Is a Presidential Coup Under Way?

Where is Congress? It's way past time for members to stand up. Historic matters are at stake. The Constitution is being trampled, the very form of our government is being perverted, and nothing less than American democracy itself is endangered -- a presidential coup is taking place. I think of Barbara Jordan, the late congresswoman from Houston. On July 25, 1974, this powerful thinker and member of the House Judiciary Committee took her turn to speak during the Nixon impeachment inquiry.

"My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total," she declared in her thundering voice. "And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution."Where are the likes of Barbara Jordan in today's Congress? While the BushCheney regime continues to establish a supreme, arrogant, autocratic presidency in flagrant violation of the Constitution, members of Congress largely sit there as idle spectators -- or worse, as abettors of Bush's usurpation of their own congressional authority.

Why it matters

Separation of powers. Rule of law. Checks and balances. These may seem to us moderns to be little more than a set of dry, legal precepts that we had to memorize in high-school history class but need not concern us now. After all, the founders (bless their wigged heads!) established these principles for us back in 17-something-or-other, so we don't really have to worry about them in 2007. Think again. These are not merely arcane phrases of constitutional law, but the very keystones of our democracy, essential to sustaining our ideal of being a self-governing people, free of tyrants who would govern us on their own whim. The founders knew about tyranny. The monarch of the time, King George III, routinely denied colonists basic liberties, spied on them and entered their homes at will, seized their property, jailed anyone he wanted without charges, rounded up and killed dissidents, and generally ruled with an iron fist. He was both the law and above the law, operating on the twin doctrines of "the divine rule of kings" and "the king can do no wrong."

(Alert: Ready or not, the following is a high-school refresher course on American government. There will be a test.) At the front of the founders' minds was the necessity of breaking up the authority of their new government in order to avoid re-creating the autocracy they had just defeated. The genius of their structure was that legislating, administering, and judging were to be done by three separate but coequal branches, each with powers to check the other two, and none able to aggregate all three functions into its own hands (a result that James Madison called the very definition of tyranny). Just as important, to deter government by whim, all members of the three branches were to be subject to the laws of the land (starting with the Constitution and Bill of Rights), with no one above the law. As Thomas Paine said, "The law is king."

These were not legal niceties but core restraints designed to protect citizens from power grabs by ambitious autocrats. Such restrictions also make our country stronger by vetting policies through three entities rather than one. This balanced authority helps avoid many serious policy mistakes (or at least offers a chance to correct them later), and it is intended to prevent the one mistake that's fatal to democracy -- allowing one branch to seize the power to rule unilaterally.

Of course, sound schemes are oft screwed up by unsound leaders, and we've had some horrible hiccups over the years. John Adams went astray early in our democratic experiment by claiming the unilateral authority to imprison his political enemies; Abe Lincoln took it upon himself to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War; Woodrow Wilson launched his notorious Palmer Raids; FDR rounded up and imprisoned Japanese-Americans; J. Edgar Hoover and the infamous COINTEL program spied on and arrested thousands in the Vietnam War years; and Ronnie Reagan ran his own illegal, secret war out of the White House basement.

In all these cases of executive excess and abuse, however, outrage flowed from the public, courts stood up to the White House, congressional investigations ensued, and the American system regained its balance relatively quickly. As Jefferson put it when he succeeded Adams and repealed the Alien and Sedition Acts, "Should we wander [from the essential principles of our government] in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety."

This time is different

Now, however, come two arrogant autocrats like we've never seen in the White House. George W and his snarling enabler, Dick Cheney, are making a power grab so unprecedented, so audacious, so broad and deep, so secretive, so stupefying, and so un-American that it has not yet been comprehended by the media, Congress, or the public. The dictionary defines "coup" not just as an armed takeover in some Third World country, but as "a sudden and decisive action in politics, especially one affecting a change of government illegally or by force."

Constantly waving the bloody flag of 9/11 and swaggering around in commander-in-chief garb, the BushCheney duo are usurping authority from Congress, the courts, and the people, while also asserting arbitrary power that does not belong to the presidency. Their coup is changing our form of government, rewriting the genius of the founders by imposing a supreme executive that functions in secret and insists that it is above the law, unaccountable either to congressional oversight or to judicial review.

As Al Gore pointed out in a powerful speech he gave last year (read it here), the BushCheney push for imperial power is much more dangerous and far-reaching than other presidential excesses for a couple of big reasons. First, the Bushites make no pretension that they want these powers only temporarily, instead contending that a super-powerful presidency is necessary to cope with a terrorist threat that they say will last "for the rest of our lives." Second, they are not merely pushing executive supremacy as a response to an outside threat, but as an ideological, right-wing theory of what they allege the Constitution actually meant to say.

Called the "unitary executive theory," this perverse, antidemocratic construct begs us to believe that the president has inherent executive powers that cannot be reviewed, questioned, or altered by the other branches. Bush himself has asserted that his executive power "must be unilateral and unchecked." Must? Extremist theorists aside, this effectively establishes an executive with arbitrary power over us. It creates the anti-America.

The list of Bushite excesses is long...and growing:

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