A View From The Handbasket

Thursday, January 05, 2006
Preserve, protect and defend
Posted by neros_fiddle at 1:46 PM
While on holiday break, one of my friends said to me, "I've been reading your blog, and it sounds like you're ready to take up a position in the book depository." (And he's no fan of Bush.) While I hasten to point out to any friendly Secret Service agents reading this that I have no desire to physically harm the President (he seems to be doing a pretty good job on his own, what with his frequent and unfortunate encounters with bikes, brush, pretzels, and Segways), it's an interesting point. Why waste so much time and so many bytes on this?

President Bush is such a callow doofus that it's easy to miss the fact that he's merely a distraction. I'm as guilty as anyone of focusing on the harmless idiocies he perpetrates (like bragging to limbless vets about his two-inch brush-cutting scratch) and neglecting the larger picture.

Which, in a nutshell, is this: the Bush Administration is attempting to dismantle the American system of government and replace it with an authoritarian dictatorship with nominal democratic and representative features. Sound crazy? Indulge me.

One of the things pounded into the heads of youngsters in civics class is the notion of checks and balances between the three branches of government. The legislative branch makes law, the executive branch, well, executes law, and the judicial branch interprets law. The administration has a somewhat different worldview, in which the executive branch performs all three functions when the other two branches aren't sufficiently compliant.

The NSA domestic spying operation is only the most obvious example of this. Although the administration floated the absurd claim early on that the warrantless wiretapping was authorized by the "use of force" legislation against al Qaeda, it's clear that Congress never gave its approval to the policy. A very few representatives were informed of the program, and any objections were ignored. And the very nature of the program demonstrates its flouting of judicial oversight, even though the courts have historically been very cooperative with such wiretaps and warrants can be sought retroactively in cases where time is important.

Even more illustrative is the President's reaction to the exposure of his illegal activities. The sole argument the administration makes for the legality of the wiretaps essentially boils down to, "The President can do whatever he wants." Remarkably, he boasted of the program and promised to continue it, thus becoming (as John Dean pointed out) the first sitting President ever to admit to an impeachable offense. He then turned his wrath on the press and whistleblowers, launching an investigation into the "leak" and claiming exposure of the program damaged national security. (Which is utterly ludicrous. How exactly does knowing a phone or e-mail tap doesn't require a warrant help a criminal? They'd assume they were being monitored regardless. And, it must be noted, the administration didn't seem at all concerned when one of its own exposed a CIA operative, which could much more plausibly damage national security.) In other words, they aren't sorry they did it, they're sorry they got caught.

The executive branch unilaterally made the policy, implemented it, and asserted its legality. Who needs checks and balances?

Beyond the NSA scandal, just in the last few days, we find this on the White House site. All these are supposed to be nominated positions approved by Congress. But, as with the recess appointment of John Bolton to be ambassador to the UN, Bush is putting these people on the job with no Congressional oversight. In particular, Julie Myers is considered even by the right to be an unqualified Bush crony in the mold of Michael "heckuva job Brownie" Brown and Harriet Miers.

In addition to the recess appointment, another favorite tool of the administration in its war on the other two branches of government is the "signing statement." Again, just in the last few days, Bush used a "signing statement" to eviscerate the John McCain torture ban amendment Bush had been shamed into signing. In essence, the administration is saying that Bush has the option of ignoring the law he just signed if he wants to. So the law is meaningless, and Congress is powerless against the omnipotence of the executive branch.

But what power do these "signing statements" have against the judicial branch? In the sort of serendipity that has ceased to surprise those paying attention, the original architect of the "signing statement" as legislative override turns out to be none other than Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. While most people worry about stuff like abortion and school prayer, Bush's real agenda with his Supreme Court picks is to safeguard the supremacy of the executive branch. Trying to understand his nominations in any other way is fruitless (it's the only way Harriet Miers and Sam Alito can conceivably appear on the same shortlist).

To understand the motivation for this large scale power grab, you have to look beyond Bush, and to Cheney, Rumsfeld and... Dick Nixon. As Andrew Sullivan writes on the topic of the NSA scandal:

Ignoring the 1978 law, bypassing Congress and wire-tapping American citizens' phones by presidential prerogative were deliberate policy shifts by Bush. Practically speaking, they may have been unnecessary, even pointless. But in the mind and psyches of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, it was payback time.

Call it Nixon's revenge. The combination of Watergate and Vietnam created an environment in which executive power was deemed too dangerous to be trusted. Gerald Ford, for whom Rumsfeld also worked, inherited a crippled presidency. Jimmy Carter brandished his constitutional crutches as a matter of pride. But many conservatives seethed and waited a long time for a chance to reverse what they saw as a dangerous concession to the legislative branch.

It's clear now that 9/11 was seen by Cheney and Rumsfeld not simply as a catastrophe but as an opportunity. Just as Karl Rove exploited the war to divide and defeat the Democrats, so Cheney and Rummy saw a chance to reverse decades of post-Vietnam executive branch erosion.

Ah, yes, 9/11. While the notion of the Bush Administration authoring a seismic shift in the structure of American government was laughable in August 2001, bin Laden's attack gave them carte blanche. Even the NSA scandal has been met with a resounding shrug from the public. "If it keeps me safe, Bush can do whatever he wants." And Cheney knows this as he snarls:

The enemy that struck on 9/11 is weakened and fractured yet it is still lethal and planning to hit us again. Either we are serious about fighting this war or we are not.

They have accomplished much in the aftermath of the attacks: the unrelated overthrow of Iraq, extralegal incarcerations, secret renditions and torture prisons, police-state law enforcement powers and the ability to beat opponents (inside government and out) into submission using the twin clubs of fear and nationalism. (Osama's still out there, though.) As we putatively champion democracy and freedom and rule of law in Iraq, we are clearly losing the war on terror on the homefront.

How long will we allow Bush to use 9/11 as an all-purpose engine with which to power his ever-expanding authority? Did nineteen guys with box cutters really end the relevance of the Constitution? Was the American system, for so long an example to the world, really that fragile? Is ceding absolute dictatorial power to the President the only way to respond to terrorism?

So, yeah, I might sound a bit single-minded about these things. But I think the country's worth saving.

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