All Scandals Are Not Created Equal

by digby

Kinsley thinks we liberals are being dishonest and that if the shoe were on the other foot we would be defending a Democrat in Bush's position. Uhm, no. I wouldn't, anyway.

Among other things, I have a real problem with any government lying the nation into a war and then escalating it against the will of the people for inscrutable reasons. We went down that road not all that long ago and it was mostly Democrats in the congress (and virtually all Democrats in the streets) who led the way against their own leadership --- leadership, I might add, who had done truly heroic work on issues dear to their hearts. I suspect that the cynics of that time were railing against the liberals being so disloyal. And liberals still pay the price today for doing it. Perhaps that's foolish. I call it citizenship.

It's true that when Clinton was under seige, I was outraged by the scandal machinery that sprang up because it was all based on murky Arkansas whispers and salacious gossip that the congress and the press were using as some sort of proxy for what they called "character." They had to reach so far as to write about Chelsea Clinton's slumber party guests and investigate the official Christmas card list to find evidence of abuse of power.

So I agree that the political scandal culture is generally absurd. There is an element of posturing and hypocrisy on all sides, to be sure. But that doesn't mean that the substance of all scandals are equally (un)serious or that you can simply ignore corruption and then earnestly go about winning elections and governing with good intentions. (Hint: the Republicans tend to turn the scandal machine on you anyway.)

Kinsley still wonders why the firing of officials at the beginning of Clinton's term is any different since presidents always have a right to fire anyone in the excutive branch and Clinton may have had political reasons for doing so. Fine, I guess we have to spell it out again. Everyone accepts and even expects that a president will replace US Attorneys when he comes into office particularly when the presidency changes parties. Democrats and Republicans have different legal priorities and the people assume the Department of Justice will change focus when a new president of a different party takes office.

What they don't expect is that the political apparatus of the White House will use the Department of Justice as a tool to protect criminal wrongdoing among their own and trump up charges against their political opponents. That is not just a different focus or legal prioity. That's corruption, pure and simple, and may constitute obstruction of justice. (And believe me, if there had been any evidence that Clionton had such motivations the Republican congress would have investigated it in 1994 when they took office. They investigated everything.) Which leads us to this clarification by Kinsley:

Rereading what I wrote a couple days ago in this blog, one thing does bother me (and AnaMarie rightly called me on it, as did a couple of commentors). I seem to have displayed a cavalier attitude about official lying. I stand by my description of the administration as “comically mendacious”—anyone who hasn’t been entertained by the tango of mid-course corrections is missing a real treat. But it’s also serious. I do tend to think that the solution is in electoral politics—punish liars by voting against them-- and not in subpoenas and hearings and special prosecutors and impeachment talk and all the other paraphernalia of scandal.

Wouldn't it be pretty to think so? But it makes it a little bit hard to achieve if the White House is manufacturing voter fraud cases that have the potential to turn elections, doesn't it? It seems to me that the white house tampering with the machinery of elections through back channels, which is obviously what happened here, might just be considered a hindrence in the furtherance of that laudable democratic goal. After the election in 2000, I think it pays for the Democrats to be vigilant on that score.

This scandal didn't occur in a vacuum. It's not as if it is the first instance of this executive branch running wild and doing whatever they want regardless of the rules or the law. This is, after all, an administration that secretly legalized torture. I don't think it's wrong to make a fairly knee-jerk assumption that they have an agenda that is not readily apparent and which might run afoul of normal government practices. Every time someone finally manages to turn over a rock they find a fetid pile of corruption and abuse.

The Republican Party has become authoritarian and unethical to an extreme. The lessons they have taken from the constitutional usurpation they attempt every time they gain the presidency are clear: they believe they have nothing to lose, at least long term, by abusing the power of their offices. They know that the Democrats will rail ineffectually until they win the presidency, at which point the Republicans will use the tools of scandal against them, even if they have to blow up watermelons in the back yard to do it. There are always some unsavory elements in government, but in the modern era this kind of institutional corruption started in the Nixon administration and then escalated through Reagan and Bush II. (Bush I only played really rough when it looked like he was going to lose his election.) Each of those presidencies had serious scandals concerning abuse of presidential power. I don't think it's paranoid to see a pattern.

These current scandals are about some fundamental, constitutional issues, not just delicious tabloid investigations into the current sex life or past penny ante financial dealings of the president that allegedly illuminate some vastly important facet of his "character." Even if the Republicans are conveniently pursuing power for its own sake and are more than willing to jettison all their beliefs about executive privilege and the prerogatives of the "commander in chief" when the shoe is on the other foot, the underlying battle is real. The presidency of the United States is the most powerful office on the planet and determining the boundries of that power is important, regardless of how droll you find all the political posturing that goes along with that.

If Kinsley truly believes that the way to deal with this kind of thing is simply to win elections (and I assume lead by example) then it's doubly important to rein in this authoritarian impulse and establish with the public that they will not play the game this way. It is not enough in our cynical time to simply say that they will turn over a new leaf. They must show how far the other side has gone and ensure that they are held responsible for it.

I've watched this creeping authoritarianism for more than 30 years now. It's not a figment of my imagination and I'm damned tired of jaded political pundits telling me to lighten up. These same people told me that it didn't matter if Ronald Reagan had a secret government working out of the basement of the white house (Oliver North is so awesome in his uniform!) and it didn't matter if George Bush Sr pardoned all the criminals in that scandal and it didn't matter if a partisan congress impeached a president over sex. We were told to "get over it" when Bush's henchmen manipulated every political lever they could find in his brother's and father's political machinery to take office in 2000 --- and then decided to govern as if they'd won in a landslide. Then came illegal war, torture, spying on citizens, denial of habeas corpus and all the rest. Excuse me, but I'm not going to sit around and chuckle knowingly that this is "just the way it is." It isn't. History proves that very bad things can happen to good countries. Only fools pretend that great nations can't go down the wrong road.

The public is waking up and hopefully they will deny the Republicans power for a while. But until this authoritarian zombie is finally killed, the country is in danger of more of these "misbegotten, stupid, ill-advised wars" and imperial presidencies each time the Republicans manage to sully the Dems sufficiently to regain power.

I know that such silly, naive righteous indignation amuses the chattering classes to no end. That's exactly why so many people believe they are a big part of the problem.

Update: Another hippie hysteric, John Dean, weighs in on the creeping authoritarianism.

Update: Josh Marshall, explains the scandal's details so even Michael Kinsley can understand them.