I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The respectful, polite GOP attacks on Clinton

When Instapundit decided a couple of days ago to label as "unpatriotic" anyone who believes that the Bush Administration deliberately misled the nation into war, one of his most eager defenders was Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom, who not only defended, but further advanced, the accusation. In response to my post yesterday documenting that Republicans made exactly the type of allegations against Clinton and his military deployments which Instapundit and Jeff believe to be proof of a lack of patriotism, Jeff wrote a reply in Comments, trying to distinguish between the GOP attacks on Clinton and the Democrats’ current attacks on Bush.

Goldstein’s whole argument rests on the question-begging assumption that, unlike the GOP’s attacks on Clinton, the Democrats’ WMD accusations against Bush have been definitively and dispositively disproven -- apparently all because a Senate Committee rejected them -- such that no person operating in good faith can continue to believe them. Thus, he reasons, since those who are voicing this WMD accusation can’t really believe it, they must be doing it to harm the President and without regard to the damage it does to our war effort, and that is unpatriotic.

Let’s put to the side the odd notion that when a Senate Committee speaks, it is to be taken as gospel, such that disagreement with its conclusions is proof that one has lost touch with reality. Let us also put to the side the fact that the question which Goldstein seems to believe that Committee answered -- i.e., whether the Administration purposely suppressed and manipulated pre-war WMD intelligence in order to create a false and unduly aggressive National Intelligence Estimate to show to Congress -- is precisely the issue which the Committee has not yet answered, because its GOP Chairman, Sen. Roberts, blocked Phase II of the Committee’s investigation (the part which was to deal with that question) until Sen. Reid, with his closed-door Senate "stunt," recently forced that part of the investigation to proceed.

Although that investigation is not yet complete, it simply undeniable that there is ample evidence which, if it does not prove, at least permits the good faith assertion that the Administration knew that many of the pre-war WMD claims which it was unequivocally asserting were, in fact, subject to grave doubt. Much of that evidence has been disclosed for the first time just this past week, which is what is fueling the renewal of this debate.

The notion, then, that this entire issue has already been conclusively resolved in Bush’s favor, such that nobody can reasonably discuss it any longer, is nothing more than self-serving, wishful thinking. There is ample documentary and evidentiary support for the belief that the Administration played fast and loose with the pre-war facts in order to sell the war. The only egregious bad faith argumentation that I can see is coming from those screaming "unpatriotic" in order to stifle the debate and prevent it from occurring.

The broader and more important point here is that these new GOP patriotism attacks are based upon the transparently false notion that Democrats are attacking Bush in a way that the GOP would never have attacked a Democratic President. After 8 years of the most extreme and virulent attacks by the GOP against President Clinton, that claim is just absurd.

Both sides are equally power hungry. At this point, both will use any tactic, provided it is effective (and regardless of whether it is fair or honest) which can hurt the other side’s standing. Both sides are brimming over with individuals and groups which recognize no constraints whatsoever on the rhetoric they employ, the accusations they make, or the devotion to having their side win.

A litmus test for determining whether someone has relinquished their intellectual honesty and replaced it with partisan blindness is whether they believe that the "other side" is more power-hungry than their side, or whether the "other side" will engage in tactics and attacks which their side is too decent and ethical to consider.

If you listen to right-wing radio or read its blogs, you will witness conservatives excoriating themselves for being too ethical, too upstanding and too demure, and they rail against their leaders for failing to engage in the vicious, win-at-all-costs warfare which "liberals" wield without mercy. And, of course, if you read the left-wing blogs, you hear the same exact complaints, only in reverse -- it is the right wing which is filled with amoral Machiavellian monsters, and liberal politicians must finally give up on their quaint standards of honesty and goodness and fight back.

Our political dialogue is fundamentally poisoned on both sides. And trying to figure out who started it is as impossible as it is pointless.

One can certainly argue that the starting point for this was the endless attacks on the Clinton presidency, involving every allegation from rape to drug running to murder, and culminating in accusations that he ordered military attacks just to distract attention from domestic scandals. It is hard to imagine allegations against a President which are more damaging to the U.S. than claiming that he is bombing another country or deploying the military not because U.S. national security requires it, but because doing so will distract attention from political scandals.

Goldstein tries to disassociate Republicans from tactics like the "wag the dog" accusation by claiming that it was emanating from just a few stray corners of the GOP, when the reality is that these accusations were loudly advanced by the two most senior GOP elected officials at the time, Senate Majority Leader Lott and House Majority Leader Armey, as well as by Sen. Larry Craig on behalf of the GOP Senate Policy Committee.

This onslaught of attacks on Clinton’s motives and honesty was followed, of course, by the crowning achievement of political destruction -- his impeachment over a sex scandal, despite his towering popularity. These GOP attacks on Clinton were coordinated and systematic.

Is there any doubt that these ugly, endless attacks by the GOP against Clinton are the ancestors of some of the more extreme accusations which have been disseminated against Bush -- that he went to war for Halliburton profits, that he had Osama bin Laden secretly imprisoned and would spring him right before the 2004 election, that he won both elections by virtue of vote fraud? No matter which anti-Bush accusation one wants to point to as being the most over the "line," the accusation has its roots in some equally poisonous attack made, over and over, against Clinton.

Or, in search of the starting point, one could plausibly claim that the mocking attacks on Ronald Reagan’s intellect and motives– rather than just his policies and viewpoints – was what really soured relations between the two sides. Or, I suppose, one could go back even further to the cultural wars of the 1960s to suggest that this is when the entrenched dichotomy began.

But identifying the starting point for this deterioration is an impossible and fruitless exercise. Our toxic political dialogue likely has no definitive starting point, but instead germinated by degree and then progressed incrementally to bring us to where we are now. And where we are now is that both sides mirror the other side’s tactics, accusations, and insatiable appetite for blindly partisan warfare, with virtually no recognized limits. And we are rapidly trending towards the elimination of the very few limits which remain.

That is why these pious patriotism attacks from Republican circles ring so false. After eight years of the most despicable and extreme allegations imaginable -- and after using its Congressional majority to impeach the twice-elected and highly popular U.S. President -- Republicans are in no position to hold themselves out as beacons of such lofty concepts as respecting the President’s standing during wartime, or the proper limits of political rhetoric, or the critical importance of avoiding arguments which are advanced strictly for political gain.

If, as we are now hearing, it renders one "unpatriotic" to attack a President’s honesty and motives, particularly with respect to war, then Republicans are as "unpatriotic" as the Democrats, because the Republicans did exactly that to Clinton which they are now decrying as "unpatriotic" when the Democrats are doing it to Bush. It is tiresome, cynical and hypocritical, and I really doubt that anyone other than the True Believers will be persuaded by it.

UPDATE: Goldstein has posted a reply to this post, which I just read. I will write a reply assuming I have things to say which I think advance the discussion.

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