Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hey Goose, What About The Gander?

I know I'm not the first to make this point (in fact, I've even made this point before), and I surely won't be the last, but it is a point worth making and repeating, nonetheless. And the beauty of it is, it's strength is based (in part) on the forces of partisanship, team loyalty and closely held myths and stereotypes about the other side of the political spectrum that can so infect and undermine productive political discourse in so many other settings. Allow me to elaborate.

I think it's safe to say that most Democrats and left of center types - and even some honest conservatives - are deeply troubled by the Bush administration's unprecedented (and perhaps more worrisome, precedent setting) consolidation of power - the ushering in of the era of the "unitary executive" with all its related trappings.

Over the past five years, there has been a pretty significant re-casting of roles and a revision of political norms, institutions and practices which has impacted such areas as separation of powers, checks and balances, congressional oversight and the potency of Constitutional protections derived from the Bill of Rights.

In particular, there have been legal arguments - with actual policies to match - that have blazed trails in the areas of indefinite detention of US citizens without trial, the legalization/authorization of torture, the implementation of warrantless surveillance in contravention of enacted statutes, undue influence over the intelligence community exerted by - and further consolidation of the intelligence community under - the executive branch, hypersecrecy in government and the selective use of classified information - from the retroactive "classifying" of already released information and overuse of the "classified" label, to release of sensitive classified information for political gain or the targeting of political rivals. To name but a few. I'm sure I've left some out.

Not to mention related issues like using uniformed military for partisan purposes, using canned questions - and ideologically screened audiences - at public appearances, using taxpayer money to hire journalists/pundits to propagandize about partisan policies and the pursuit of a strategy aimed at the procedural marginalization of the opposition in the various legislative bodies. Further, at least as important as his position on Roe v. Wade, the relevant controversy surrounding Supreme Court appointee Samuel Alito was his open embrace of legal theories associated with the unitary executive.

There is one common thread permeating all these moves to re-shape America's federal government: the amazing lack of oversight or action by Congress, and the near complete abdication of responsibility by the Senate and House of Representatives. Party allegiances have been put ahead of the duty to maintain the structural integrity of our federal government time and again - most recently here.

The most frequent justifications for this realignment in American political life are the dual, and synergistic, claims that the post-9/11 world demands paradigmatic shifts in our modalities coupled with the invocation of the President's near-limitless war powers derived from the "war on terror" - a "war" that will last centuries, millennia or in perpetuity.

Opposite the complaining and concerned Democrats, Republicans and other Bush supporters have been (understandably) reluctant to criticize their team. They defend the Bush administration's policies reflexively - as is the nature of partisanship. I would expect much the same from Democrats if the shoe were on the other foot, unfortunately (myself included in all too many contexts, I'm loathe to acknowledge - though I like to think that I have the ability to step outside of this oppositional framework on important issues).

The truth is, many if not most, Republicans don't trust the Democrats on a wide range of issues - and as a matter of course. A criticism from Democrats on Issue X is immediately suspect based on the "bias" of the messenger, and frequently dismissed outright on account of that perceived "bias" without touching on the merits of the actual criticism. In the alternative, counterarguments associated with the merits of the critique are assembled, a posteriori, to meet the desired conclusion which was already established a priori due to the underlying partisan dynamic. Again, the same is true in reverse: Democrats aren't particularly receptive to critiques from Republicans and frequently react with similar cognitive countermeasures.

But today I wanted to frame this debate in a way that doesn't pit one side against the other - in a way that doesn't illicit the knee-jerk opposition I describe above. You can't have a tug of war if one side let's go of the rope. So I will (for a moment) let go of the rope completely. In fact, I will go help the other side pull a bit.

In that vein, I want to ask my fellow Americans that find themselves backing the Bush administration on the aforementioned issues related to the "unitary executive," what if everything you say and think about Democrats is true? What if your wildest imaginations don't even begin to tell the full tale of Democratic treachery, incompetence, fecklessness, deviousness, treasonous behavior and limitless hunger for power? What if Ann Coulter is, in reality, overly cautious and unduly respectful toward liberals?

Today, I want you to imagine that every partisan bone in your body, everything that tells you to support Republicans and revile Democrats is informed by pure and unadulterated truth. The Democrats should never again be trusted with the reins of power.

Problem is, they might just be. And soon. Bush's approval ratings are frighteningly low by any measure, and there is a real possibility that the great political pendulum could be swinging in the other direction. One or both houses of Congress could fall under Democratic control within a couple of election cycles (or more), and we could be looking at a Democratic administration in 2008. Maybe even, get ready for this blasphemy: President Hillary Clinton.

Now ask yourself this: if and when the Democrats regain control of the political apparatus of this country, do you want them to enjoy the same unfettered access to power that the Bush administration has been busy establishing as the new norm for the Executive branch? Will you be comfortable with domestic, warrantless surveillance conducted by the Hillary administration? Indefinite detentions? Federally subsidized propaganda? Hypersecrecy? Limitless war powers permitting any number of Constitutional overrides in perpetuity? Which one of those policies would be unsettling to you? Would you still be as enthusiastic a defender? Would John Yoo still be making so much sense?

Would you really trust the Democrats, the freakin' Democrats, with a unitary executive of the kind the Bush administration is creating? Does that make you nervous at all?

Just asking.

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