Democrats Fiddling as the World Burns
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By the time Richard Milhous Nixon goes on trial in the Senate, the only real reason for trying him will be to understand how he ever became president of the United States at all ... and the real defendant, at that point, will be the American Political System. -- Hunter S. Thompson, 1973.
The top three political leaders in America are in the legal hot seat.
George Bush's White House has been served with an indictment on five counts against the chief of staff to the Vice President. Tom DeLay's trial is under way. And Bill Frist is the subject of a formal investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for selling off his family's stock.
And there are more investigations against Republicans lurking just below the surface. Powerful House member Bob Ney is wrapped up tightly with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff; Congressman Randy Cunningham is in bed with a defense contractor; House Republican Richard Pombo, who chairs the House Resources Committee, has gone on travel junkets paid for by a shady private foundation.
Outside of D.C. there's Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher, who is going down for having a GOP-only hiring practice. And the Ohio Republican Party has collapsed: Governor Bob Taft has been reprimanded and fined for playing golf on lobbyists' tabs, and big-time donor Tom Noe has been indicted for funneling cash into George Bush's re-election and stealing from the public purse to pour money into his rare coin investments.
Each crime is a fitting symbol of each Republican's particular brand of political criminality: George Bush's team got busted in a smear attempt against an Iraq war opponent -- but the entire case for war was a crime if there ever were one. DeLay's case is about him funneling corporate money to political causes to scorch Texas' political landscape with R's in every district -- but he's done nothing but funnel money from corporations for pork and political advantage every year he's been in Congress. Richard Pombo was found to have taken money from a group funded by whalers, mink farmers and veal barons -- poetic justice for a guy who has tried to sell off our national parks to mining and lumber interests. And so on.
It's time for the Democrats to seize the political advantage, right? Every single political branch in D.C. is on fire. The world is also on fire, or drowning: the American public has clear, massive majority positions on Iraq, Katrina, our $8 trillion national debt, world poverty, $3 gallon gas and rapid climate change. Yet what we've gotten so far from the Democratic leadership is meaningless sloganeering.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and power-hungry Hillary Clinton's big rhetorical banner for 2006 -- as good an indicator to the Democrats' predictions of where all this scandal and disaster is going to take them in the next election as any -- is, America Can Do Better.
Here's where I part from those who have taken the time to criticize the D.C. Democrats for such a feckless response. Step back and look at the political climate for a moment before passing judgment on America Can Do Better. The legal investigations listed above have been the driving engine of the political process for months now. Political advantage is currently determined by the ups and downs of pending cases; we're bringing the courts into the political process on a comprehensive scale far beyond what we saw with Ken Starr in the '90s -- a trend that, if treated by political leaders as appropriate politics, as the Roman historian Tacitus attested, is proof of a deceased republic.
Democrats and their partisan supporters are relying on prosecutors to do what they couldn't at the ballot box. Patrick Fitzgerald would not be in the spotlight today if John Kerry hadn't been such a squeamish collaborator in our rush to war in Iraq, and such an unrepentant coward leading up to the 2004 election (and he still is a year later).
And there's a price to pay for making prosecutors like Fitzgerald the hero of the moment; it gives further incentive for the Democratic Party in Washington, wraith of the New Deal coalition that it is, to languish and let legal investigations do their "work" for them.
America Can Do Better is the fitting and perfect motto for the Democratic political class. What's sillier are the expectations of slogans about Iraq, corporations or the environment, given the sick state of our political system. This hasn't been lost on the public, which, despite giving an approval rating of 40 percent to congressional Republicans during these months of scandal, gives the opposition a rating that hovers under 50. Is it fair to expect that the public will view Scooter Libby as simply a Bush-serving Republican villain when it comes to light that he was a lawyer for Clinton pardonee Marc Rich?
What if, magically, we were able to investigate and prosecute George Bush for lying us into Iraq, as many have called for? Not only do the congressional Republicans who abetted him deserve investigation, so do the Democrats and previous White House administrations, which are complicit in this too. We've been driving Iraq into the ground for 14 years. Bush's Iraq policies picked up the torch from the Clinton foreign policy team, which in turn took its pointers from the staff of George H.W. Bush.
As AlterNet's recent editorial on the 2,000th U.S. combat death in Iraq argued, the number of deaths in that country was far higher during Bill Clinton's eight years: "[The death totals in Iraq since Bush's invasion] are dwarfed by the number of dead -- by some estimates over a million -- caused by the U.N sanctions that started with Bush I, and continued under President Bill Clinton, whose Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, once described the effects of the sanctions on Iraq's children as 'worth it.'"
Scott Ritter, former U.N. weapons inspector for Iraq's weapons programs, recently spoke in a public forum about the U.S. crimes done to Iraq: "This is about a failure of not only the Bush Administration but of the United States of America, and we have to look in the mirror and recognize that, well, all the Bush Administration did is take advantage of a systemic failure on the part of the United States as a whole, a failure that not only involves the executive, but it involves the legislative branch, Congress."
We're at a moment in D.C. just like the one that Hunter Thompson saw in 1973 -- nothing has really changed. Are we going to wonder how Scooter Libby and Tom DeLay got away with their crimes, or how they got where they are in the first place?
If we pick the former, then, yeah, America can do better. If we go with the latter, we're going to start talking about how corruption isn't a measure of how much a politician steals from the purse or breaks the law, but rather the degree of civic apathy. We'll talk about how it's insane that we have a 218-year-old Constitution that has been little more than amended (Thomas Jefferson suggested we completely rewrite it every 20 years), and an equally ancient federal instrument that has ballooned but not evolved with the country's rapid expansion in size and population and major technological advances.
And we'll surely discuss the danger that centralized power has not only for the health of a republic but our own safety. As Thompson observed, it's the American political system that deserves a trial. Let us be the jury and the judge.