Sunday, December 23, 2007

Frissons of fear

What many are now calling the "sleeper issue" in the upcoming presidential contest is what is sometimes referred to as the Imperial Presidency. Though it is scarcely any secret that the Bush-Cheney administration has savaged both the Constitution and American tradition to an unprecedented degree, I suspect that most of the public still doesn't appreciate the staggering scope of the harms done--the worst of which is that this horrid hypertrophy of concentrated power is largely irreversible.

Much turns on that word "largely". While no president is likely going to willingly surrender much if any of the accumulated powers of the office, there are surely differences between individuals as to how vigorously they would attempt to continue and assert the existing powers, much less seek even more. To my mind, an assessment as accurate as one can make it of each candidate's probable attitudes toward presidential power in a Constitutional setting is the single most important datum to use in evaluating that candidate. Attitudes toward issues of the day are important, but in the end all of those issues will go away as time rolls on; but changes in the very way we can deal with issues, our Constitutional structure, will be with us so long as we remain a nation.

Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe has a new article out, in which he details the responses the various candidates gave to a 12-item questionnaire from the Globe about points relating to presidential power. The article itself is, of course, worth reading (and pay attention to the left-side links to the actual questions and answers), but perhaps even more useful (because less restrained by mainstream-media politeness) as information is Glenn Greenwald's scathing analysis of the candidates' replies. Greenwald especially focusses on Mitt Romney, and, it seems, with good cause.

But by far the most extraordinary answers come from Mitt Romney. Romney's responses--not to some of the questions but to every single one of them--are beyond disturbing. The powers he claims the President possesses are definitively--literally--tyrannical, unrecognizable in the pre-2001 American system of government and, in some meaningful ways, even beyond what the Bush/Cheney cadre of authoritarian legal theorists have claimed.

After reviewing those responses, Marty Lederman concluded: "Romney? Let's put it this way: If you've liked Dick Cheney and David Addington, you're gonna love Mitt Romney." Anonymous Liberal similarly observed that his responses reveal that "Romney doesn't believe the president's power to be subject to any serious constraints." To say that the President's powers are not "subject to any serious constraints"--which is exactly what Romney says--is, of course, to posit the President as tyrant, not metaphorically or with hyperbole, but by definition.

If you read Greenwald's entire piece, which presents a great deal more detail about Romney's exact responses, you cannot help but shudder at the thought that this man has even a one-half of one percent chance of becoming the next president.

How do the other candidates come out?
All of the leading Democrats--Edwards, Dodd, Biden, Clinton, Richardson and Obama--submitted responses, as did Mitt Romney, John McCain and Ron Paul. Refusing to respond to the questions were--revealingly--Giuliani, Thompson and Huckabee. Significantly, if not surprisingly, all of the candidates who did respond, with the exception of Romney, repudiated most of the key doctrines of the Bush/Cheney/Addington/Yoo theories of executive omnipotence, at least for purposes of this questionnaire.
Giuliani has already made clear, in numerous ways, that his concepts of the presidency are at least as terrifying as Romney's. One could bet that the reticent Huckabee and Thompson are rowing in the same boat. As to the rest, this little graphic from the Savage article, pertaining to the vile use of presidential "signing statements", is interesting.

(Savage has specialized in his reportage on the issue of presidential power, and some of his earlier works are well worth review, such as "Hail to the Chief", in which he details Dick Cheney's fanatic and jaw-dropping campaign to aggrandize the presidency.)

It seems clear now that the least-objectionable Republican candidate with even a snowball's chance of actually being nominated is, by far, John McCain. Not that McCain is not objectionable: he is objectionable, very much so, on a number of grounds that are not my subject here. But he is so much less objectionable than the others that it's like night and day.

It's somewhat like rooting for a sports team in the playoffs: one can get all het up about whom one would like to win here and there in the eliminations so as to maximize the chances for one's favorite, but in the end, no fan has any control. No Democrat has a say in whom the Republicans will nominate. (Well, maybe in some of those crazy "open primary" states they might.) But if Democrats are trying to decide whom they would prefer to get the Republican nod, there are two ways of looking at it: does one want the candidate with the (estimated) worst chance of winning, or does one want the candidate who would be least objectionable if elected?

I suppose it comes down to how much of a chance the "least likely to win" candidate--constraining the possibles to the realistic (no Ron Paul, for example)--really seems to have. Remember that this is not the first or the second time in recent history that a Democratic win seemed "inevitable": the Democrats have shown an amazing gift for snatching defeat from the very jaws of victory. If one thinks, just to make an example, that of the possible Republican candidates Giuliani would run worst against a Democrat, does one wish for hizzoner to get the nomination? Not if there's the least chance in hell that he might win. On the other hand, if--as seems to be the case from national polls--McCain would run best against a Democrat, does one still wish for McCain to get the nomination because if the Republican were to win, he would be the least disastrous one?

As I say, it's not up to the Democrats, but it will be morbidly fascinating to see who does eventually emerge from of the current Republican "none-of-the-above" campaign.

Building stories

Some of the items I have been mentioning are growing legs.

Former members and staffers of the 9/11 Commission have concluded that the CIA withheld videotapes of harsh interrogation sessions even after specific and "very detailed" requests about the two prisoners whose tapes were later destroyed, according to a review of classified material by the panel. There will be more on this one in the weeks and months to come.

And the Los Angeles Times now reports that [EPA Administrator Stephen] Johnson overruled his own staff's findings in denying California's waiver, after agency staff had argued unanimously that the Golden State had met all of its requirements. This one was so egregious that even in these jaded times, people are sitting up and taking notice.


The AP reports that Americans are falling behind on their credit-card payments at an alarming rate, sending delinquencies and defaults surging by double-digit percentages in the last year and prompting warnings of worse to come. This is seen, no doubt correctly, as further fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis.

Notably, though, even with all the delinquencies and actual defaults, "the credit card business is still quite lucrative, thanks to interest rates that can run as high as 36 percent, plus late fees and other penalties."

These sorts of stories, just like the subprime crisis itself, invariably present the debtors as unfortunate (to say "poor" might be misleading, or it might not) victims of nearly or actually criminal acts of fraud. I don't think so. What is so cryptic about an interest rate? If our schools are turning out citizens who literally cannot do simple arithmetic, the problem is not in the arithmetic they have to do, it's in our school system.

How dumbed-down do contracts for credit cards or mortgages have to be before one can say "Yes, the consumer knew what he or she was signing up for"? Anyone who has ever gotten a home-loan mortgage will remember the seemingly countless disclosures, usually in simple language and of some length, that one has to read and autograph as part of the process. If a borrower simply will not read those, and just signs them unread to get on with things, whose fault is that?

The government has always been seen as the final safety net for businesses, at least if they are big businesses: run your company into the ground, Uncle will always bail you out in the end. But in modern times, Uncle is also being called on to bail out stupid consumers, when their numbers are large enough on some particular matter.

Friends, Uncle is us. Ask not for whom the cash register tolls: it tolls for thee. At what point do we step back and say "Sorry, you made your own bed, &c &c"? Moot question, I suppose, especially in an election year.

J. Edgar redux

If you think the recent disclosures about Fatso's grandiose plans to impose martial law on the nation in 1950 are creepy, try this one: "FBI Prepares Vast Database Of Biometrics: $1 Billion Project to Include Images of Irises and Faces". I generally consider articles that see information-gathering as Satanic per se to be more than a little artificial. But this looks like something someone ought to be keeping a sharp weather eye on.

No comments: