Worst President and Administration Ever

The Thinker by Rodin

Like most Americans, I am wondering why we have to wait fifty-eight more days for a new president. Couldn’t Bush and Cheney just tender their resignations now? Nancy Pelosi would then become our president for the next fifty-eight days until President-Elect Obama takes office. Yeah, I know Pelosi is a San Francisco liberal, but she could hardly make things worse than Bush and Cheney and she would be a caretaker only. At least someone with a brain would be in charge until Inauguration Day. Meanwhile, women everywhere would rejoice because we would have (however briefly) our first female president.

If Bush and Cheney had any sense of patriotism, they would resign right now. However, it looks like they will not only tenaciously cling to power until January 20th, but they are working feverishly to make sure their toxic legacy will last beyond the inauguration. Not only have they left us with an economy that is in shambles, in their final days they are busy creating future havoc. Regulations are furiously being written, sometimes bypassing the public comment process, to ensure that our problems will continue to only get worse after they are gone. Yes, in their final days the Bush Administration is making sure it protects fewer endangered species while opening up more federal lands to energy exploration. Meanwhile, in various federal agencies its senior executives are busy “burrowing in”, i.e. changing their status from political appointees to civil servants so they can hang around and attempt to bollix up the Obama agenda, all while drawing high salaries and having the benefit of civil service job protections.

The faults of this Administration are so numerous and egregious it is hard to know which ones to single out. I keep looking in vain for something I can say in favor of this administration. I am reduced to exactly one thing: the Bush Administration has dramatically boosted the money spent on antiretroviral drugs for those with HIV and AIDS in the third world, while also strong arming drug manufacturers to make these drugs available to the third world at just above cost. Naturally, Americans who came down with HIV or developed AIDS had to pay top dollar for their drugs. Maybe they should have moved to Africa, where they might have gotten the lifesaving drugs for little or nothing.

Republicans spent much of the last few years screaming at Senate Democrats for blocking so many appointments and judgeships. In retrospect though the Democrats showed great foresight. Bush came into office with a conservative agenda. Conservatives believe in smaller government. While smaller government eluded him as it did other recent Republican presidents (in fact, Bush made government much bigger), his sidekick Dick Cheney proved unusually adept at throwing monkey wrenches into the gears of government. The result is a government that while it costs much more, is now also far more dysfunctional than it ever has been. Some examples:

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development spends much of its time trying to reduce Section 8 housing for the poor.
  • The Department of the Interior is busy opening pristine national lands to energy exploration.
  • The Department of Defense is overextended and our armed forces are exhausted. Our fancy military equipment has been squandered in the deserts of Iraq fighting the wrong missions.
  • By taunting North Korea and Iran, and labeling them as part of a bogus Axis of Evil, both countries have become more isolated and dangerous.
  • Our Department of Homeland Security could not even provide disaster relief to the residents of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, perhaps because the director of FEMA knew how to raise Arabian horses, not provide emergency services.
  • No one in control of our government saw the housing bubble coming because they were too busy trying to give Wall Street exactly what it wanted. In fact, through changes in the law our government encouraged the sort of behavior that exacerbated the crisis.
  • We added four trillion dollars to the national debt in eight years, which was at about six trillion when Bush took office.
  • We engaged in an embarrassing national folly in Iraq that even if President Obama can get us out within sixteen months will probably cost us a trillion dollars. The long-term care for veterans injured in the war will continue for decades. Meanwhile more than four thousand of our soldiers died in the conflict started to remove weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average is about two thousand points below when Bush took office. Stocks now have approximately the same value they had in 1997. We have, in effect, wiped out all of the wealth that we accumulated in the last decade.
  • Our national infrastructure is in shambles. An interstate bridge collapse in Minnesota killed thirteen people while thousands of bridges that do need repair languish for lack of funds.
  • The rich have gotten much richer; the middle class has shrunk and have had their real earnings decline.
  • This administration spent much of the last eight years denying global warming was even occurring. After much hooting and jeering from scientists it finally agreed it was happening, but said it was part of a natural cycle so we should not do anything about it. Later, it agreed that we were part of the problem, but that we should do nothing more than set goals to reduce the problem. Meanwhile, environmental standards were regularly loosened.
  • We went to great length to limit research on embryonic stem cells, which in fact are not even alive unless implanted in a uterus and given some time to gestate, while taking extraordinary action to make sure the hulk of Terri Schiavo’s brain dead body stayed tethered to medical equipment for more than a decade.
  • Our brave servicemen and women who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan ended up with substandard care and spend much of their time dealing with a dysfunctional and understaffed medical bureaucracy.

The sad truth is that I could easily fill up ten pages or more with more examples like these and I would have hardly scratched the surface. It would be easy to say that this Administration was just inept, but the sad truth is they were inept when they were needed to be savvy and malicious and mendacious when they were not, answering only to themselves and tone deaf to anyone with a different opinion.

If any good is to come out of this, it is that the Republican Party has become a minority party with little likelihood of resurgence for at least a decade. In addition, social conservatism has backfired and neoconservatism has had a stake driven through its heart. It seems that with such sterling examples of what doesn’t work, we have a good idea what will: just do the opposite.

Meanwhile, all Americans are enveloped in a feeling of dread knowing that if any team can make things worse in just fifty-eight more days, the current boobs can and probably will. January 20th cannot come soon enough.

Iraq’s holding pattern

The Thinker by Rodin

On the fifth anniversary of our invasion,it is hard to escape the fact that most Americans are busy tuning out the Iraq War. The Iraq War is old news. Yesterday, it was hard to muster even a few dozen war protestors for a demonstration in front of the Internal Revenue Service. While more sectarian death in Iraq is hardly news, reckless philandering by a call-girl happy governor is news and so much more interesting.

