Sunday, December 28, 2008

Nixonism and Cheneyism

Joe Conason draws and unusually clear line of descent from Richard Nixon's theory of government, in which the President is above the law, to Dick Cheney's "Unitary Executive" theory of the President as a plebiscitary dictator in Nixon Admitted What Cheney Won't New York Observer 12/23/08:

The founding document that every federal official swears to uphold is replete with limitations on the executive power. George Washington warned against those who would seek to expand that power by usurpation, and we have seen that come to pass. Among the most urgent tasks of the new president - as he and his vice president seem to realize - will be repairing the damage done to law and justice by Nixon's unrepentant heirs.
Digby, Glenn Greenwald, and numerous others have been pointing out that there has been a series of criminal actions by a series of Republican Presidents - Nixon with the "Watergate" set of crimes, Reagan with Iran-Contra, now Dick Cheney and George Bush with essentially their entire Predator State administration. A number of officials went to jail over Watergate. But Jerry Ford, whose chiefs of staff as President were first Rummy and then Cheney, pardoned Nixon himself, effectively putting his action above the law.

Over time, the Democrats increasingly bought in to this approach. They didn't attempt to impeach Reagan. And eventually many of the key players in Iran-Contra not only escaped legal responsibility. But many of them became major players in the Cheney-Bush administration, with scarcely a peep from the Democrats.


The "October Surprise" case, in which Gary Sick and Robert Perry have laid out compelling circumstantial evidence, that the Reagan campaign in 1980 carried on secret and illegal dealings with the Iran revolutionary government to delay release of the American hostages, was essentially ignored. The cursory Congressional investigation was little more than a farce, ending with that professional "bipartisan" Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton declaring that there's nothing to see here, everyone move on.

Last week's news about a newly-released tape of Lyndon Johnson talking about "treason" on the part of the Nixon campaign in stalling the Vietnam Peace Talks in 1968 was greeted by the national press and the political establishment with a collective yawn, to the extent that they noticed it at all. Those dealings have long been well-established historically. But fresh confirming information should have generated more than passing interest.

Now the Beltway Village, including many Democrats who surely know better, are willing to let the massive lawbreaking of Cheney, Bush and other senior officials go with no criminal investigations or prosecutions, except for lower-level perpetrators who (though deserving punishments) are made scapegoats for high-level criminal acts like the creation and implementation of the torture policy.

The Democrats' fecklessness over the years on such major Republican crimes, crimes which go to the heart of the Constitutional system, has become an essential part of the process. And the massive dysfunction of the Establishment press, which is apparently entering a new phase of decadence with their obsession over the non-scandal of Obama's non-involvement in the Blagojevich corruption allegations, has been an immense aid to Cheney-style official lawbreaking.

I'm guessing that one of Cheney's reasons for so openly bragging about the criminal actions like the torture policy that they've gotten away with is to dare the Democrats to put up or shut up on those acts. This current administration established in practice how the American Constitutional system on a national basis can be subverted into a pseudo-democracy not unlike that practiced by the Deep South from roughly 1875-1965.

With an authoritarian Republican Party willing to facilitate virtually any action by a Republican President or obstruct any action by a Democratic President, with a federal judiciary dominated by Republicans, with a Justice Department run by cronies willing to act like Mob lawyers, with a demonic Foreign Enemy to keep the public afraid, with cooked intelligence provided by cowed intelligence services, with massive surveillance power and with the ultimate dictatorial tool of torture, they were able to get away with running a government acting in many essential respects outside the law and the Constitutional for eight years.

The only thing lacking in the Cheney scheme is a subsequent Democratic administration and Democratic-controlled Congress that lets those criminal activities go unpunished. Censuring them or publicizing them isn't nearly enough. Cheney is out there bragging already about what they got away with.

If the Democrats go along with that scheme, the next stage of Cheneyism is easy to picture. When the next Republican President gets elected - and there will be one, eventually, unless the Republican Party as it exists just falls apart - they can expand on what Cheney has already shown can work. They can intensify voter suppression and real voter fraud, both hiding behind the need to fight phony "voter fraud" by voter-registration groups like ACORN. They can make more systematic use of the unlimited surveillance powers Cheney and Bush claimed for themselves. They can expand the use of arbitrary arrest, torture and prolonged detention of American citizens as "unlawful combatants" that they practiced in the Padilla case.

The segregated Deep South states never formally abolished Constitutional government. They had tried that during the Civil War and it didn't work out so well. But they were able to go for seven decades without practicing Constitutional government in a substantive sense. It had the legal form of democracy, but much of the essential content was gutted.

That comparison shouldn't be pushed too far, though. The segregated states were always constrained by some limits imposed by the federal government. But those experiences, combined with similar lessons from some of the legendarily corrupt city political machines and state-of-the-art surveillance techniques could establish something very similar on a national scale.

As we've seen in the Dan Siegelman and other cases, Cheneyized Republicans won't hesitate to use the justice system in criminal ways to push partisan prosecutions. The Democrats have to be willing to use the justice system to prosecute real crimes that go to the heart of democratic government.

And the surprising bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report assigning responsibility for the torture policy to senior administration officials - a report virtually ignored by the Lapdog Press, slavering over Obama's non-scandal with Blagojevich - gives some glimmer of hope that impartial justice hasn't yet become entirely a partisan cause defended only by Democrats.

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