Gary Hart

Gary Hart: Remember That These Political Debates Are About Human Beings

"This is not about politics," said one conservative Republican Congressman, "this is about human beings." Later, a colleague added: "This is not a handout." Both are from New York and both were arguing, and rightly so, for federal aid to areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

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Obama Offers Presidential Leadership Among the Ruins

It is one thing to seek leadership of a nation at rest and at peace. It is quite another to seek the confidence of the people in a mass democracy of 300 million at war, in debt, and uncertain of its future.

There are many reasons why the Barack Obama candidacy has achieved such startling success against great odds. A forming majority of progressive Democrats, disgruntled independents, and disaffected Republicans is coming to understand that Senator Obama approaches the immense challenge of governing America from a different point of view.

Finally, we are approaching the close of an era characterized by the arrogance of power, a bizarre theory called the "unitary executive," and disdain for a Constitutional system of checks and balances. Great damage has been done to our carefully constructed system of government. The principal task of our next president will be to restore order to the House of Washington, Adams, Madison, and Jefferson.

Equally important will be the need to restore accountability to the White House. Senator Obama makes it abundantly clear not only that he honors and respects the Constitution of the United States -- he was, after all, a Constitutional law professor -- but that he also is pledged to hold himself accountable to the people of this nation.

These commitments alone qualify him for the ultimate leadership position. But he goes beyond these core commitments. He sees over the horizon. "Leadership" is usually discussed in the abstract. But leadership is composed of three elements: a sense of strategy; the ability to inspire confidence; and seeing farther ahead than others -- trivialized by Bush I as "the vision thing."

The gifted Barack Obama has a comprehensive sense of how to apply America's powers to achieve its large purposes (strategy), sublime communications skills (inspiration), and a clear sense of where we must go (vision). The United States is blessed, once again, to have a leader like Obama running for president in the new century in which we find ourselves.

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Facing Down a Constitutional Crisis

George W. Bush and his most trusted advisers, Richard B. Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, entered office determined to restore the authority of the presidency. Five years and many decisions later, they've pushed the expansion of presidential power so far that we now confront a constitutional crisis.

Relying on legal opinions from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Professor John Yoo, then working in the White House, Bush has insisted that there can be no limits to the power of the commander-in-chief in time of war. More recently the president has claimed that laws relating to domestic spying and the torture of detainees do not apply to him. His interpretation has produced a devilish conundrum.

President Bush has given Commander-in-Chief Bush unlimited wartime authority. But the "war on terror" is more a metaphor than a fact. Terrorism is a method, not an ideology; terrorists are criminals, not warriors. No peace treaty can possibly bring an end to the fight against far-flung terrorists. The emergency powers of the president during this "war" can now extend indefinitely, at the pleasure of the president and at great threat to the liberties and rights guaranteed us under the Constitution.

When President Nixon covertly subverted checks and balances 30 years ago during the Vietnam War, Congress passed laws making clear that presidents were not to engage in unconstitutional behavior in the interest of "national security." Then Congress was reacting to violation of Fourth Amendment protections against searches and seizures without judicial warrants establishing "probable cause," attempts to assassinate foreign leaders and surveillance of American citizens.

Now the Iraq war is being used to justify similar abuses. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, providing constitutional means to carry out surveillance, and the Intelligence Identification Protection Act, protecting the identity of undercover intelligence agents, have both been violated by an administration seeking to restore "the legitimate authority of the presidency," as Cheney puts it.

The presidency possesses no power not granted to it under the Constitution. The powers the current administration seeks in its "war on terror" are not granted under the Constitution. Indeed, they are explicitly prohibited by acts of Congress.

The Founding Fathers, who always come to mind when the Constitution is in danger, anticipated just such a possibility. Writing in the Federalist Papers, James Madison defined tyranny as the concentration of powers in one branch of the government.

"The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department," Madison wrote in Federalist 51, "consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others."

Warming to his subject, Madison continued, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition;" the interest of the office holders must "be connected with the constitutional rights of the place."

Recognizing that he was making an appeal to interest over ideals, he concluded that it "may be a reflection of human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government." "But what," Madison asked, "is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

Madison's solution to the concentration of powers that lead to tyranny relied upon either Congress or the Supreme Court to check the overreaching of a president. In our present crisis, Congress has been supine in the face of the president's grab for unconstitutional, unlimited power, and no case is working its way towards a Supreme Court judgment.

If Madison's reliance on the ambition of other office holders has failed us, we need to look elsewhere. Can what Thomas Jefferson called the "common sense and good judgment of the American people" help us now? In the past, they have been a critical last resort when our leaders endangered the constitutional checks and balances that have made us the world's oldest democracy. But first the public must wake up to this constitutional crisis.

Intelligence Abuse Deja Vu

Three weeks after I took the oath of office in the Senate in 1975, then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield appointed me to a newly created committee -- the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, which soon came to be known as the "Church Committee," after its chairman, the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho. Out of 11 members, I was by far the youngest.

