THE LIBERTARIAN WEST. I see I've earned a mention in this David Sirota blog item/blast e-mail and want to respond because he actually makes a very good point about the politics of the Patriot Act. When I said that Chuck Schumer "knows what he's doing," I meant that listening to his "marginals" and following their lead at their pace on certain controversial issues is the right way to go, because it respects that senators from red states know their own local environment better than he does. It would be totally inappropriate for a senator from New York to act as if there were not significant differences in the political environment around the country, or to take them lightly.

That said, Sirota is quite right that there is an opportunity in the western and western mountain states which have a strong tradition of rugged individualism and libertarian suspiciousness -- as I noted in this February item about reactions to the NSA wiretapping -- to take a more aggressive stance against the Patriot Act. Sirota has a good round-up of some of what's been happening on the ground:

For instance, in Montana - a state that borders the North Dakota that Schumer says he's really worried about - the state legislature near-unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Patriot Act. The same thing happened in the red states of Colorado and Alaska. And it was Idaho Congressman Butch Otter who led the opposition to the Act in the House. In North Dakota - again, the state that Schumer says he really understands - the state has been a battleground for populist outrage at the very kinds of privacy infringements the Patriot Act touches on. For instance, the archconservative Eagle Forum notes that 72% of voters voted in a referendum to overturn a state law that relaxed privacy protections.

Montana, where Sirota lives, is a success story of a local Democratic Party that rebuilt and recruited and organized and has seen major dividends from its work at the electoral level. But a lot of other states aren't there yet, and it will take some time for them to get there and provide Democratic candidates with the kind of grassroots energy that Democrats in Montana can rely on. North Dakota, no matter what its voters say they think in surveys, is a place where the local Democratic Party simply does not yet have the same kind of energetic, progressive grassroots organizing to bolster it.

If Sirota is angry that the views of people in Montana and North Dakota are not being properly represented in Washington, the people to go after are the red state senators whose populist citizens have voted at the local level to oppose the Patriot Act -- and not Schumer. If Sirota thinks Kent Conrad is not doing a good job of representing the people of North Dakota because he supported the Patriot Act and its extension, he should say so. Or if he thinks that Democrats John Morrison or Jon Tester won't be taking principled stands on the issues that matter to Montanans in the race to unseat Conrad Burns, who already trails them in the polls, he should go after them. But Schumer's job is to listen to them, and not make their races harder if he can help it. If they won't take the lead on opposing the Patriot Act or other issues in ways that Sirota respects, that's on them, not Schumer.

UPDATE. Wow. Sirota takes the bait and pretty much accuses Kent Conrad, John Morrison, and Jon Tester of "standing for nothing." Harsh. More importantly, I think Sirota and I have different visions of how political change happens. I think politicians are lagging indicators, as I explained in the long post "Of momentum and movements" in January, and that political change comes from the grassroots and the ground up. He thinks it comes from the top down and that leaders create followers. There's truth in both analyses, I'd wager -- and I think we can both agee that right now Democrats need about as much of both as they can find.

--Garance Franke-Ruta