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Renewing Our Democracy
29%. That is the percentage of Americans who approve of the President’s performance today. To me it is an accurate appraisal, as it has been a disappointing time for our nation. Despite a sustained economic recovery wages haven’t risen and jobs haven’t been created at historic norms. Iraq has gone terribly wrong, costing American lives, respect and so much money. Katrina showed terrifying incompetence, reminding us with Bush we are not safer. So little has worked as advertised in this age of Bush, and critical challenges like the funding of the retirement of baby boom, really improving our schools, fixing our broken immigration system, offering all Americans access to health insurance, lessening our dependence on foreign sources of energy and global climate change have gone unmet.
But there is another dimension to this disappointing age of Bush that needs a thorough discussion – its morality. Has there ever been an American governing party which showed so little regard for the rule of law? Have there ever been so many criminal investigations into a governing party in American history?
Consider the record.
- Duke Cunningham receives the longest jail sentence of any sitting Congressman in American history.
- House Majority Leader DeLay, one of the criminal masterminds of this era is indicted, for among other things, corrupting the redistricting process in his home state Texas.
- #3 at the CIA, Dusty Foggo, indicted.
- Former House Appropriations Chair Jerry Lewis, the architect of the corruption of the earmarking process, has racked up over $1 million in legal bills and seems to be the next to go.
- A business rival of Jack Abramoffi is denounced on on the floor of the House by now convicted Congressman Bob Ney and is then soon murdered by a known South Florida mafia hitman.
- Two senior White House staffers – Libby and Safavian – are indicted, brought to trial and convicted.
- A senior official at Interior pleads guilty and is on his way to jail.
- The Republican leadership covered up, for years, the awful sexual recklessness of Mark Foley, and then put him in charge of the Committee for Missing and Exploited Children.
- A male prostitute, with a public web site hawking his services, somehow gains a White House press pass, and regularly asks questions at the daily White House press briefing for what is in essence a fictitious conservative organization.
- The Administration and Republican Party’s condoning of torture, establishment of secret prisons, regular practice of “rendition,” their repeal of habeas corpus for non-citizens and the overall undermining of the Geneva Conventions.
- The hanging out to dry of those kids in the Iraqi torture photos, calling them a few bad apples, when we now know that extreme torture policies had been signed off on by Rumsfeld himself. The warentless spying on our citizens.
- The extraordinary and perhaps illegal overstepping of even the generous provisions of the Patriot Act for National Security Letters.
- Putting our kids into battle without proper equipment or training.
- The incredible politicization of the US Attorney system, starting in 2002 with Rove’s removal of the US Attorney in Guam for pursuing a guy named Jack Abramoff. Attorney General Gonzales' public, and now exposed, lie about his role in it all.
- Jack Abramoff and his corrupt use of non-profits, his ripping off of Indian tribes, his serial bribing of public officials and his countless visits to the White House.
- The scandal of Walter Reed and other Veteran’s homes, and of the Administration’s repeated attempts to cut veteran’s benefits while sending our kids to fight in his ill-conceived war.
- The savaging of two war heroes, John Kerry and Max Cleland, by a President who skipped his National Guard Service and a Vice President who deferred his way out of Vietnam.
- The lying to the world about the cause of war.
- The corruption and patronage of the Iraqi contracting process.
- The buying off of journalists and commentators from Miami to Washington.
- Their argument in the 2000 Florida recount that conducting a legally sanctioned recount of what was clearly a troubled election was illegal – an argument amazingly upheld by their allies on the Supreme Court.
- An FEC audit finds the 2004 Bush campaign overspent their Federal allotment by $40 million, a whole lot of money in a race decided by a single state.
- Their systemic efforts to deny legitimate voters their right to vote.
- Their ignoring of the cries from New Orleans.
- Their cutting the taxes of the wealthiest among us while blocking an increase in the minimum wage, currently at its lowest level of buying power in 50 years.
- The demonization of Hispanic immigrants in the 2006 elections.
- The over the top partisanship on just about every issue. The list goes on and on….
I am no historian, but we have to start asking - has there been anything like this in American history? This kind of whatever it takes politics – the abuse of power, the systemic corruption, the sense that the rules don’t apply to them, the trampling of our liberties, the constant and never ending lying? The conduct of our leaders in this period has extra-ordinary, corrupt and terrible. It has been a profound betrayal of the public trust placed in them by the American people.
We will probably now see a protracted battle over whether it is proper for Rove and the White House team to offer proper Congressional testimony on the firings of the 8 US Attorneys. While this is an important battle, and of course they should all testify, the real battle ahead for the leaders of both parties is to re-establish the morality and virtue of the American government itself. The modern conservatives running our nation these past few years have betrayed our noble heritage, betrayed their historic commitment to limited government, and certainly betrayed the “for the people” sentiment of their Party’s visionary first President. We have lost, temporarily, something that has made America different, and better, than the rest of the world. Together, we need to bring it back, and re-establish here at home what we have worked so hard to export to the rest of the world – liberty, open markets, the rule of law, and of course, democracy.
But bringing back the moral mission of America in the years ahead, doesn’t mean looking the other way and pretending these terrible years never happened. Leaders of both parties need to hold Bush and his allies accountable for the way they’ve run our government. We have to take steps to understand what happened, undo things that can be undone, have a public discussion about our democratic heritage and the rule of law, and then, where appropriate, be forceful in holding those who broke American law accountable. If Republicans are unwilling to do this, Democrats should do it themselves, all under the banner of “renewing our democracy,” and look to broaden the initiative to include things like the webcasting of all Congressional hearings, same day voter registration and other efforts to make it much easier for people to register and vote (like the funding of vote by mail experiments), much stiffer criminal penalties for those acting to deny any voter the legitimate right to vote and better disclosure for all 501 c (3)s, 501 c (4)s and 501 c (6)s organizations which collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars influencing the public debate but have very light reporting requirements.
Another important step in this effort to “renew our democracy” should be a bi-partisan effort to significantly increase the budget of Department of Justice’s Office of Public Integrity for the next ten years, and work to wall off those there from outside political interference. Because of the deep and broad public corruption of this era, this office, which been the lead anti-corruption prosecutor in recent years, has more work and possible cases to try than it can handle. It needs more resources to make sure than any significant corruption during this era is pursued, either through investigation or trial. As it is non-partisan and staffed by career prosecutors, it will be seen as fair and just. Failure to give this Office more money is a tacit acceptance that those who broke the law in this era will go unpunished, something that no leader of either party can accept.
The behavior of these modern conservatives running our country these last few years has been disgraceful. It is critical that our emerging leaders punish those who broke the law, stop other potential betrayals of the public trust, and start a process that will renew our democracy, giving the American people faith that their leaders once again have their best interests at heart.