The Senate had impaneled the committee because of increasing reports of abuse of authority by the country's myriad intelligence agencies under the Nixon administration as well as previous administrations. For two years, the committee investigated broadly -- the CIA, FBI, DIA and NSA were all within its purview -- and finally, in 1976, it issued a series of recommendations designed to prevent future abuses.

Today, one has only to consider the behavior of the Bush administration during the Iraq war to appreciate how soon we forget, how little we learn and how pervasive is the tendency to violate civil and constitutional liberties in the name of war. Virtually all of the reforms recommended by the Church Committee -- many of which were passed into law -- have been evaded, ignored or violated in the name of the "war on terrorism."

It is often said that the first victim of war is the truth. In fact, the first victim of American war is the liberty of Americans.

During our investigations of intelligence abuse, we discovered that the government had engaged in widespread surveillance of a very large number of American citizens. Civil rights leaders were monitored. Antiwar groups were under surveillance. Domestic phones were tapped. Mail was opened. The FBI conducted warrantless "black bag" break-ins of private residences and offices. We wrote an entire report on warrantless electronic surveillance by the FBI -- exactly what the NSA has now been authorized to do by the president.

One particularly egregious program, code-named COINTELPRO, went beyond the mere collection of intelligence on domestic groups to actually trying to "disrupt" or "neutralize" target groups. The excuse given by the FBI and others was, "We are at war, and we need to do everything we can to defeat our enemy." Sound familiar?

In some cases, the intelligence services even turned violent. The CIA, for instance, conducted the infamous Phoenix program that resulted in the systematic assassination of thousands of Vietnamese villagers accused of collaborating with the Viet Cong. This was the 1970s version of Abu Ghraib. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations we tried (with obsessive insistence in the case of Fidel Castro) to assassinate at least six foreign leaders. Too bad we didn't have the Predator then. It would have been much simpler.

Our committee's work resulted in many reforms. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 required special intelligence courts to approve national security wiretaps. The Bush administration, however, has found that statute inconvenient and, predictably, has ignored it.

Our committee also recommended presidential "findings" before extraordinary covert operations were undertaken. This was not designed to undermine the CIA but to protect it; until then it had been left dangling in the wind when misused by presidents who wished to claim "plausible deniability."

That reform surfaced during another period of political abuse -- the infamous Iran-Contra affair, involving Bible-shaped cakes, trading with the enemy, lying to Congress and avoidance of accountability. It turns out that President Reagan, contrary to his own memory, had signed a "finding" authorizing the whole bizarre episode.

Again to support the CIA, our panel laid the groundwork for the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act that prevented identification of CIA operatives. This was the act that now appears to have been violated by at least half of the Bush White House in its demented efforts to punish Ambassador Joe Wilson by "outing" his undercover wife.

So what goes around, comes around. Here we are again, 30 years later, in yet another unwise war, no wiser and once again willing to sacrifice constitutional liberties for security expediency. If there was one lesson all of us who served on the Church Committee learned, it was that there are no secrets, that everything comes out and that the sacrifice of liberty is almost never justified by improved security.

If the U.S. is to prevail, it must grow up. It must learn from its mistakes, and not repeat them. It must finally understand that our security cannot be ensured by sacrifice of our own liberties.

Are the Parties Over?

American political parties, as we have known them for two centuries, are disintegrating. They are being replaced by shifting coalitions that are forming and reforming constantly. This transition is leaving an awful lot of Americans adrift.

Because most of our founders did not trust the idea of political parties, they came into existence only reluctantly. Parties seemed too much like the dreaded "factions" that had arisen in Europe, what today we would call interest groups, concerned more with their own good than the common good. America's founders, steeped in the ancient Greek and Roman republican ideal, wanted their new fellow citizens to be concerned with the commonwealth. The more people fell into or formed narrow or special interest groups, the less they would be committed to the ideal of the new republic, that which was held in common by all and over which all were sovereign.

One of the highest compliments for a citizen of the founding era was to be called "disinterested." That did not mean uninterested. It meant not interested in one's own concerns at the expense of the commonwealth. The founders held the quaint notion that if we were all concerned, or interested, in what we held in common we would all benefit individually. Likewise, the more a citizen was interested in getting only what was best for him and those like him, the more corrupt the American republic would become.

But, by the late 18th Century, parties arose, largely dividing between the Federalists led by Hamilton who saw the need for a strong central or national government, with a national bank and national army, and the Republicans led by Jefferson who suspected the power of the state and preferred local authority and local control. As the Federalists were by and large Northern merchants and traders and the Republicans were by and large Southern landowners and farmers, the issue of slavery, unresolved in the founding era and documents, also came forcefully into play.