I do not mean to suggest that Americans have forgotten about the Iraq War. By large margins, Americans agree that going into Iraq was a mistake and want us to withdraw. Only the fools who instigated this war like President Bush and Vice President Cheney remain in denial. President Bush said yesterday that the surge “opened the door to a major strategic victory in the war on terror”. I want whatever he is snorting; it must be pricier than Elliot Spitzer’s call girls. Also yesterday, Vice President Cheney took time from his busy schedule to sneer at the American people. Asked by ABC News for a reaction to polls that consistently show two thirds of the public oppose the Iraq War he rejoined, “So?” A small majority of Americans now think that we could ultimately succeed if we stayed in Iraq long enough. Yet the public does not want to hang around long enough to see if it can happen. Maybe the ten billion dollars a month that our occupation is costing has something to do with our calculus.

The Iraq War has become the crazy old grandmother in our nation’s attic. We find it convenient not to talk too much about it. Our reaction is understandable if not childish. Just as Germans found it was hard to talk about the Holocaust after World War II, so we find it hard to stay engaged on our folly. In some ways, it was easier to stay engaged when things were getting worse. For the price of his surge, Bush at least bought himself at some relief from the incessant questions of his decision to invade Iraq. Instead, we find ourselves focused on some of other catastrophically bad decisions his administration made which are much closer to home, like skyrocketing gas prices, a falling dollar and our plunging stock market.

President Bush of course wants you to believe his surge is not just working, but will actually bring peace to Iraq. Here is what is working for sure in Iraq: ethnic cleansing. Before our invasion, ethnically mixed areas in Iraq were commonplace. Few cared whether a Sunni married a Shi’ite. Now, only a handful of mixed neighborhoods remain. The result is that Baghdad has been transformed into hundreds of smaller cities all but a handful of which are either Shi’ite or Sunni. Mini cinder block Berlin walls separate these enclaves. Within its citizens are generally safer than they were when they were ethnically mixed. The dubious success of ethnic cleansing (which we did not succeed in preventing earlier in the war) is responsible for much of this reduction in violence. Our forces have also been blessed by decisions of some militias, like Moqtada al-Sadr’s, to refrain from violence.

Unquestionably, considerable violence was quelled because of the surge. Bush and General Petraeus can take credit for this. In itself, it is not too surprising. It is hardly a novel strategy. When crime rates spike in the District of Columbia, police go on overtime and saturate crime prone areas with cops until crime levels drop. With enough force, you can win a rough peace anywhere. The problem is it is a faux peace. The thorny political problems remain. Only three of the eighteen political benchmarks we laid out for the Iraqi government has been achieved. Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament is planning another two-month vacation. They might as well go on vacation since they seem unable to agree on much of anything. In truth their parliament is quite representative. Their inability to agree on much of anything shows that the country of Iraq is simply a fiction.

What about those “concerned local citizens”? These small police and military forces are in primarily Sunni areas of the country. It is true that they have largely gained the upper hand against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda though remains a tiny fraction of the unstable forces in the region. What is less reported is how such cooperation was achieved. Sunnis are cooperating with American forces for two important reasons. First, Shi’ite militias were succeeding. Sunnis were losing their civil war and needed help anywhere they could get to survive. They found it convenient to make the Americans their friends. Cooperating with us became better than extinction. Second, they were bribed. Those concerned local citizens did not spontaneously come together, but found common cause only when we started handing them money and arms.

The Iraqi Army remains largely ineffectual. For all practical purposes, it can be considered a Shi’ite militia, and not a very good one at that. They show all the sterling qualities of the South Vietnamese Army, only they are not nearly as good. Few of their battles are waged independently. Most are done in cooperation with American forces. The surge has helped “concerned local citizens” deal with their own security problems by providing the necessary guns, ammunition and training needed to control behavior. All factions seem to tacitly agree on one thing: they do not want to agree to solve their thorny problems. Their real loyalty is to their ethnicity, not their country.

The reality is that Iraq has already self-segregated into three ethnic states, only its boundaries are still fluid, particularly within Baghdad. As I predicted, in areas where our military forces were densest, terrorists and insurgents relocated to areas that are more favorable. Currently these are cities like Karbala, Kirkuk and Mosul. 160,000 troops is a lot, but it cannot pacify all of Iraq. The civil war, well underway before the surge began, has at best been postponed. However, no occupation force can stay forever. The Iraqi government shows no willingness to actually govern their nation. They cannot even come to consensus on some of their most basic problems, like the division of oil revenues. This means of course that the country of Iraq is dead and cannot be resuscitated. It existed as long as Saddam Hussein ruled. It was doomed to fall apart when he was overthrown.

Force of arms and infinite patience will not force the shards of Iraq back into a coherent shape. The surge has helped to reduce the level of violence. What is needed now is an imperfect end to our occupation. It will not come from this president, but I expect the next one will implement a withdrawal strategy similar to what I penned last September. For a limited time, we should facilitate the desire of Iraqis who want to move safely from one ethnic area to another. We should do our best to police the boundaries of these new states. Then we should withdraw a few divisions every month until we are gone. With luck we may find some other international forces to take our place.

On one thing, I am certain: a year from now under a new president we will at least have begun a real withdrawal from Iraq.

The war taxes you are already paying

The Thinker by Rodin

Doubtless, you have noticed rising oil prices. At closing today, a barrel of light sweet crude oil was selling at $105.15 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In my neighborhood, this translates to a price of $3.15 to $3.25 a gallon for unleaded gasoline. Diesel was priced at $3.95 a gallon at a gas station I passed today. In fact NPR reported today that gasoline is now more costly in constant dollars than it ever has been, including during the first Arab oil embargo in the 1970s.

Some investors are seeing crude oil as the new inflation hedge. An NPR analyst estimated that these investors are driving up the cost of oil by about $20 a barrel. Whether their investment will be the inflation hedge they are looking for remains to be seen. These investors may be fooling themselves. At some point, oil may become so overvalued that the price of oil returns to what now seems like reasonable levels, $80 a barrel or so, or even less. I will not shed too many tears for these speculators, but $80 a barrel oil still strikes me as expensive, since it typically results in gas prices of about $2.60 a gallon.

One thing is clear, as these graphs in today’s Washington Post point out. A good portion of the cost of oil is not because the commodity is in greater demand, but because its price is tied to the price of the dollar. If the demand and supply of oil are relatively constant as is currently the case and the value of the dollar diminishes, oil will cost more dollars per barrel.

In case you have not paid attention, the U.S. dollar is reaching record lows too against most major currencies. Last September for the first time since 1976 when we were in the midst of a stagflation epidemic, the Canadian dollar and the U.S. dollar were worth the same amount. Oil prices went up 75.6% since the beginning of 2007, according to the Washington Post. Because the Canadian dollar is in better shape than the U.S. dollar, oil prices went up a more modest 46.6% in Canada. If you bought your oil in euros, prices rose 49.6%. The price of our relatively weak currency means that we pay considerably more for oil than some of our closest trading partners with better-managed governments and economies. As you can imagine, we pay extra for many other things because of our fallen dollar. Oil is an easy one to quantify because it is tied directly to the dollar.

Perhaps you are thinking that our government is doing something to stem the drop of the dollar. If you think this, you are sadly naïve. No, the situation is quite the opposite. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, told Congress recently that the Fed would drop interest rates again to stimulate the economy. This will undoubtedly drive the dollar even lower. It will also put more upward pressure on the cost of oil and cause inflation to rise, likely adding to the likelihood of the stagflation we saw in the 1970s. In addition, sometime around May you will get a fat check from the government. The government wants you to go out and spend the money to stave off a recession that looks like it arrived in the end of 2007. Where is the money coming from? The government is borrowing it. Who is loaning their money to the government? While many of us do this by buying bonds and treasury bills the bulk of this money will come from foreign governments and creditors. To make sure we have the money now we will raise interest on U.S. treasury bills until it becomes worthwhile for creditors to buy all the bonds we need to sell. Not surprisingly, rates on treasury bills are up.

When the time comes to pay creditors for loaning them their money, the government will not pay them in assets like military aircraft or wheat surpluses. No, it will pay them off in dollars. The problem is that the government has no spare dollars sitting around in a teller’s drawer to give them. The government will not hold up an investment group like Vanguard Securities until they cough up $100 billion. Instead, they will print more money. They are doing this today to pay off creditors who bought securities years ago. Because the economy is not growing fast enough to keep up with our spending, this means there is more money in circulation chasing the same relative assets. Creditors know what this means: their investment is worth less. Thus, the dollar loses value against other currencies and investors require higher interest rates. Prices for everything become comparatively more expensive but the effect is worse for prices pegged to the dollar, like oil.

In short, deficit financing drives down the value of the dollar and is inflationary. Granted sometimes it is hard to tell. When the economy is doing well it may seem that there are no inflationary effects from deficit financing. This is an illusion. Of course, there are times when you have to borrow for an important need. I borrowed money recently to replace the windows on my house. I did receive some value from it. My house is much more energy efficient, our rooms are less drafty and we use fewer kilowatt-hours of power. Unlike the government, I have been paying off my debt. The way our government works, it only very rarely pays down the principal. Instead, it keeps borrowing more and more money. All that matters is whether the government can meet its interest payments. If it can, creditors keep loaning us money. As Dick Cheney reputedly said, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Oh, but they do. They do.

While there were many reasons for the prosperity of the 1990s, I think that it was mostly due to the government living within its means. Steadily decreasing deficits gave investors confidence that government was being run by rational people. No recession stimulus could provide that kind of boost. Like a savings account, the interest started compounding, resulting in true wealth that affected all income levels.

If we can stop our addiction to deficit spending, real prosperity is likely to reemerge. However, it will not be easy. Deficit spending cannot be cured by trimming the fat in a few government departments. I do not believe we will have real prosperity again until we end our War in Iraq. It is paid by foreign creditors, many of whom do not have our best interest at heart. It is like a chest wound to the national body. We are losing a lot of blood. We must stanch the wound. Waging a hundred year war, like John McCain has suggested, will simply bankrupt the country. If the country is bankrupt then in some way the terrorists have won because whatever is left of our country will sure not resemble the America we know today.

We should not throw good money away on a bad investment. Iraq not only a bad investment, it is increasing your costs of living. The Iraq War costs us about three billion dollars a week. Those are the short-term costs; the long-term costs of the war are truly frightening. When you factor in costs like caring for our disabled soldiers, paying interest on the debt (but never the principle) the real cost of the war will reach at least three trillion dollars.

If you think you are not already paying a war tax, you are mistaken. If you are applauding President Bush for not raising taxes, you are naïve. You pay the war tax every time you go to the gas station and fill up your gas tank. You pay it in $3 a gallon milk. You pay it in high credit card interest rates and in huge tuition costs. You pay it every day but you do not necessarily associate these costs with the war because the money is not going through the U.S. Treasury. The falling dollar and the inflation it brings is the price of a country living way beyond its means. It is the price of financing a war that we cannot afford but chose to start anyhow. These indirect taxes though do not buy you any additional prosperity. It goes to oil companies and foreign governments, many of whom we do not like. In fact, much of this war tax simply provides the financial means for us to become embroiled in more wars, because we give the money to states that do not like us. It gives them more capital to carry on their animosities. This money does not build new bridges. It does not improve the educational standards of Americans. They are in effect squandered dollars, and squandered wealth — your wealth.

We will leave Iraq and sooner than we think simply because we cannot afford to finance it must longer. What point do gas prices have to reach for us to pull the plug? My guess is about four dollars a gallon. Perhaps at that threshold we will reach national consensus and end this pointless and foolish war.

Bye Bye, Modern Conservatism

The Thinker by Rodin

The big lesson of The Cold War was that communism was unworkable. It was not that, like a shining city on the hill, it did not have some merits in the abstract. In a way, it was Christianity as Jesus had envisioned it without the Christ. In reality, communism killed millions, most of them fellow communists, in an attempt to prove that its model of governance would actually work inside our culture. It quickly devolved into a dictatorial socialism. Communism still has some adherents, but they are rare. You have to go to places like Nepal and Cuba to find communists these days.

In 2008, we should have learned another lesson: modern conservatism does not work either. The only ones who have not gotten the messages seem to be modern conservatives themselves. No matter how stupid and wrong-headed modern conservatism has proven to be in action they can neither see nor face it.

