Reading Josh Marshall’s fine essay on the Bush Administration’s abuse of the presidential “signing statements”; whereby Bush is somehow allowed to change the law that Congress wrote in order to make it his own law. Or at the least, in order to suggest that the law he agreed to sign isn’t the law that we’re expecting him to follow. And that’s just so far from how our shit works that it’s recklessly dangerous. This is clearly and entirely unconstitutional, by what the most basic understanding of that term means. Our constitution has a chief executive who is hired to enact the laws that Congress creates. He is not allowed to create his own laws or quietly change their meaning. What we’re seeing here is the equivalent of a company’s CEO taking over the company and ignoring what the owners want.
But again we run into the problem that Republicans seem to have a distinctly different idea of what an impeachable offense is. They seem to believe that actions the president takes in executing the powers of his office are not impeachable; especially during time of war, whether or not that war is real. For them, it is only personal crimes that you impeach for. And as I argue below, they consider the abuse of presidential powers for political gain as part of the official business. Of course, it can be argued that Clinton perjured himself in order to prevent political attacks which would prevent him from executing his job; but it’s unlikely that a Republican would make that argument. I suppose the difference is that the root cause of Clinton’s abuse was personal in nature, and not political or official. But to me, it’s much more easily argued that this makes Clinton’s actions better, not worse. In fact, I would prefer a president who stole money over one who steals our democracy.
As I mentioned last time, maybe this argument of theirs is simply the most political expedient for them in the situation given, but I don’t think so. Because this is also the same argument they gave to protect Reagan’s encroachment onto Congress’s domain, regarding the Iran-Contra thing and the lies told about it. And it’s the same argument they gave to protect Nixon. Basically, they think the President can do whatever the hell he wants, as long as we can’t prove that he was doing it for the wrong reasons. But whether this is empty rhetoric or true ideology, it shows why these people should not be in control of our government.
The Eternal Presidency
And hell, there is something to their argument. It is disruptive to our foreign and national policy to have an impeachment. But it’s not just the political ramifications or the accompanying circus. It’s the same as if the president were simply replaced. Overall, the presidency is a very important position, and you can’t just remove him without creating a lot of problems and possibly endangering our country. And in that regard, there is some justification to presidents using their official power to aid themselves politically. After all, what is a bigger detriment to a president performing his job than the political calculations required to keep it? Imagine how differently the Clinton presidency would have been, had he had more control over the political landscape.
But that would also argue against the four-year terms and the two-term limit. Because if it’s dangerous and bad to remove a president mid-term, it’s almost as bad to remove him at all. In fact, isn’t it less disruptive to have the vice-president of the same party replace the president than to have a brand-new president from the opposing party take over? The first requires few adjustments; while the second requires a complete overhaul of staff and policy. And that is to argue that impeachment can be less disruptive than a scheduled election.
Overall, this is clearly not a system that the founding fathers wanted. There are downsides to both theories, but they clearly chose the replaceable chief executive over the eternal one. The president is a hired-hand, not our boss, owner, or benevolent dictator.
Presidential Power Plays
Nixon argued and seemed to believe that he was an absolutely crucial linchpin in our foreign policy, particularly regarding Russia, China, Vietnam, and the middle-east. For him, his knowledge and ability in handling these foreign hotspots was far more important than any impeachable offense could be. And there is a strong argument that he purposefully picked Gerald Ford as VP, so as to make impeachment far more disastrous; and thus, less likely to happen. And he may have been correct, as the Ford Admin helped usher in the Rumsfeld/Cheney nexus that haunts us to this very day.
In one of the funnier passages of Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days (a must-read, btw), is when Nixon visits the Soviets towards the end of his reign and was essentially giving veiled messages to the effect that the continued good relations between us and them was dependent on Nixon’s continued representation of America; in essence implying that it was to the Soviet’s advantage to help Nixon politically. The Soviet leader (whose name escapes me at the moment) returned volley, giving veiled messages back to the effect that Soviet-American relations would run smoothly no matter who was leading America. This was, of course, all part of the negotiating technique, as Nixon was desperate for a fancy peace treaty to take back with him, in order to take Watergate out of the headlines; and the Soviets were fully aware of that and were going to make him pay for such a treaty. In the end, the Soviets got the best of Nixon, and thus America; and all because of our pesky democracy.
And so in that case, America paid a price for having the president under the threat of impeachment. But…that price was solely paid to help aid Nixon politically, to help him fight Watergate; so that is to argue against Nixon’s legacy, not a defense of it. By engaging in illegal actions, Nixon put his own interests before the nation’s. To Nixon, America’s fate was tied-in to his own. And unfortunately for both him and us, he perverted that idea by flipping it around and using it to justify all of his actions. His argument is essentially a form of presidential blackmail. He gambled that we would not risk the damage of an impeachment to punish him.
And the Bushies seem to be doing the same, but have taken things much further. Rather than mere abuse of presidential powers, the Bushies have decided to effectively remove the legislative and judicial branches from the equation. So if Nixon’s power-grab for merely political purposes was impeachable, then Bush’s more serious power-grab is most certainly more so. Rather than abusing the democratic process, Bush is destroying it.
Overall, the Bushies have imagined that their eternal war against terror justifies their claims of omnipotence. But Nixon had a war going on too, and that didn’t save him from jackshit. We can only hope that Bush isn’t spared the same fate. Not because we don’t like him, or political reasons, or because of his personal peccadilloes, but for the sake of our democracy.