Over the following two centuries the industrial revolution, the Civil War, and America's emergence as a world power all caused tidal waves and tectonic shifts in power structures and coalitions. Well before the 20th Century the two major parties had come to exert hierarchical control over virtually all political processes, including the nomination of candidates for office, at the national and state levels. They were the conduits for campaign financing, access to the media, dissemination of political information, the structuring of ideas and policies, and the exercise of political discipline.

In recent years, however, the parties' entire role and therefore their power has been collapsing. If a candidate is clever enough and has something to say, he or she can get direct access to the media. As political entrepreneurs, most candidates now raise their own financing and depend on money from the parties less and less. Candidates form their own policy groups or court the flourishing idea forums that span the political spectrum. Self-confident and ambitious candidates put themselves forward for any office they desire, up to and including the presidency, without seeking the approval of party officials. Individual office-seekers form their own coalitions by shopping for support among the smorgasbord of interest groups.

Except for the ideologically devout, voters likewise are shaking loose the bonds of party loyalty and more and more joining the third party, the independents, either figuratively or literally. To a degree, the process becomes self-fulfilling. As voters less and less need the party to tell them what to think and whom to vote for, the parties more and more retreat to their hardcore ideological bases, thus further alienating mainstream voters who are less doctrinaire partisans and more eclectic individuals.

Finally, the information revolution disintegrates old media and political structures. Virtually anyone in America today can organize his or her own individual information network tailored to his or her increasingly individual concerns. Nothing symbolizes this stunning fact more than the explosion of personal blog sites. Now everyone has opinions and a forum, the Internet, for expressing them. We are all consumers and producers of opinions if not also "news." You can choose to focus your attention on defense and foreign policy, or fiscal and monetary policy, or health care and education, or the environment, or anyone of hundreds of individual areas of interest, or any collection of them. You don't have to adopt an entire party platform, in any case a kind of 19th Century exercise that has become basically meaningless. You can write your own platform. You can be a party of one. And that is increasingly what millions of Americans are becoming.

Out of power, the watchword among Democrats, and many independents, is: "I don't know what the Democrats stands for." That's because the Party's old coalition -- traditional liberals, labor, minorities, women, environmentalists, and internationalists -- is in the process of disappearing and a new one has yet to be formed. Millions of people wait to hear what the 21st Century Democratic Party stands for, and Democratic Party "leaders" are not saying until they see what the new coalition is going to look like. They are afraid of taking principled stands for fear of alienating some group they think they need. So there is a kind of stand-off. Voters afloat want to hear what the Party has to say, and the Party is trying to find out what they want to hear.

But many traditional Republicans don't know what their Party stands for either. It used to stand for balanced budgets, resistance to foreign entanglement, laissez faire economics, smaller government, and individual freedom. Not any more. That old coalition has disappeared as well. The new Republican Party stands for big government, huge deficits, pre-emptive warfare, massive nation-building, neo-imperialism in the Middle East, intrusion on your privacy, and a semi-official state religion dictated by fundamentalist ministers.

This new Republican Party is merely a temporary diversion because its new political base is too far out of step with mainstream America, an America which includes the traditional Republican base. Democrats used to be the Nanny Party in the secular realm; the neo-Republicans have become the Nanny Party in the religious realm.

We Americans, though, are a nation of independent, socially tolerant, fiscally cautious, environmentally concerned, well-informed, globally-conscious citizens. This pretty much leaves most of us adrift, at least from the two old parties and the increasingly dogmatic, rigid, orthodox, intolerant neo-Republican party, a cabal that seems intent only on consolidating political power in fewer and fewer hands, reducing its elected officials and judges to disciplined automatons, protecting corporate excess, secret policy making, and forcing all of us to become fundamentalist Christians of the sort that would make even John Calvin appear liberal.

Democrats, however, are sadly mistaken if they rely on this fact to assume that the power pendulum will automatically swing back to them. Until the dust settles metaphorically and politically from 9/11, the neo-Republican Party will hold an advantage where security is concerned, despite its almost totally inept performance on homeland security and the hornet's nest of radical fundamentalism it has thoughtlessly kicked open in the Arab world. But that advantage will also not last very long, and Democrats would be well-advised to use this time, which they so far have not done, to create a sweeping new understanding of security and how to obtain it in the 21st century.

Over and beyond this traditional party-based struggle for power is the greater tsunami overtaking the very nature of partisan politics itself. The old party structures are becoming obsolete. The prize of future power will go to the next Machiavelli, the next Montesquieu, the next Bismarck, the next Jefferson who both appreciates, before all others, that we are in a totally new political age, an age beyond traditional political parties, and then creates the next political paradigm.

May I provide some hints: this paradigm will be based upon authentic and original American principles, it will also be enlightened and informational, it will be participatory and decentralized, it will be empowering, and it will incorporate the ideals of the democratic republic. Most of all it will be politically transformational and it will become so by restoring our deepest beliefs, our sense of national honor, integrity, dignity, courage, and duty.

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