bureau gathered intelligence on Americans suspected of being anarchists, leftists and Communists, and in the 1950s and 1960s, anti-war protesters and civil right leaders were targeted too. Hoover also targeted gay men working in federal government as well, seeing homosexuality as linked to communism.

Such tension and perceived hostility is hardly confined to American history. In the last 20 years, the FBI as well as local law enforcement agencies have struggled to convince the African-American and Muslim-American communities that black and brown men are fairly treated by these agencies. And within the last six months, the FBI counterterrorism division’s identification of “black identity extremists” as a threat – even as white supremacists reemerge to stage torch-lit marches — has been greeted as another reminder of racism inside the bureau.

"If you’re trying to build a coalition, and especially a coalition from communities of color, I don’t think it is appreciated that a lot of those communities have a very different experience with not only the FBI, but their police departments," Shakir said.

Certainly, some Democrats do not see the party’s current defense of these agencies as a compromise of its values as civil-rights protectors and defenders of Americans of color. The point, they argue, is that the party supports the rule of law, which in this case, means fighting a Republican-led effort they see as undermining the integrity of the FBI in particular.

"I don’t see a contradiction in positions here," said Matthew Miller, a veteran Democratic strategist and former spokesman for the Department of Justice. "It is totally possible, and even admirable, to believe that some law enforcement practices bear scrutiny. And at same time reject the completely bad faith attacks on law enforcement that are designed to do nothing but tear down institutions that protect the president."

"You can still believe that whatever the FBI does right or wrong, it should not be a police force exclusively directed by the president," he added.

But to Shakir, the changing alliances raise deeper questions about the capriciousness of the party’s vision.

"You like FBI Director James Comey right now," Shakir said. "But the second he hates on Hillary, you turn around and bash him."

"It’s just not grounded in a vision of the thing you care deeply about," he added.

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty