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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Partisanship and corruption

I do wish I could find more good news to discuss here, but from what I can see, both American politics and foreign policy are still in an accelerating decline, whether measured by morality or effectiveness. And as a matter of fact, I'm increasingly fearful that only a genuine catastrophe--at home, not in some distant land--will allow us to focus our energies and start moving forward. Here are a few examples of what I am talking about.

The other day the House of Representatives passed a resolution opposing the troop surge in Iraq. That was, in a way, good news, but I was appalled to read that the resolution passed on an almost totally party-line vote--that not one Republican voted for it. The contrast with the Vietnam era could hardly be more striking, since from the very beginning of the conflict that war aroused opposition among both Democrats and Republicans--J. William Fulbright, Mike Mansfield,Wayne Morse and George McGovern on the Democratic side, and John Sherman Cooper and George Aiken on the Republican. Conservative Southern Democrats, although silent on the issue, expressed plenty of reservations to Lyndon Johnson as well. Bipartisan alliances were very common in the GI-controlled Congresses of 1958-74, and the country was better off for it. When Lyndon Johnson attacked critics of the war he was not seeking simple political advantage. Actually the change towards partisanship began under Richard Nixon, who helped orchestrate the purge of an anti-war Republican Senator from New York (Charles Goodell) and tried to make supporting his Vietnam policies more of a litmus test--but who still had to face bipartisan resolutions limiting what he could do in Indochina, and eventually saw the Congress muster the 2/3 majorities necessary to halt the bombing of Laos and Cambodia. Not even Chuck Hagel voted for the anti-Iraq resolution in the Senate the other day, however--although Gordon Smith of Oregon did.

The White House/Justice Department scandal is even more appalling evidence of how far we have sunk. Overwhelming evidence has accumulated over the years that Karl Rove regards the federal government and the dispensation of federal dollars simply as a means of bolstering the Republican party. Texas observers noted how often he managed to arrange the announcement of investigations of Democratic candidates during election campaigns--investigations that usually failed to materialize. (Perhaps the use of that tactic was what led George W. Bush to suggest that the real story was the timing of the revelation when, in the last week of the 2000 campaign, he had to admit to an old drunk driving arrest in Maine.) As my soulmate Paul Krugman told us last Monday, the real story here is not about the few prosecutors who have been dismissed because they would not get with the program, but with those whose performance has pleased the White House--the vast majority. Here is the key paragraph from his column, which every American should think seriously about.

"Donald Shields and John Cragan, two professors of communication, have compiled a database of investigations and/or indictments of candidates and elected officials by U.S. attorneys since the Bush administration came to power. Of the 375 cases they identified, 10 involved independents, 67 involved Republicans, and 298 involved Democrats. The main source of this partisan tilt was a huge disparity in investigations of local politicians, in which Democrats were seven times as likely as Republicans to face Justice Department scrutiny."

Once again Richard Nixon provides an interesting point of comparison. It was not until early 1973, after his overwhelming re-election (quite a contrast to Bush's two results), that he decided to try to politicize the federal government, beginning with a demand that all political appointees submit their resignations. That attempt backfired, however, and during Watergate Nixon had to contend with a few intrepid, independent individuals in his own Administration, such as Elliot Richardson, William Ruckelshaus, and ultimately John Dean, who would not go along with the program. Now coincidentally, Fred Fielding, Dean's assistant White House Counsel under Nixon--who was never charged with any Watergate wrongdoing--is White House counsel today, and he may be the man who has insisted on releasing the damning emails on the real reasons for the dismissals of the prosecutors--a most un-Bush like step to have taken. But I can think of only three high appointed officials, including one cabinet officer, who have spoken out against this Administration after leaving office--Paul O'Neill, John Diullio, and Colin Powell's chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson. It seems possible today to insist upon higher standards of partisan loyalty.

It is becoming easier and easier for Democrats like myself to use data like this simply to show that they are wrong and we are right (see two posts ago), but that will not help the country all that much. The great civic achievements of our past--the New Deal, the Second World War, the civil rights movement, and the founding of the western alliance--were all to some extent bipartisan in character. But all of them directly addressed real problems: a depression that had left 25% of Americans unemployed, totalitarian threats to conquer Europe and Asia, the Communist political threat to the same territories, and the legacy of slavery. It may be, as Krugman suggested in an earlier column (albeit with a last-paragraph disclaimer) that we are on the verge of a credit collapse that will demand real federal economic action. No one wants to see anything like that, but it's a paradox of human history that greatness is largely a consequence of emergency. And we still need greatness.


mark said...

"The main source of this partisan tilt was a huge disparity in investigations of local politicians, in which Democrats were seven times as likely as Republicans to face Justice Department scrutiny."

Hi David,

Well, as a resident of Illnois where the Republican US Attorney General Patrick Fitzgerald has been busy prosecuting the former GOP governor George Ryan, the Chicago mob, key figures in the administration of Mayor Richard Daley and has now( I believe) started investigating the administration of Democratic governor Rod Blogojevic - corruption may be the bipartisan norm.

What is different about Fitzgerald is that he is an out-of-stater with no political ties to either party here. Perhaps that should become a DOJ rule for appointment of A.G.'s instead of letting home state senators effectively pick " local boys" who will protect the status quo.

Incidently, apointing Fitzgerald cost former Senator Peter Fitzgerald (no relation) his seat.

George Buddy said...

The two U.S. Senators who actually voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 were Oregon's Wayne Morse and Alaska's Ernest Gruening, both giants who had maverick status amongst their peers. In essence, their vote was a bold political act on par with that of Jeanette Rankin's votes in the House against both WWI amd WWII.

The Senate passed the resolution 88-2; the House, 414 to 0.

Anonymous said...

The higher standard of partisan loyalty is partly a reflection of how the Bush administration was constructed. Personal loyalty to Bush and ideological conformity are preferred consistently over professional capacity or ability to think independently. This is one of the root causes of the remarkable incompetence of the Bush administration.

Anonymous said...

There is no "scandal" regarding the A.G. That is a media made up noise. Much ado about nothing. Eyes rolling....