For six years the conservatives have had carte blanc. You had a conservative president with a rubber stamp conservative Congress. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that by putting their version of conservatism into practice, they ended up at odds with their own principles.

Conservatives are supposed to believe in limited government. When has the most growth in the federal government occurred lately? During two of our most conservative presidents: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Conservatives believe in giving more power to the states and less to the federal government. Yet Conservatives have been busy doing just the opposite. From intervening in the sad Terri Schiavo matter, to trampling on California’s desire to regulate automobile emissions, to overturning Oregon’s assisted suicide laws, rather than returning power to the people and the states, conservatives have proven they want to increase federal power. They cannot even be conservative about our food and are gleefully approving irradiated meats and encouraging us to consume cloned animals.

Conservatives supposedly believe in freedom from government intrusion into our personal affairs. Yet they have no qualms about allowing the NSA to listen in on our telephone calls without a warrant or to sniff our emails. Conservatives are supposed to believe in human rights, yet it was conservatives who took away some of our fundamental rights. They gave power to the president to lock up anyone he wants to as enemy combatants, including American citizens in the United States, and keep them away from the courts indefinitely.

It is all a ruse. What conservatives really want, and which is true of most politicians, is simply power. They have gone to extraordinary and likely unconstitutional lengths to acquire it and to hold on to it. Conservatism should be about relinquishing the power of the state. It is supposed to be a philosophy that gives you more personal freedom, not less. Before Bush came to power, I had the right of Habeas Corpus. Now in certain cases, I do not even have this right, a right that can be traced back to the Magna Carta.

Prior to our current president, I thought we had three branches of government. I assumed that if conservatives ran the government they would diligently respect the separation of powers. Now I find out that there is a fourth branch: Dick Cheney and that is why he cannot release any records under the Freedom of Information Act. Prior to this administration, I assumed that if a bill became law the President was constitutionally required to execute it faithfully. Now I learn that even though a president signs a bill, he can unilaterally assert the right to ignore parts of it or take actions that are the exact opposite of the intent of Congress. All he has to do is attach a signing statement. Conservatives, please show me what part of our constitution that gives the president this power.

In short, there is nothing the least bit conservative about modern conservatism. Indeed, conservatism as it is practiced today has nothing in common with conservatism at all. When someone comes along, like Ron Paul who actually parrots true conservative principles, modern conservatives snicker. A real conservative would never have gone into Iraq in the first place because real conservatives do not rush into anything. Changes, if they must occur, are done thoughtfully and only after great consideration, and typically with reluctance.

Conservatism does not really exist in this country. Instead, it has been co-opted by the ranks of people who are hotheads, obnoxiously stubborn and who cannot even be bothered to pay attention to the laws of cause and effect. Despite the last eight years, they still believe that by cutting taxes the government will balance its budget. It did not work for Ronald Reagan, and it did not work for George W. Bush either but hey, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make any sense, what matters is sticking to principle! Cutting taxes is so important that they will even borrow money today and make their children pay for it tomorrow so they can enjoy lower taxes now. In essence, modern conservatism is simply rampant selfishness for the moneyed crowd gone amok. No accumulation of disagreeable facts and outcomes can suggest to this crowd that even one of their policies was ever in error. Instead, they anticipate tomorrow, or next week, they will be proven right.

This is why they are foaming at the mouth because it looks like John McCain will win the Republican nomination. Conservatives like Ann Coulter are so upset they want to raise money for their nemesis Hillary Clinton. The reason they loathe John McCain so much is that McCain realizes to get things done you sometimes have to cross the aisle. He has demonstrated an unforgivable pragmatic streak. A true conservative never compromises principle for the sake of political expediency. (I might add, many liberal Democrats suffer from the same delusion. I saw this in the fascination for many with the candidacy of John Edwards.)

Conservatism, at least its most modern and perturbed manifestation, is in its death throes. That is why President Bush’s approval ratings are at 30% and Congress’ are even lower. That is why Democratic caucuses in overwhelmingly red states like Kansas have people waiting for hours in the freezing cold to participate. People across the country are in great pain, and it is a direct result of having conservatives in charge. They are not easily roused out of their political stupor, where they prefer to remain. However, they are roused in this election. For eight years, government has been run for the exclusive benefit of the elite. It was done this way openly and shamelessly. Middle and lower class America has paid the price in lost jobs, stagnant wages, dirtier air and a collapsing health care system. It will take another generation before they will have a chance at power again. First, they need voters who can forget their trail of carnage, and the only hope of doing that is to have no memory of it.

I hope that future generations will read take the time to read their history books. Modern conservatism like communism has proven unworkable. It should now be relegated to the dustbin of expensive lessons learned.

The measure of a democracy

The Thinker by Rodin

Here in America we are trained to look down on our lawyers. We assume that lawyers are just petty ambulance chasers. We think they are eager to bend justice for their clients but only if it also obscenely increases their fortunes. We do not understand how anyone can justify billing rates of $200 or $300 an hour by doing something as dry as reading dusty old law books. Sometimes we grudgingly express appreciation for those lawyers who attempt to provide equal justice to the poor. We do so while sometimes also expressing unhappiness if their justice was purchased with our tax dollars.

On Capitol Hill, the Republican Party seems to have an animosity toward trial lawyers. This is curious since the ranks of Congress are rife with lawyers. Nonetheless, when trial lawyers are successful suing corporations for what are perceived to be excessive punitive damages, Republicans tend to get their dander up. Tort reform is usually near the top of their agenda, right after tax cuts. Greed may be good on Wall Street, but not when their actions affect stock values.

We want to believe that lawyers are simply unnecessary. We want to think that we should be able to reach agreements without having to legalize it with these complex paper instruments we call contracts. The reality is that we need lawyers. Laws and contracts may be time consuming and expensive but they also remove legal ambiguity. Imagine the potential mess of a business merger without an enforceable contact hammered out by lawyers. Imagine if you willed your estate to your family but they ended up inheriting nothing because a judge decided arbitrarily to ignore your will. It is not obvious but, yes, we really do need lawyers. They are part of the epoxy that allows society to function in a predictable way.

