07/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Precedent George Bush

No, that's not a typo in the title. Because President George Bush may (to his own party's dismay, incidentally) wind up being remembered as "Mister Precedent," and not as "Mister President."

George Bush's term in office will be remembered for the precedents it set, particularly in relation to the power of the presidency, and the separation of powers between the three branches of American government. Vice President Dick Cheney has been at the forefront of this effort to "restore power" to the presidency, which he believes was unjustly taken from the office in the aftermath of Richard Nixon and Watergate.

This naked power grab has taken many forms. The most obvious, of course, is Bush and Cheney's assertion that because "we're at war" (even though, technically, we aren't), His Highness The President can do whatever he feels like -- and it's legal by definition. Somehow the words "commander in chief" in the Constitution are supposed to be read "when we're at war, the president cannot be questioned or restrained in any way, shape, or form." Since we're "at war" Bush can do any damn thing he pleases -- torture people, kidnap people anywhere on earth, send people to other countries to be tortured, eavesdrop on anyone he wishes without having a judge sign off on it, hold anyone in the world prisoner endlessly, and all the shameful rest of it -- and the Constitution and any international agreements we've signed (like the Geneva Conventions) are suddenly and magically no longer in effect.

Equally important is the White House's (so far mostly successful) stonewalling of Congress. "Executive privilege" has been redefined to mean "Congress can never ask any question to any person who has ever shaken hands with the president." Or something along those lines. Congress can convene all the committees it wants, and issue all the subpoenas they wish, but nobody's going to appear to testify -- because the president said so. What's Congress going to do? Refer it to the Justice Department?

Even calling it the "Justice" Department is laughable these days. It needs something more... Soviet... to capture the reality of the Bush "law enforcement" department. How about the "Loyalty Oath Department" -- that seems fitting. Because much like any totalitarian government any time in history, it has now been revealed that the only persons hired were those of sufficient party loyalty. Remember the Soviet Union? Where you couldn't get a government job -- any government job -- without your Communist Party Card? Welcome to George Bush's "Justice" Department.

But the "party purity pledge" didn't stop there. It also has applied to (of all people) scientists. Scientific government agencies now have their work changed, edited, ignored, or blocked -- due to party considerations. "Just the facts" is so last century, The new thinking is: "We'll tell you the conclusions we want reached, then you can write your report to justify those conclusions." Once again, Soviet five-year plans spring immediately to mind.

Bush and Cheney have spent years trampling the Constitution and grabbing all the power they could for the office of the president, but they weren't alone in doing so. Congress rolled over like a lazy hound dog who wants its belly scratched and just let him do it. Now, when Congress was in control of the Republicans, this might have been expected. But Democrats control Congress now. They have been working on reining in the worst abuses of power (Alberto Gonzales), but they have simply not been bold enough.

For one thing, they've passed every national security law Bush asked for, even the ones that blatantly overreached. They're about to pass another one, giving telecommunications corporations retroactive amnesty for breaking the law -- since the telecoms have realized the error of their ways and now donate zillions of dollars to Democrats rather than Republicans. Since the campaign cash is now flowing nicely, there's obviously no need for them to be punished any further.

But the real disgrace of the Democratic Congress is in letting Bush run out the clock on pretty much every investigation they have managed to conduct. Subpoenas are ignored without consequences. Contempt of Congress is ignored without consequences. Documents are withheld without consequences. Unless you consider "getting a strongly-worded letter from the chairman" as consequences, which I do not.

Last year, after Democrats took control of Congress, they should have immediately (or, at the very least, after the first time a document or testimony request went unanswered) halted work on everything else they were doing to pass an Independent Counsel law. And then they should have immediately named one to investigate Bush's White House. Only an Independent Counsel has the power to compel testimony -- any testimony they see fit to ask. Remember Ken Starr? That's what should have been done. A year ago. Now, with the election only a few months away, and with less than a year to go in office, Bush knows he can successfully stall on any request from Congress whatsoever. By the time anything works its way through the courts, he'll be back in Texas, laughing from his front porch.

This has been a serious abdication of responsibility by the Democrats in Congress, and as a result has led to a serious abdication of power from Congress to the Executive Branch.

Which is what leads me to write this, as a friendly warning to Republicans. And to Democrats in Congress as well. Because Bush is leaving soon, but the lines in the sand he has been drawing will not leave. They will be sitting there as precedents for the separation of powers between the branches.

If you are a Republican, consider this -- Barack Obama may be our next president.

If you are a Democrat, consider likewise -- John McCain may be our next president.

Do you really want to give the next president these unchecked powers? Because whether they use them or not, they will always be available as precedents. All they will have to say is: "George Bush did this exact thing when he was president, therefore what I am doing is no different. And at the time, Congress agreed with Bush, so if you don't agree with me then you're obviously playing politics with national security and putting our nation at risk."

That is all the next president will have to say. In essence: Bush did it, everyone was fine with it, so I'm going to do it too.

And that is why I say George W. Bush will be remembered as Mister Precedent. And not in a good way.


[Note: I didn't want to get too sidetracked here, but Senator Chris Dodd just gave an amazing speech on the Senate floor on the FISA bill that is one of the best speeches I've read in the past few years. If you want some fire-breathing defense of the Constitution against Bush and his minions, I strongly urge you to read the full text of Dodd's rip-snortin' speech.]


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