Sunday, June 29, 2008

Anti-Democratic Republicans: The Cheney Strand

The danger to democratic norms posed by the Republican Party in general and the Bush Administration in particular is not limited to the Rovian strand. Since the September 11 attack, Dick Cheney and his allies, such as David Addington and John Yoo, have been pushing another strand, the view, in effect, that the President is an elective dictator who cannot be bound by any treaty or statute in matters of national security. It was the Cheney faction that rigged the evidence to support the invasion of Iraq, the Cheney-Addington-Yoo wing that justified GTMO, indefinite detention, torture, warrantless surveillance, etc., and this wing that argues that statutes and treaties are unconstitutional to the extent that they limit the President's power.

Although the Bush Administration is strongly influence by both the Rove and Cheney strands, they are not the same. Where the Rovian wing is frankly partisan and focused on domestic politics, the Cheney wing sees partisan politics and, indeed, domestic policy altogether, as a trivial business best left to Congress while the President focuses on the important matter of national defense. To Cheneyites, war, indefinite detention, warrantless wiretaps and torture are matters of high principal, necessary for our protection. To Rovians, they are clever political ploys to attack an opponent's patriotism. Rovians are opportunists who do not believe in anything. Cheneyites are true believers, too rigid to be swayed by anything. Rovians would make the United States Mexico and the Republican Party the PRI. Cheneyites would preserve democracy in domestic policy, but expand a non-partisan national security dictatorship to include most decisions of any importance.

But the two strands can easily intersect, and Dick Cheney, of all people, should know it. Cheney, after all, served in the Nixon White House and made it his goal to restore executive power to its pre-Watergate status. What he seems to ignore is that pre-Watergate executive power led to, well, Watergate, as well as countless other abuses by Presidents of both parties. Despite the theory of a noble and lofty President, acting only to protect the nation from its enemies, real life Presidents, when given the sort of vast an unaccountable powers that the Cheneyites envision, tend to abuse them for personal or partisan gain. And Presidents face the constant temptation to equate their own political fortunes with the nation's. Rovians slander their political opponents as traitors; Cheneyites are in danger of actually believing it.

That is what happened with Watergate. The United States was at war. McGovern was running on an anti-war platform. To some of Nixon's more hard core supporters like G. Gordon Liddy, McGovern was working for a US defeat and therefore committing treason. Support for a Nixon victory came to be seen as an urgent matter of national security. Such fears were grossly exaggerated; Nixon won the election by an unprecedented landslide. Fast forward to the present. Once again the United States is fighting an unpopular war. Once again a Democratic candidate favors withdrawal and opposes numerous policies the Cheney-Addington-Yoo wing see as essential to our national security. And, unlike McGovern, Barrack Obama stands a good chance of winning. How tempting must it be, then, for the Administration to treat a McCain win as a matter of national security and stoop to who-knows-what to bring that about.

But the dangers posed by the theory of an elective dictator will not end with the election of a new President. The power the Bush Administration has amassed for the executive will not end when Bush's successor is sworn in, and Congress is showing no disposition to reign in an out-of-control executive. The power is there. Until it is taken back, every President, regardless of political party, will be tempted by it.

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