The indictment of Governor Rick Perry of Texas and his subsequent court case are about to complicate things politically for John Boehner. No matter the actual outcome of Perry's case, the arguments made by Perry and his supporters are going to provide an easy equivalence with Boehner's plans to sue President Obama -- an equivalence that would not have existed had Perry not been indicted.
Perry is making the claim that the entire thing is just a partisan witchhunt, driven by out-of-control Democrats in the liberal enclave of Austin. He may succeed in convincing the public of this -- and it remains to be seen whether this will help or hurt Perry among Republican primary voters in the upcoming presidential contest. So far, he has signaled that he's going to wear it as a Republican badge of honor -- standing up to liberals trying to tear him down in the courts. Here is Perry's lawyer, summing up this defense:
The facts of this case conclude that the governor's veto was lawful, appropriate and well within the authority of the office of the governor. Today's action, which violates the separation of powers outlined in the Texas Constitution, is nothing more than an effort to weaken the constitutional authority granted to the office of Texas governor, and sets a dangerous precedent by allowing a grand jury to punish the exercise of a lawful and constitutional authority afforded to the Texas governor.
He is arguing that the voters entrusted Perry with executive powers, which Perry then faithfully exercised, and that the case against him is nothing more than Democrats fighting a partisan battle that they already lost at the ballot box.
Now, I should explicitly point out that I have no idea what the actual facts are and until a jury hears the case, it is impossible to know whether the indictment was partisan overreach or not. I'm not going to argue the facts of the case here, to put this another way -- we'll all have plenty of time to do so as the case makes its way through the legal system in the months to come. I'm instead focusing only on the politics of the case.
Perry and his defenders are going to be making the case for strong executive power, which (they will say) is supposed to be executed without the interference of the courts. That's Perry's argument in a nutshell, and so far he has not been shy about strongly making this argument himself.
But this is going to become a major political stumbling block for House Republicans when John Boehner actually files his own lawsuit against President Obama. Because they'll be arguing that, in Texas, the executive should be allowed to execute his powers without interference from the courts; while at the same time arguing that on the national level the courts should indeed interfere with the executive attempting to exercise his powers. The parallels are going to be obvious to all, in fact.
Again, the facts of both cases won't even really enter into the discussion much, because while one party thinks the Texas case is weak, the other party is going to say the same thing about Boehner's case. The real argument, in both cases, is: Should this be the way politics works? At what point should political arguments be handled by the justice system? Perry's case is all about politics from beginning to end. Boehner's case will be too.
Republicans were counting on Boehner's case to whip their base voters into a frenzy, right before the midterm elections. They were all set to pronounce the righteousness of their position, using the justice system to rein in an otherwise-unchecked president. That's going to be a lot tougher a sell now, especially since it is scheduled to happen after weeks and weeks of discussing the merits of the case against Perry. Republicans will be denouncing using the justice system against an executive in purely partisan fashion, and then they'll have to start arguing that John Boehner has every right to use the justice system against an executive in purely partisan fashion. The turnabout will be so dramatic it might induce whiplash.
To the casual observer of politics, the two cases are going to sound an awful lot alike. Some Democrats, perhaps realizing this, have already expressed doubts about the case against Perry. The woman at the heart of the case isn't exactly a "poster child" character, since video exists of her drunk driving arrest, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in her personality. To defend the case against Perry means also having to defend her, which is why some Democrats are already backing away from this one.
But Republicans won't be able to back away so easily from Boehner's case. This isn't some squabble in one faraway state; this is national politics. The speaker of the House will be suing the president of the country, which can't be written off as some sort of parochial affair. House Republicans are already on the record, having voted to proceed with the lawsuit right before the August break. For some Republicans, the lawsuit won't even go far enough -- Boehner is already walking a tightrope with Republicans who want to see him impeach Obama. Boehner won't be able to back down, to put this another way.
But now the argument for suing Obama is going to get more complicated than anyone could have foreseen. Perry's case is going to prepare the ground with the public, and provide Democrats with an easy response: "How is this case any different than Perry's?" Republicans are going to be arguing one thing for Perry, and the exact opposite for Obama. This is going to become more and more obvious to all concerned, in fact.
The best Boehner can hope for, at this point, is that Perry's case moves very, very slowly. Maybe everyone will forget about it if there is no breaking news from Austin in the next month or so. My guess, however, is that Democrats will be more than ready to remind everyone of the similarities between the two cases, and how Republicans are taking positions in the two which are completely contradictory. The Perry case -- again, no matter how it turns out -- has certainly made it a lot more politically complicated for Boehner to move forward with his lawsuit.
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