America is in the midst of an authentic constitutional crisis as the Bush Administration moves to reduce Congress to little more than an irrelevant focus group and achieve what no U.S. President has ever achieved: a true above-the-law presidency.
These are the stakes: Will the United States save what is left of its constitutional democracy by restoring checks and balances among the three branches of government?
When the U.S. Supreme Court appointed George W. Bush to the White House by calling off the Florida recount in 2000, many pundits applauded the action because it allegedly headed off a constitutional crisis. That was a phony rationalization that disguised what is now apparent: the real post-Florida 2000 constitutional crisis is the Bush Administration's unprecedented, Constitution-destroying lust for power.
The fight should not be measured against partisan positioning for the 2008 elections. Democratic and Republican political consultants will view the crisis that way because that is their job. Consultants are hired to win elections, not save the Constitution. Congressional Democrats must look past the powerpoints of their consultants. So should Republicans, who are struggling to distance themselves from Bush's negatives without asking the White House for a divorce.
But, there is now no other choice. Bush's drive to place permanent barriers between the people and their government, to lift the presidency above all laws, must be stopped.
Earlier this week I wrote about the dangerous cultural narrative that frames Congress as an inept community . Our hero myths often include an inept community that must be saved by the lone hero. This cultural narrative has led to a broadly held view that Congress is just such a community.
For those Democrats and Republicans in Congress who remain captive to consultant myopia, I offer this observation. Political experts criticize Senator John Kerry for failing to adequately counter-attack the Swift Boaters. Kerry's mistake, however, was that his campaign behavior undermined his own mythic narrative, the narrative of a courageous Vietnam war hero. Voters who rejected Kerry did so not because they believed the Swift Boaters and were suspicious of his Vietnam valor, but because of the apparent lack of valor that was happening right before their eyes.
Congress is now being Swift Boated by the Bush Administration. Americans will judge the valor of Congress, not as presented in ads in 2008, but as witnessed in real time, right now. Polls are no doubt suggesting that voters want Congress to address health care reform and the deteriorating economy. A political fight with Bush over the constitutional balance of power will look like a distraction, like politics as usual, like so much partisan squabbling. Today, it seems that Congress is overcoming that fear and preparing for the fight. They are moving in the right direction with the subpoena of Karl Rove and the opening of a perjury investigation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. We should applaud these actions, and pray for more.
The Bush gambit is to permanently derail progressive policy goals by building an impenetrable wall between the people and their government and by asserting ultimate and absolute presidential authority. These ambitions are made obvious by the Administration's actions: Bush's unprecedented veto threats; the obvious "we-don't-really-care-what-you-think" attitude of Gonzales during his committee testimony; the Administration's questioning Senator Hillary Clinton's patriotism when she asked for details of Bush's Iraq plans; the refusal to disclose details of the Administration's emergency government plan.
Even a temporary eviction from the White House beginning in 2009 would not deter the neoconservatives and their anti-democratic allies. A Democratic president will have her/his hands full cleaning up the Bush garbage. While a Democratic president would probably resist further steps along the above-the-law path, it's unlikely a president will willingly give up any power that has accrued to the presidency during the Bush reign. So, the right wing reasons, we'll just pick up in 2012 where we left off in 2008.
The federal courts, packed with conservative appointments, will also do what they can to establish permanent barriers between the American people and their government.
Congress has no choice but to destroy those barriers now. The crisis cannot be reduced to a messy or selfish partisan confrontation. Truth is, many Republicans are as interested as Democrats in saving our constitutional democracy. The further truth is, the stakes matter much, much more than any potential partisan consequences for either major party.
In the end, the battle for the future of America may make necessary the impeachment of a president who is very publicly moving to destroy our constitutional form of government. It may not seem the politically prudent thing to do. But this is a president who lied us into a war, who uses his pen to make laws (constitutionally reserved for Congress) through signing statements, who commutes the sentence of a convicted criminal to protect himself from scrutiny, who believes he has the right to declare anyone he wants an enemy combatant and then "disappear" that person the way we taught our tyrannical and thuggish client-state dictators to do during the Cold War. If these are not sufficient to justify a legal and constitutional challenge to the legitimacy of the Bush presidency, exactly what would a president have to do before we would impeach him?
Republicans and Democrats in Congress can look at our predicament and decide to save their own asses; Democrats running against Bush; Republicans running from Bush. That would be politics as usual.
Or, they can act fearlessly to save the country, and, despite what today's polls might tell them, earn the gratitude of voters who today might be wishing the nightmare will just come to an end. But the best way to end a nightmare is to wake up.
Congress can interrupt the narrative of its own ineptitude and restore the dignity and power of a people who are willing to govern themselves. But to do so, we must be awake to the real constitutional crisis that is at hand.
Glenn W. Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Rockridge Institute.