In William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Dick suggests to the rebel Jack Cade that an excellent way to start an insurrection is to kill all the lawyers first. Dick may have been on to something. Lawyers are the gears that make the law work. Without lawyers, anarchy or dictatorships become possible. Most of us do not choose careers that we hate. The same is true with lawyers. It is likely that most lawyers are drawn to the law because they respect it. That so many lawyers populate Congress is likely due to their fascination with the law. (It also does not hurt that lawyers frequently have enough disposable income and the connections to be able to run for Congress in the first place.)

Perhaps like me you were stirred by the recent events in Pakistan. I was not surprised that with his grip on power loosening, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf would find it convenient to suspend the constitution and lock up most of his political opponents. Like most of us democrats, I was upset. Yet I was also very moved to see opposition arise almost immediately. Who led the opposition? They were the Pakistan’s lawyers, who marched in the streets by the thousands. By standing up for their democracy, they literally put their lives on the line. In fact, it is likely that at least hundreds of them are now in prison for doing so. So far, it appears that most of Pakistan’s masses have yet to become engaged in the struggle for democracy. The lawyers are proving to be the phalanx for the restoration of the rule of law in Pakistan. It is also clear from footage of their marches that they are passionate believers in the law and in democracy. As they proved some months ago when they stood up to Musharraf in support of their chief justice, they have the courage of their convictions.

I wish our many lawyers in our Congress had similar courage. In their case, much less courage is required. Yet most of them appear spineless. Today, for example, with the shameful support of a handful of Democratic senators, the Senate approved the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey as our new Attorney General. Senators approved the nomination even though Mukasey could not assure them that waterboarding was a form of torture. As egregious as this was, Mukasey also stated his belief that the President might have inherent powers that puts him beyond the reach of the law. Somewhere up there, Richard Nixon has an evil smile on his face.

Fifty-six men were signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Twenty-four of them were either lawyers or jurists. In the declaration, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish a new democracy called the United States of America. These were not just idle words. The British Army hunted down these signatories as treasonous rebels. If captured they would have paid with their lives. Some of them paid that price. Others spent the Revolutionary War constantly on the run leaving behind ruined families and businesses. Only one of those patriots, Thomas Jefferson, would survive and rise to become President of the United States.

I wish we had patriots in our Congress like this. We have many patriots in uniform overseas and I certainly do not mean to discount their patriotism. Thousands have died for their country, tens of thousands have been wounded, most on a mission in Iraq that will probably prove in vain. Their patriotism is beyond dispute. The least we could do to honor their sacrifices is to demonstrate patriotism by respecting the rule of the law in this country.

Congress can start by not allowing the telephone companies who broke wiretapping laws at the behest of the Bush Administration to get retroactive immunity for their illegal actions. It can do much better than this. Rather than just refer Representative Dennis Kucinich’s bill to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney to committee, where it will linger until this administration leaves office, it can press forward with real impeachment hearings. It can send a signal both to this administration and to future administrations that the egregious and unlawful unilateral expansion of executive powers by the Bush Administration will never be tolerated again.

Those courageous lawyers in Pakistan know that respect and adherence to the rule the law is the difference between civilization and anarchy. This is a lesson we should relearn now more than two hundred years into our own democratic experiment. If freedom is not free, neither is the equal application of the law. Our pragmatic founding fathers at least gave the branches of government power to check excessive power grabs by the other branches. It is long past time for the Congress, on behalf of the people who it serves, to restore the rule of law in clear and unambiguous terms.

Quick Political Hits

The Thinker by Rodin

Rather than focus on a single topic today, as is my usual practice, I just want to dump a potpourri of political thoughts that are running through my brain at the moment.

Karl Rove’s Resignation. There is plenty of evil to go around within the Bush Administration. Arguably, Bush, Cheney and Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove formed something that resembled a triumvirate of evil. Perhaps this was why Bush was so quick to notice an Axis of Evil: it takes one to know one. Cheney is the administration’s immoral head. Cheney is smart enough to know that certain actions like their torture policies, illegal electronic surveillance and the turning the Justice Department into another wing of the Republican agenda were both wrong and illegal. Rove was its amoral head. Rove simply did not care, which was arguably worse. None of them cared a whit about upholding the rule of law if it conflicted with their political agenda. It was always party first, country second. The U.S. Constitution became their toilet paper. At least with Rove’s resignation one of the heads of this hydra is gone. Karl, the 2006 election gave you the kick in the pants you deserved. The 2008 election will prove the ultimate undoing of your “legacy”. Good riddance.

Bombings in Ninevah Province, Iraq. These bombings were horrible but predictable. While it will take days to get an accurate death toll, it looks like al Qaeda terrorists murdered at least 200 Iraqis. How reprehensible but unsurprising it was that al Qaeda chose to target a small ethnic sect, the Yazidis, in these attacks. It is impossible to know whether these bombings were the consequence of our Whack a Mole strategy or not, but it seems likely. These bombings suggest two things to me. First, it demonstrates the ultimate futility of Bush’s surge. The price of modestly reducing the violence in and around Baghdad alone took most of our armed forces, yet no one is calling for a draft. In fact, it was explicitly ruled out recently. To apply our surge across the entire country of Iraq would require a draft. Yet even we could summon the will, this sort of carnage would still continue across Iraq. Second, al Qaeda’s real aims have little to do with destroying America. It is abundantly clear that al Qaeda’s goal in Iraq is to kill and terrorize Iraqis. To me the “fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” strategy amount to voluntarily relocating our citizens 6000 miles so they can be targeted by terrorists. Since our presence seems to add to the violence and needlessly kill our soldiers, why the hell are we still there?

Iowa Straw Poll. What a meaningless event. The votes do not count. Those who bother to vote have to be bribed to attend. It seems to be a way for campaigns to squander their money and for campaign consultants to earn fat paychecks. Historically there is not much correlation between winning the straw poll and winning the Republican nomination anyhow. The mainstream media would do us all a favor by simply ignoring event.

