Dover Bitch

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Presidential Power

Thinking about how radical the Bush administration has been led me to pick up my dusty copy of Richard E. Neustadt's Presidential Power, one of the best books ever written about the executive branch. I just wanted to see how (my outdated copy of) the book holds up in light of the absurd nature of politics and the media in the early 21st Century. In some respects quite well, in others, not so much.

Interestingly, I found two opposite pages (164-165) that stuck out in my mind for different reasons, and both are bouncing around in my head today.

The first is this:

In 1898, two years before Wilson's apologia, a scholarly observer who may well have influenced him wrote a deeper book than Congressional Government. This was Henry Jones Ford, his book The Rise and Growth of American Politics. Correctly, in my view, he even then put the Presidency at the system's center:

The agency of the presidential office has been such a master force in shaping public policy that to give a detailed account of it would be equivalent to writing the political history of the United States.

The evidence... history affords seems conclusive of the tact that the only power which... define[s] issues in such a way that public opinion can pass upon them is that which emanates from presidential authority. ...

The rise of presidential authority cannot be accounted for by the intention of presidents; it is the product of political conditions which dominate all the departments of government, so that Congress itself shows an unconscious disposition to aggrandize the presidential office. ...

Eighty years later the trend seems the same.

Today, the talking heads are having a field day with the news that Congress has abysmal approval ratings. Lou Dobbs is reporting that fact as I type this.

In the comments to my posts this week at Hullabaloo, it was plenty clear to me that people have lost faith in Congress' ability to rein in this president. The failed Iraq Supplemental opportunity to end the war and the fact that Nancy Pelosi said impeachment is off the table seem to have crushed a great deal of whatever optimism voters had after last November's elections.

No doubt, it is true that the power this president has was ceded to him by the GOP-controlled Congress of the recent past, and has yet to be reclaimed by the thin majority the Democrats "enjoy" presently. Personally, I don't think they have the votes to change that much. The only real weapon they have is to continue investigating this reprehensible administration and hope that something comes out that is so egregious, even John Boehner and Mitch McConnell won't be able to save Bush.

What is incredibly gut-wrenching to so many of us is the previously unimaginable extent to which the GOP Congressional leadership and noise machine has been willing to defend the indefensible. Which brings me to the opposite page (165) of my copy of Presidential Power:

In the aftermath of Watergate, however, we have seen occasions where distinctions between reputation and prestige seemed to dissolve, where Washingtonians seemed quite like members of the general public, reacting to a President in almost the same terms, conducting themselves accordingly.' One such occasion was the "Saturday night massacre" of 1973 when Nixon fired the Watergate Prosecutor, forcing resignations from the Attorney General and his Deputy, all of whom responded on TV. This dramatic sequence-televised and thus "firsthand" in all parts of the country seemed so to contradict the President's contentions as to drain them of credibility, enlarging what we now label a credibility "gap," indeed extending it so wide as to cast doubt on his legitimacy and with it his authority as President. Nixon seemed to be engaging in a cover-up of criminal activity. He seemingly was fighting law enforcement. But he had sworn an oath of office encompassing the "take-care" clause. Hence the cloud on his legitimacy. The "massacre" tripped off impeachment proceedings. It is easy to see why.

What was striking then is that inside the government or near it, in the watchful circle of the Washington community, reactions against Nixon seemed to have so much in common with the popular impressions outside government. Citizens at large were swept into a "firestorm" of protest and suspicion. But so were commentators, congressmen, and civil servants. Apparently the President's behavior planted the same question in all minds. Some Washingtonians, waiting upon evidence, were slower than others to draw ultimate conclusions, and slower by far than some citizens, but he was treated henceforth with reserve throughout the Washington community. Diplomacy aside-there was a crisis in the Middle East-he turned away from governing and focused on the prospect of impeachment. Had Nixon tried to be assertive in domestic spheres, I take it that he would have been ignored or resisted. All over town officials shook themselves free of the White House, released by suspicion from deference, distancing their programs from his person. This occurred within one year of his triumphant re-election, three years before expiration of his term. For Washingtonians it was a most uncharacteristic reaction, especially so early in the term. Calculations about possible impeachment played a part, no doubt. But so did outraged feelings about Nixon's performance. There was precious little rallying around him. Instead, so far as I can judge, there was a widespread sense, even in some quarters of the White House, that he had compromised his right to be there and should go, impeached or not.

It is hard to imagine Washingtonians having less "in common with the popular impressions outside government" today (or during the Clinton impeachment proceedings.) As Digby correctly noted in her magnificent speech, the mainstream media -- the High Broderism and Meal Ticket Journalists -- have failed us completely.

Glenn Greenwald wrote today:

Only in the true fringe -- what Digby calls "the modern conservative movement of Newt and Grover and Karl and Rush," as well as their establishment media enablers -- does opposition to the Iraq War, or Guantanamo and torture, or the abolition of habeas corpus, or the grotesque deceit of the Limbaugh Right make one a "leftist" or fringe liberal, as those terms are used in their pejorative sense. The reality is that the views Digby identifies as the crux of the "progressive blogosphere" are entirely mainstream American views. "Extremism" is marked by those who reject those beliefs, not by those who embrace them.

Radicals and extremists are those who believe that we ought to invade and occupy foreign countries which have not attacked and cannot attack us, or that we ought to lock people away indefinitely with no process and/or torture them, or that the president has the power to ignore our duly enacted laws. As is true for any collection of large numbers of people, there surely are liberal bloggers who hold views that are shared only by a small minority. But objectively speaking, the defining views, the ones that its members hold almost unanimously in common, are anything but radical or "fringe."

It is not only our national character that has changed fundamentally over the last six years. So, too, has our political spectrum. As I've argued many times before, the term "liberal" or "the Left," as used most commonly, now denotes "opposition to Bush radicalism." Anyone who meaningfully deviates from the worldview of the Bush movement, who devotes themselves to opposing it, finds themselves -- for that reason alone -- described as "on the Left." Even the CIA, and Bush appointees such as Richard Armitage and James Comey, are so described that way. That is how profoundly these terms have been transformed.

Ideas that were always previously so radical as to be unthinkable are now routinely identified as "mainstream conservatism." Conversely, political principles that have been such an integral part of America's political identity as to be unquestionable are now the hallmarks of "fringe liberalism" (a "fringe" which, as our last election demonstrated, now includes an ever-growing majority of the population). Those whose views of "bloggers" are based upon the caricatures of Time Magazine and The Washington Post would undoubtedly be shocked to learn of just how unremarkable is the Platform of Beliefs of the "Progressive Blogosphere" as articulated by one of its leading and most admired commentators.

The litany of abuses of the public trust, to the point at which one of the highest ranking officials in the administration was convicted by a jury of obstructing the only significant criminal investigation of wrongdoing in the White House, has been so well-documented there's no reason to go through it here. When John Ashcroft was willing to resign to stop Bush and Cheney from hatching one of their schemes, we wondered what could have been so bad to make him say no.

What it will take to make the rest of today's Washingtonians to say no? What it will take -- beyond a veto-proof majority -- to hold Bush accountable for his misdeeds and get this country back? The simple answer to my simple question is probably "nothing."

Still, this member of the "fringe" will not relent.

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