As most of you know by now, former presidential aide John Yoo wrote some of the internal memos that got the ball rolling on the unitary executive concept of presidential power. Today John Yoo met John Conyers.
Conyers: Could the President order a suspect buried alive?
Yoo: Uh, Mr. Chairman, I don’t think I’ve ever given advice that the President could order someone buried alive. . .
Conyers: I didn’t ask you if you ever gave him advice. I asked you thought the President could order a suspect buried alive.
Yoo: Well Chairman, my view right now is that I don’t think a President . . . no American President would ever have to order that or feel it necessary to order that.
In the universe of weak dodges, this gambit is so flimsy that you have to wonder how Yoo kept a straight face. During the Abu Ghraib scandal these same Unitary Executive buffs were often asked whether the president could freely order torture and other forms of prisoner abuse. But he wouldn’t do that, they responded. Of course John Yoo’s bosses certainly did order torture, so the question isn’t exactly academic.
Being an insider Yoo knows full well what the president ordered, which is why the question puts him in a bit of a bind. If he reiterates the ‘unitary executive’ theory in Congressional testimony he will discredit himself, his associates and the entire Bush movement. But if he rejects it then he sets up the next question: what should the penalty be for a President who knowingly breaks the law? Yoo is too loyal a soldier to get caught in that trap, even if staying out of it makes him look like a moron. As the saying goes, it’s better to stay quiet and be thought a fool and open your mouth and piss off Dick Cheney.
Fundamentally, the reason why Bush officials like Yoo and Addington show such total contempt for Congress is also the answer to the question that Conyers asked John Yoo: a rule without a penalty is no rule at all. If Congress won’t enforce the law when the President breaks it, then why should he pretend the law is there? For all intents and purposes it isn’t. Yoo’s answer to Conyers, then, is to lean back, smirk and ask what are you going to do about it?
Both sides of that conversation know the answer: nothing. Maybe Conyers will hold another hearing and invite another Bush official to crap on his desk.
It’s hard to put into words exactly how disgusted I feel right now with my party and its weasel leaders. Glenn Greenwald, riffing off a post by John below, comes pretty close. I would throw in the ecstatic rightwing support for police state government powers (and I’m not talking about the fringe – the line starts at Andrew Sullivan and includes every Republican Congressperson save one) to make a larger point. On the subject of government power, the reversal was so extreme that it was like watching the GOP step out of a bodysnatcher pod. It became obvious America doesn’t have a conservative party any longer. There aren’t even that many conservatives; if it was Jews most cities couldn’t form a minyan. In the late Bush era, if you count out the fringe parties we have on the one hand reformed ‘conservatives’ whose domestic and foreign policy amounts to stalinism minus the healthcare, and on the other hand you have Democrats.
The obvious problem with that formula is that Democrats aren’t that institutionally opposed to the kind of ideas that neo-Republicanism holds dear. After all, since the FDR era left-right alignment Democrats traditionally argued for more government power and Republicans, gummint haters that they were, acted as the counterweight. The danger is that with the counterweight gone (or scared crazy, as the case clearly is) the ‘middle’ will be redefined as something between New Dealism and stalinism.
The Democrats are now at a pivot point – they can implicitly endorse the new ‘middle’ by chasing it politically (read: Steny Hoyer) or they can reject it and reestablish a new ‘middle’ somewhere close to where it was when the nation reacted with horror at the Church Commission findings and enacted FISA (read: Chris Dodd). Thanks more to the tireless efforts of Bush, Rove, Bill Frist and Tom DeLay than their own good qualities Democrats will win a sizable victory one way or another. Thus Democrats have a uniquely free hand to choose their direction and, as the governing majority, the direction of the country.
The key person in this equation isn’t Steny Hoyer. A spirited leadership challenge in 2009 can put him someplace where his antiquated Gephardtism can do less damage, and if he lacks the confidence of a Democratic President it will probably succeed. Too bad Hoyer won’t lack the confidence of the President. Rather than reject it Barack Obama has explicitly endorsed the Hoyer bill in toto, and so that’s where ‘the middle’ will be as far as the two parties are concerned, somewhere between New Dealism and the USSR. Let me correct myself then – the Democrats aren’t at a pivot point anymore. We pivoted in the wrong direction. That sound you hear is Pat Buchanan pounding Wild Turkey and sobbing.
Me, I’ll still support Democratic candidates for the reasons that John already listed. But for enthusiasm I’ll watch the Steelers.