Early Voting. This crazy strategy of states trying to one up each other to be one of the early states to have primaries and caucuses has to stop. It makes no sense to cast the first votes for a party’s nominee nearly a year before the election. It raises the cost of campaigns, limit our choices and lengthens the time between determining a party’s nominee and the general election. Increasingly, if you are not politically connected or have at least a hundred million dollars of fortune stashed away, you should not even bother to run for president. However, these early voting initiatives are a great way to establish an oligarchy. It strikes me that we are halfway there already.

Declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp “Terrorists”. This is just so wrong. When we have solid evidence that members of their Guard have been ordered to fill cars with explosives and blow themselves up in crowded markets then maybe we can call them terrorists. Calling them terrorists is like calling the Chinese Army terrorists for moving ammunition into North Vietnam to aid the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. This declaration is all about building a case for attacking Iran and is doing so using broad brush propaganda tactics worthy of Goebel. It is unworthy of our great nation. Iran’s guard may be supporting their Shi’ite brothers or may be helping Iraqis end an occupation, but that is not terrorism. Let us not cheapen this dreadful word, lest it lose its meaning.

Impeach Bush and Cheney

The Thinker by Rodin

Update 7/23/2007. Here is a Microsoft Word document you can to write your own congressional representative or senator. Tailor to suit your needs, but make sure to fill in the areas between < and > as appropriate. You can get the addresses for your senators and representatives here.

If this article in yesterday’s Washington Post is correct then President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney must be impeached. This is necessary not just because I do not particularly like either of them, but because there is clear evidence that are breaking the law.

If you read this article, many of you wonder if I am making a mountain out of a molehill. You may think this might be of interest to lawyers and academics, but it is nothing that you should fret about. If you feel this way, let me try to provide an example that is more concrete.

As is true in many jurisdictions, suppose that your sheriff is elected. Suppose you were elected to the county board of supervisors. You and your fellow council members create and provide oversight to the laws (ordinances) to be followed within the county. Suppose that you and your fellow supervisors keep hearing from citizens that the cops are only pulling over blacks for speeding.

You and your fellow supervisors decide this needs investigation. Therefore, you go to the sheriff and ask him to provide records on all speeding tickets issued by your county. However, rather than cooperating the sheriff refuses to provide any information. Moreover, he dictates that no one within the police force may discuss the matter with any member of the county council. Although it is nowhere in the county’s charter, he claims that if people in the sheriff’s department were to give out this information then his ability to effectively run the police department would be hampered. He calls it the “sheriff’s inherent privilege”. Since he has a lawyer on his staff, he has the lawyer write an opinion that agrees with his assessment. Curiously, the sheriff is also his boss. He cites the opinion as his justification for not providing the information.

What would you do next if you were a member of the county council? Most likely, you would try to keep trying to discern the truth. If there was a violation of county ordinances you would want it remedied, and those responsible to be held to account to county law. After all, the current county code requires that the police department must uniformly enforce the law. Instead, you are stonewalled by the sheriff’s department. The only thing they will do is agree to short “off the record” meetings. The sheriff will limit those you can talk with. He will insist that no notes will be taken. No one is allowed to take an oath before providing testimony.

This, my friends, is exactly what the Bush Administration is doing with Congress. Congress is trying to find out whether the law of the land, which requires the Justice Department to impartially enforce the law, has been violated. If true, such actions would demonstrate serious contempt for the law. It is quite clear now that the Justice Department is apparently being used for partisan political reasons. Attorneys who investigated alleged voter fraud against Republicans are retained. Those who do not are fired. Congress is trying to find out the extent of this transgression. Is it just a few bad apples in the Justice Department? Or was this the official policy by the president?

The public would justly chastise Congress if they simply ignored the issue. Unfortunately, the Administration will not allow Congress to determine the truth. Not only do they claim that such information is covered by executive privilege, they have specifically instructed the Justice Department neither to file contempt charges nor to empower any grand juries to look into these potential violations of the law.

The effect of this policy is to make the Congress deaf, dumb and blind whenever the Executive Branch so chooses. Perhaps Congress is supposed to consult with psychics in order to determine the truth.

Our system of checks and balances is not just a good idea. It is fundamental to having an accountable government. No one should be beyond the reach of the law. It is so important that in 1868 we ratified the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, by issuing these instructions the White House is putting itself beyond the law and is also trampling on the constitution. It has become its own judge and jury. Not surprisingly, it is not finding much wrong.

For egregious violations of the rule of law that threaten the sanctity of our government and the rule of law, impeachment is the constitutionally prescribed remedy. The House of Representatives impeaches. An impeachment is a political indictment which amounts to saying “Something sure smells fishy around here.” I think that is already amply clear, but the House makes this judgment, not me. It takes a vote of two thirds of the Senate, which can only occur after an impeachment, to remove impeached office holders from office.

Given the White House’s unyielding positions, its outrageous assertions of executive privilege (which is mentioned nowhere in our constitution or in the law), as well as its many dubious “signing statements” that in some cases indicate the Executive Branch refuses to adhere to the law of the land, impeachment is the only remedy to restore the rule of law. The evidence to me is overwhelming: Bush and Cheney have egregiously, consistently and deliberately violated the separation of powers doctrine. More importantly from a legal standpoint, by not allowing the Justice Department to follow the law of the land, they have broken the law. If this policy came from Bush and Cheney then they are also lawbreakers. A grand jury indictment (impeachment) and trial (vote by the Senate) is our prescribed means to assess whether these actions are so egregious that executive leadership must change out of turn.

Yes, I know their terms have less than eighteen months to go. I also know that most Republicans in Congress are spineless at this point. During the Watergate Crisis, Republicans put the needs of the country ahead of partisanship. Sadly, I see few signs that will happen this time.

Nonetheless, their impeachment is now vital. If you are an American that believes that our constitutional form of government means something, you too much act. You must speak up. You must contact your representative and senators and let them know that Bush and Cheney should be subject to an impeachment process and, if the Senate decides, removed from office. If they refuse to follow your advice then you must take to the streets in peaceful protest until they show the respect for the rule of law.

