Get Off The Throne And Back Behind The Desk, Please

walter-2.jpg Civilizer

The Bush presidency has been historically notable not just for the immediate nature of its ineptitude, but also for its potential, depending on how the next decade or so goes, to have done long-lasting, truly structural damage to our country and constitution.  The administration’s signature blend of domestic bullying and maladroit foreign policy has produced a laundry list of sins, follies, and crimes that not only act as a millstone around the national neck today, but may well prove to weaken the very foundations that led to the American Century – our military, our economy, our educational system, our workforce, and our environment.  Most of the transgressions that populate the list are well-known to us all, so I’m not going to dwell on them here…after all, do you really need to be told that Bush and Cheney have enacted, or attempted to enact, myopic regulatory changes to natural resource and land management policy for the benefit of large energy conglomerates?  Of course not – the Bush administration has produced so many sensational, banner-headline scandals that anybody who pays attention to the news can name several with little difficulty.  What’s interesting, though, is that the broad context of these scandals is rarely elucidated, at least, not thoroughly.

The unifying theme of many of the Bush administration’s machinations has been power consolidation.  The detainee issue, the torture issue, the warrantless wiretapping issue, the U.S. attorney scandal, they have all angered those involved and those who observe because they amount to a flagrant short-circuiting of the American constitutional process.  The question of how to investigate, interrogate, and try suspected terrorists will be one of the most important ones to face the United States, both from a military and judicial standpoint, for the duration of the War on Terror.  The spectrum of opinion on the matter ought to be aired in the media, in Congress, and in the courts.  At the risk of being naively reductionist, what is democracy but debating and then voting? 

Rather than listen to the country, the Bush White House instead acted unilaterally, of course.  No, suspected terrorists would not be given attorneys.  No, suspected terrorists would not be tried in an American court, or any other court.  Yes, if we think a suspected terrorist has tactically useful information, we can torture him or ship him to a country that will torture him.  And finally, no, we aren’t interested in hearing your opinion on the matter.  (And just so you don’t think I’ve gone soft on the ululating suicide-monkeys, I didn’t exactly cry a bucket of tears when I heard that we were hot-wiring terrorists’ genitals to car batteries, but it did occur to me that without a trial, we could be hot-wiring innocent genitals so maybe due process ought to have its day even for the scum of the earth.)  

No matter your opinion of W’s power grab, the fact remains that he has made it, and it has changed the landscape of government.  Through presidential findings, classified security memos, and hasty executive orders, George Bush has expanded the role of the presidency dramatically, marginalized Congress, and run an end-around the Supreme Court.  Of the hundreds or thousands of academic theses that will undoubtedly be written in poli-sci classrooms across the country in the coming years, the central focus will most likely be the “unitary executive” or, if you’re from the East Coast and/or own a hacky-sack, the “imperial presidency.”

What will be interesting during the coming years is what future presidents do with this inflated authority.  I liken these new presidential powers to stolen goods left in a house.  What if you bought that house, and when you walked in you found a big plasma television, leather sectional, some nice art on the walls, and a hot tub.  The realtor says “All this stuff was stolen and just left here – you can turn it over to the police, or you can keep it.”  Would you see that everything was returned to its rightful owner?  Or would you keep it?  It’s a question that cuts right to the issue of your character, your sense of right and wrong, and your self-control.

Only an honest person, an individual with a healthy sense of fair play, sees that those things are returned.  In the case of executive power, an incoming president clearly, firmly, and publicly returns certain elements of wartime authority, certain issues of civil liberties, and other matters involving the American character to the legislative and judiciary branches so they can be given a full and fair public hearing. 

So it concerns me that, given the gravity of the situation, we need an honest person with a healthy sense of fair play to assume the presidency, and we’re going to elect a career politician.  When I say the words “honest,” or “sense of right and wrong,” do the names “Rudy Giuliani” or “Hillary Clinton” leap to mind?  Personally, when I hear those names, I think “nutjob” and “ladder-climbing opportunist.”  Britain’s Guardian newspaper recently did an interview with Clinton where they put the question to her: will you give up some of these powers?  Some lowlights:

  • “Well, I think it is clear that the power grab undertaken by the Bush-Cheney administration has gone much further than any other president and has been sustained for longer.  Other presidents like Lincoln have had to take on extraordinary powers but would later go to the Congress for either ratification or rejection.”  Yep!  So, would you give up those extraordinary powers? 
  • “There were a lot of actions which they took that were clearly beyond any power the Congress would have granted or that in my view that was inherent in the constitution. There were other actions they’ve taken which could have obtained congressional authorisation but they deliberately chose not to pursue it as a matter of principle.”  Right on, so, again…you’d undo all that, right?
  • “I mean that has to be part of the review that I undertake when I get to the White House, and I intend to do that.”

You have to review it?  You “intend to” review it?  Boy, there’s a comfortingly clear stance.  This is, to my knowledge, the only time a major media outlet has explicitly asked a candidate about this issue, and Hillary’s response was disconcerting in its prevarication.  Furthermore, I’m not sure who among the major candidates would give a different one.  I hope that as the race takes shape, the media does its job and presses the candidates on this issue, and doesn’t let them duck it by citing “national security.” And I hope the electorate rewards the candidate with the most respect for our constitutional system of checks and balances. It would be truly depressing if the effective end of a free republic was portended in “Revenge of the Sith.”

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