Thursday, November 15, 2007

Death to Imperialism

Sidney Blumenthal is leaving to go work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This isn’t a surprise; he worked for Bill Clinton in the White House. His last column for Salon is up today and, for what it’s worth, he shares a few thoughts on what’s happened since he left the White House, how the Republicans have brought back the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon, what it will take to bring back Constitutional government to the country, and a cautionary note to the Democrats.

In ways that Nixon did not achieve, Bush has reduced the entire presidency and its functions to the commander in chief in wartime. And in order to sustain this role he has projected a never-ending war against a distant, faceless foe, ubiquitous and lethal. Fear and panic became the chief motifs substituting for democratic persuasion to engineer the consent of the governed, as Jack Goldsmith, Bush’s former director of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, explains in “The Terror Presidency.” He writes, “Why did the administration so often assert presidential power in ways that seemed unnecessary and politically self-defeating? The answer, I believe, is that the administration’s conception of presidential power had a kind of theological significance that often trumped political consequences.”

The imperial president must by definition be an infallible leader. Only he can determine what is a mistake because he is infallible. Stephen Bradbury, the acting director of OLC in the Justice Department who wrote secret memos justifying the torture policy in 2005, defined this Bush doctrine in congressional testimony in 2006: “The president is always right.” Placing his statement in context, Bradbury explained that he was referring to “the war paradigm,” the neoconservative idea of the Bush presidency, “the law of war,” wherein the president is a law unto himself. This notion seems medieval, but it is central to the new radical Republican notion of the presidency. When Bradbury uttered his extraordinary remark, he did not think he was saying anything unusual. His statement, after all, was only a corollary of Nixon’s infamous one made in his post-resignation interview with David Frost, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Bush exceeds Nixon in his claim of divine inspiration from the Higher Father.


I believe that the reason the Republicans have promoted the talking point that Hillary is unelectable is that they fear that more than any other candidate she can create a majority coalition, win and govern. They fear more than loss in one election; they fear the end of the Republican era beginning with Nixon. They know that she has the knowledge, skill and ability to govern. They know that she has already taken everything they can throw against her and is still standing.

Just as the disintegration of the Democrats brought about the rise of the Republicans, the collapse of the Republicans has created an opening for the Democrats. But the Democrats have been victims of their own false euphoria, sanctimony and illusions before. Now, only the Democrats can revive the Republicans. Nixon, Reagan and Bush were all beneficiaries of Democratic disarray and strategic incompetence. The Democrats have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory before and it can happen again, even under these circumstances, when history is turning the Democrats’ way.

The surest way for the Democrats to lose is to let the Republicans set the agenda. The GOP has a great talent for taking the truly trivial and making it The Most Important Thing in the World while brushing aside something that really does represent a threat to our democracy. For example, there will be screaming headlines over Hillary Clinton’s change of position on New York drivers licenses for illegal aliens. It was a bonehead move on her part to fumble the question in the first place, and since Gov. Spitzer has bailed out on the idea, she has followed suit and is now saying she’s against it. The punditocracy will waste their time and ours debating whether or not this was a fatal error and so on and so forth. Meanwhile the Senate Judiciary Committee is about to vote out the FISA bill that gives the telecom companies immunity for collaborating with the government on illegal wiretapping. That’s on the back pages, but in the overall scheme of things, do we even have to ask which is more important? But the GOP has mastered the fine art of the three-card monte distraction — “Oh, look at the kitty!” — and made all things trivial equal with the things that really matter: the Bush administration has suspended habeas corpus, but John Edwards spends money on hair cuts. Four thousand soldiers have died in Iraq, but Barack Obama doesn’t wear a flag lapel pin. It’s hard to focus on the things that really matter in this election when they are the last thing the Republicans want to talk about because they know how much they’ve truly screwed things up.

It’s interesting that in the last sixty years, every time we’ve been subjected to blatant attempts to increase the power and scope of the executive branch — to create the imperial presidency — it has been at the hands of the Republicans. For a party whose mantra used to be “more freedoms, less government,” this is, to say the least, an ironic turn of events. Perhaps what they meant was more freedom for the president to do whatever he wanted, and less government in the hands of the other branches such as the Congress and the courts.