If we fail to do this then our constitution has become a meaningless document. We will become a nation with forever two standards of justice. The United States of American will resemble Animal Farm. The pigs, in this case the Executive Branch, will forever be “more equal” than other branches. It will be accountable only when it chooses to be held accountable.

This entry is going to my representatives. If you cannot find the time to express yourself but you agree with my analysis, feel free to print this out, sign your name to it, and send it to your representatives and senators. You have my permission.

It is time to take back our country. This latest outrage is the final straw. It must not stand.

Crazy like a fox

The Thinker by Rodin

I am not the type given to needless paranoia. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how any impartial observer of Vice President Dick Cheney could read this week’s special Washington Post series on our vice president and not become very alarmed. Cheney needs to be neutered, and quickly. Dick Cheney is busy shredding our constitution. If the rule of law and our republican government are worth preserving, he must be held accountable.

Sadly, unless we raise a hullabaloo, that seems unlikely. There is some slim hope that Cheney will find it in his party’s interest to resign. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Sally Quinn asserts that Congressional Republicans are working on a putsch. Congressional Republicans seem less concerned about his un-American activities than they are about being blown away in the 2008 elections. Ms. Quinn believes that it will become convenient this summer for Cheney to resign for health reasons. She speculates that Bush would nominate Fred Thompson, the former Senator, likely presidential candidate and former Law and Order actor to replace him.

I strongly suspect such talk amounts to wishful thinking. As the Washington Post series documents, Cheney is so adept at wielding power and so used to having his way that he is unlikely to go voluntarily. Cancer works the same way. It enters the body surreptitiously, does its evil work, and refuses to leave. Cheney has become a cancer to our constitutional government. He is putting our republic in grave danger. Yes, Cheney needs to go along with any political appointee reporting to the Vice President. For even if Cheney did step down, that does not necessarily mean that the cancer would be in remission. A loyal coterie of trusted advisors would still work to carry out his agenda. Therefore, his whole staff has to go along with, if possible, any die hard neoconservative lurking in the Executive Branch.

Cheney has learned that the ceremonial trappings of the presidency slow down its fun part: the execution of power. He prefers the role of puppet master. He likes to exercise power through stealth, cleverness and proxy. After all, if you are actually in charge, you are accountable. If you are not then it becomes possible to bend, break, or in his case, generally ignore the laws, regulations and conventions. So perhaps in retrospect it should come as no surprise that he unilaterally declared that his office was exempt from an executive order which directed the collection of classified information. Although the White House was caught off guard, he knew that President Bush would retroactively back him up. What his act thoroughly demonstrates is that he cannot be controlled and does not feel at all bound by tradition or jurisprudence. He constructed a bizarre new and laughable constitutional theory that because of his nominal duties as president of the Senate he was not fully in the Executive Branch, so his office was exempt from a presidential directive to protect classified information.

This ridiculous explanation says a lot about Dick Cheney’s mind. In this case, it is a middle finger raised high at Congress. He simply does not give a damn about what the Congress thinks and this is his way of showing it. Like Leona Helmsley, he believes laws are for little people, and clearly not for Vice Presidents. Nonetheless, he does not believe in overtly breaking the law. Instead, he grossly misinterprets or reinterprets the law so that it bends to meet his aims.

The “tortured” reasoning of the Administration’s stance on torture (another Cheney innovation) is a case The Post well documented. If you need to torture but the law gets in the way then you arm-twist the White House counsel (Alberto Gonzales in this case, now our disgraced Attorney General) to give you legal opinions that say otherwise. If Jesus can turn water into wine, then surely empowered vice presidents can turn torture into legal enhanced interrogation techniques. Cheney wins through stealth, sheer audacity, intimidation and when necessary, bullying. Who in the Executive Branch would dare to take their concerns about his behavior directly to the president? Cheney is Bush’s closest confidant and best friend. As the Post series documents, Cheney has been denied virtually nothing. He specializes in the fiat accompli: proactively working behind the scenes making moot the work of cabinet secretaries and the White House staff. Today, The Post revealed that former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman resigned because Cheney kept undercutting her authority. Likely, others like Secretary of State Colin Powell are also members of this expansive club.

No wonder Cheney has no desire to be president in 2009. Effectively he has been the president since 2001! Bush, the proud model of a CEO President, has delegated policy decisions to Dick Cheney. Bush is a figurehead president, one of Cheney’s many tendrils that do his bidding. Unlike a real president, who occasionally has to do disagreeable things like hold news conferences and meet with boring foreign dignitaries, Cheney gets to concentrate on wielding power 24/7. He is Big Brother. Think I am kidding? Which one of these slogans from Big Brother does he not parrot? “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”

How did he do it? He did it by getting Bush to buy into the Unitary Executive Theory. As Bush practices it, it asserts that the Executive Branch can execute the law any way it pleases because it is independent of the Legislative Branch, even if (as numerous signing statements bear out) it completely contradicts the intent of the law. If in exercising the Executive’s prerogative a constitutional mistake was made, well, it can be left to the Supreme Court. Of course, it will likely take years for it to get on their docket, if it makes it at all. In the interim, power is exercised according to the Executive Branch’s aims. Naturally, it is harder for the Supreme Court to check the Executive Branch today, since President Bush has appointed two new members to the Supreme Court, who seem sympathetic to the theory. Cheney made sure only proponents of executive power would be nominated.

The Unitary Executive Theory means nothing if it is not practiced. Not to worry, Cheney is again leading the charge. The GAO found that of 19 provisions in signing statements that it tracked during 2006, nearly a third were not carried out according to the law. In short, Bush and Cheney have deliberately chosen not to enforce the law of the land, laws which Bush signed. Consequently, what Bush and Cheney are doing is far graver and more serious than anything Richard Nixon or his proxies did. They knew they were doing wrong, but tried to hide it. The Bush Administration feels no need to hide any of it.

