Those Who Are Tasked to Police This Democracy Are Blinded by Confetti

The real problem with the Bush years is not so much what he did but that America's political class enabled him to do it

'Some nations have a gift for ceremonial," wrote the future third
Marquess of Salisbury, Lord Robert Cecil, after watching Queen Victoria
open parliament. "No poverty of means or absence of splendour inhibits
them from making any pageant in which they take part both real and
impressive. Everybody falls naturally into his proper place, throws
himself without effort into the spirit of the little drama he is
enacting and instinctively represses all appearance of constraint or
distracted attention."

What was arguably true for 19th century
Britain (Cecil, as it happens, believed that Britain did not possess
that gift) is no less so for 21st century America. As one party
convention ends and another begins (hurricane permitting), we are
halfway through a fortnight of ticker tape, talking points, balloons
and bluster.

There was a time when these conventions meant
something more than mere pageantry. They were the place where arguments
were made, platforms thrashed out and delegates wooed with policy. But
like British party conferences, conventions are now essentially media
events at which the media enjoys neither particular access, information
nor, for the most part, insight. The result is two weeks of propaganda
rolled out like a well-choreographed marketing campaign and faithfully
transmitted by supine outlets.

Like most acts of ceremony, form
has long surpassed content. The further they have strayed from the
substance the more the symbols matter. Strip away the high-minded
commentary and you are left with two patriotic parades steeped in
electoral rivalry and masquerading as a celebration of democratic

As far as pageantry goes, they could certainly be
worse. At least in these there are no gilded coaches, crowns, ermine or
wigs. And yet despite the slew of historic candidacies - first Barack
Obama and now Sarah Palin - it seems as though this year America's
political class has less to celebrate than ever.

For the
conventions do not just mark the beginning of a new presidential cycle
but the passing of an old one. The fact that this administration has
been criminally incompetent is now the stuff of water-cooler orthodoxy.
The fact that it has been plain criminal is not. But it should be.
Under George Bush the US has tortured, disenfranchised, lied, spied
and, on more than one occasion, flouted its own constitution. Those who
would not go along were fired or demoted. Those rulings it could not
garner support for it simply classified or hid. Those inquiries it
could not prevent it thwarted. When Major General Antonio Taguba tried
to pursue his investigation of Abu Ghraib up the chain of command he
was stopped. "I was legally prevented from further investigation into
higher authority," he told the New Yorker.

Its violation of
international law is ultimately a matter for the international
community. But its violation of American laws is a matter for the
American public. However, it is now clear that the political
consequences of these transgressions will range from negligible to
non-existent. The Bush administration should be led away in handcuffs -
either indicted or impeached. Instead it is about to leave the scene of
the crime in broad daylight while those tasked to police this democracy
- notably politicians and the press - blind themselves with confetti.

who regard impeachment as merely a vindictive attempt to adjudicate the
past display a chronic lack of imagination. True, it is not going to
happen. But that makes it no less morally compelling or politically
relevant to argue that it should. Trying to look ahead without
acknowledging how you got to where you are is a surefire way to end up
wandering around in circles. And the last place the Democrats want to
be is where they were.

Take voter registration. Around this time
last year the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, was forced to resign
amid allegations of perjury before Congress over his role in the
politically motivated firing of seven attorneys. They were replaced by
what his then chief of staff referred to as "loyal Bushies" on the
advice of the White House. Five of the fired attorneys were in
battleground states. They had irritated local Republicans by refusing
to bring voter fraud cases targeted at loyal Democratic groups because
of lack of evidence.

The congressional hearings were a farce.
Gonzales said he "could not recall" more than 71 times in one day.
Clearly he hoped we would forget too.

But in a year when voter
rolls are swelling with the expectation of an unprecedented turnout it
is crucial that we remember. A few weeks ago John McCain's campaign
attorneys attended a national training session for Republican lawyers
on election law, which included a session on identifying and responding
to instances of voter fraud. Despite the justice department's own
studies showing that voter fraud is extremely rare, Republicans are
gearing up for mass intimidation in minority areas on election day. If
the election is close expect to see Florida 2000 replayed from Virginia
to Nevada. And if the challenges go to court, Gonzales's "loyal
Bushies" will be there to hear the cases.

Such are the lasting
consequences of Bush's crooked tenure. Casting him as inept and
unethical is not difficult. He is the most unpopular president for six
decades. Some have been loathed more - but none by so many for so long.
But understanding how he managed to do it demands a wider lens.

he could not do it alone. The US is not an elected dictatorship. The
president is supposed to stand at the helm of a system of checks and
balances. The reason there was no balance was because there were no
checks. The real problem with the Bush years is not so much that he did
what he did, but that he managed to gain the consent of America's
political class in enabling him to do it. His political estrangement is
not because he tried, only because he failed.

This has more or
less been conceded by none other than the leader of the House of
Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who voted against the war in Iraq. When
asked recently by the Nation why she took impeachment off the table
before the 2006 elections, Pelosi answered: "What about these other
people who voted for that war with no evidence ... Are they going to be
voting with us to impeach the president? Where are these Democrats
going to be? Are they going to be voting for us to impeach a president
who took us to war on information that they had also?" In other words,
for the Democrats to impeach the president they would first have to
implicate themselves.

This is not to say the Democrats were
equally culpable. But they were differently responsible, and cowed by
accusations of lack of patriotism most of them abdicated that

Asked to explain the administration's use of
torture, the director of the 9/11 commission, Philip Zelikow, said:
"Fear and anxiety exploited by zealots and fools." But there is, it
seems, no price to pay for being a zealot or a fool in power. America
will no doubt be anxious and fearful again some day. And for all the
ceremonial hyperbole of this convention season, there is little to
suggest that when that day comes the fools and zealots won't once again
come out on top.

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