Law is meaningless if not enforced. We trust the Executive Branch to impartially carry out the law, whether it agrees with it or not. (The remedy for disagreement is the veto.) Rather than have coequal branches, the application of this theory grossly, disproportionately and unconstitutionally shifts power toward the Executive Branch. Rather than it being a check on the power of Congress, the application of the Unitary Executive Theory shows an Executive Branch that is unaccountable and out of control.

The easy way out is to wait until January 2009 and hope that in a free and fair election, we will elect a president that respects the rule of law. However, this does not deter egregious behavior like this by future presidents. Consequently, Congress needs to hold the White House accountable, and Cheney is the obvious target. For the law has been broken. The Bush Administration has deliberately circumvented the law of the land. Moreover, it did so not accidentally, but quite deliberately. Its fingerprints can be found in its many signing statements. If it requires a constitutional crisis to resolve the issue of legality of signing statements, Congress owes it to future generations to charge ahead.

We citizens must demand that our government add additional checks so that someone like Dick Cheney can never usurp the rule of law with impunity again. This may require a constitutional amendment that clarifies the legality of signing statements and the duties of the president to uniformly and impartially enforce the law. Cheney’s actions have exposed a gaping hole in our system of government. It has thus far not been a problem because we have had leaders who had sufficient respect for the constitution to put it above their own partisan purposes. We must ensure that our constitution becomes meaningful again through a constitutional amendment and subsequent legislation.

Cheney should just resign

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in May I wrote that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld should be fired for bad judgment. He led the United States into a war with Iraq by clearly substituting innuendo from flakes for facts and solid intelligence. I should have also called for Vice President Dick Cheney’s resignation. Hopefully Rumsfeld knew his advice could be in error. But it appears Cheney never had any such doubts. According to The Washington Post:

In January, Cheney repeated his view that Iraq was tied to al Qaeda, saying that “there’s overwhelming evidence” of an Iraq-al Qaeda connection. He said he was “very confident there was an established relationship there.”

As you may recall when the 9/11 Commission released its preliminary findings on June 16th it stated it could find no evidence of any collaborative relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Did such a high level bipartisan finding bother Dick Cheney? Of course not! The very next day he was out asserting for the umpteenth time that such a collaborative relationship did in fact exist. He drew attention to a long since discredited report of a meeting in the Czech Republic between Mohammad Atta and the Iraqi consul to Prague, Ahmed al-Ani.
Again from The Washington Post:

As for the Atta meeting in Prague mentioned by Cheney, the commission staff concluded: “We do not believe that such a meeting occurred.” It cited FBI photographic and telephone evidence, along with Czech and U.S. investigations, as well as reports from detainees, including the Iraqi official with whom Atta was alleged to have met.

Now it appears that Cheney is indirectly admitting that he may have had his facts wrong all along. From Reuters:

The Sept. 11 commission, which reported no evidence of collaborative links between Iraq and al Qaeda, said on Tuesday that Vice President Dick Cheney had no more information than commission investigators to support his later assertions to the contrary.

So now we get this spin from Cheney’s office:

Cheney spokesman Kevin Kellems denied any conflict between the commission’s finding of no Saddam/al Qaeda relationship and the vice president’s position. He described Cheney as being “pleased” about the commission’s statement and said the message “put to rest a non-story.”

Cheney’s words have hitherto been crystal clear. He has repeated over and over again like a broken record that Saddam and al Qaeda had a collaborative relationship. But now through his spokesman Cheney is asserting tacit agreement with the 9/11 Commission. He is saying that in fact a collaborative relationship did not exist. In other words, Cheney has been lying, perhaps to himself, but definitely to Bush and to the American people all along. He sold us a false assertion based on nothing credible at all. And he did it over and over again.

I remember back when George H. W. Bush was president. I am not a praying man, yet I would regularly pray regularly that Bush Sr. would not die in office. The idea of a boob like Dan Quayle becoming chief executive scared the pee out of me, and many others.

George W. Bush is Dan Quayle in the Oval Office, just not as good looking and seemingly less intelligent. And now we know that Bush outsourced his judgment to his senior leadership and in particular the Vice President. And now it is clear that on matters of national security Cheney couldn’t or simply wouldn’t bother to discern fact from fiction. At best this is gross incompetence. At worst it is treason.

These are scary times indeed. Keep praying nothing worse happens until Kerry and Edwards inhabit the White House in January 2005. The grownups need to get back in charge ASAP.

A vice president with some decency in his soul would resign over this mess. Instead we have one who profanely tells senators to have intercourse with themselves on the Senate floor. Cheney should resign for his many bald-faced lies on this and other issues. It is clear he used his leverage with Bush to begin an unnecessary war. This is a war that has killed nearly a thousand of our soldiers and injured tens of thousands more. And it is a war that has killed at least ten thousand Iraqis, and likely a lot more.

But unfortunately Cheney can’t be fired. He is a constitutional officer. He can only choose to resign or be impeached. And we all know Bush would never ask for Cheney’s resignation. In fact, he’s such a fool he will nominate Cheney as his Vice President for a second term. This act may be the Achilles heel that loses him the election.

At least one person with balls told Bush to his face what he should have heard. I leave you with this interview with Democratic Senator Joe Biden from Rolling Stone:

Here’s what the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says he told Bush and Cheney in a recent visit: “I was in the Oval Office the other day, and the president asked me what I would do about resignations. I said, ‘Look, Mr. President, would I keep Rumsfeld? Absolutely not.’ And I turned to Vice President Cheney, who was there, and I said, ‘Mr. Vice President, I wouldn’t keep you if it weren’t constitutionally required.’ I turned back to the president and said, ‘Mr. President, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld are bright guys, really patriotic, but they’ve been dead wrong on every major piece of advice they’ve given you. That’s why I’d get rid of them, Mr. President — not just Abu Ghraib.’ They said nothing. Just sat like big old bullfrogs on a log and looked at me.”

He hasn’t given the president a pass in the past, either: “About six months ago, the president said to me, ‘Well, at least I make strong decisions, I lead.’ I said, ‘Mr. President, look behind you. Leaders have followers. No one’s following. Nobody.'”