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.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Disillusioned Conservatives & the Virtue of Gridlock

With the Abramoff plea bargain only the latest in a long line of revelations casting a powerful light on the corrupt underbelly of the GOP political machine, many intellectually honest conservatives and right-leaning independents are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Republican Party – a Party now devoted almost exclusively to allegiance to George Bush and the perpetuation of its own power, and which has almost nothing to do with actual conservatism.

And how can they not be disillusioned? The Republican Party is not only plagued by entrenched Abramoff-like corruption, but also extreme and pervasive cronyism of the worst sort -- from the reconstruction of Iraq to the Kartrina-ravaged Gulf Coast, and, of course, at the very core of the political appointment process in Washington. And when you then throw onto that odorous pile the array of decidedly un-conservative behavior exhibited by the Administration – from exploding discretionary federal spending and a resultant, unprecedented deficit; creeping federal government intervention in virtually every area of our lives; and the full-scale embrace of theories of an Executive who transcends the rule of law – mass conservative disillusionment seems unavoidable, if not long overdue.

The obvious problem for this growing group of dissatisfied center-right voters is that all the Republican corruption in the world doesn’t make them agree any more with the Democratic Party’s positions, leading them to wonder what they ought to do. The always intellectually honest conservative blogger John Cole has a very interesting post on the Abramoff scandal which perfectly illustrates this dynamic:

Many of you are probably wondering why this [post urging that Republicans throw Abramoff "under a bus"] made me laugh. The reason is simple- the time to throw people under the bus is when you first learn they are dirty, which we learned about many of these guys a while ago. This Abramoff scandal isn’t new. We have known that DeLay is a crook for a while, and yet people to this day continue to defend him. Duke Cunningham was on the take for a long while. The time to throw these folks under the bus was last year, or years before- not a couple days before Abramoff makes a plea agreement and all the ugly comes out.

We own these bastards now, and we are gonna take our lumps. Pretending we had nothing to do with them will not work . . . . [A] lot of these people [corrupt Republicans] need to be thrown under the bus, and it would probably do the country good (if the Democrats were not so damned dangerous themselves), if the Republicans were sent into the wilderness to find their soul for a couple of years.

One can empathize with John’s dilemma, which seems increasingly common. We only have two real political parties to choose from, and the fact that Republican Party is awash with scandal, corruption and soul-lessness doesn’t render any less anathema to John the viewpoints of John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. So what is he to do?

There was, of course, a time when Democrats, particularly Congressional Democrats, were entrenched in beltway power, and -- leave aside for the moment comparative arguments about degree -- corruption took root and grew to the highest levels. That was the era of bloated pork lords like Dan Rostenkowski and Jim Wright, where the true agenda of the Congressional leadership was preserving Democratic hegemony over Congress and growing fat on self-serving pork rather than any ideological goals of liberalism. It’s just human nature that power corrupts in that fashion. With rare exception, people and groups which obtain institutionalized power will want to keep it and get more of it, and will turn to increasingly sordid means for achieving that goal.

What typically saves us -- by quite deliberate design of the Founders -- is that it’s very difficult for any one faction to obtain unrestrained power in our system of Government. But the Bush-loyal Republicans are as close to getting it as any other group has been. They control all three branches of the federal Government and are using that control – with redistricting schemes and the like which make it almost impossible for incumbents to lose – to consolidate and build on that power for a long time to come. As a result, with very rare exception, the other two branches don’t serve as a check on Executive abuses and excesses; Bush hasn’t vetoed a single Congressional bill; and the judiciary is becoming filled more and more every day with deferential Republican appointees.

Not even the most disillusioned conservative is going to be enthusiastic about the prospect of replacing a Republican-dominated government with a Democrat-dominated one, but for such individuals, aren’t things like logjam and diffuse power and muddled, non-ideological compromises and mutual watchdog activities infinitely preferable to allowing the Republicans continued free and unrestrained run of the federal Government?

The amount of harm which any one party can do is much more limited when there is a balance of power rather than the unrestrained Republican hegemony we have now. And gridlock restrains corruption in a way that one-party domination never can.

If a Republican President knows that a Democratic Congress is searching out corruption and scandals of lawlessness in the Executive Branch rather than doing what it can to help conceal and even perpetuate them, doesn’t it stand to reason that an Administration will be more restrained in pushing ethical and legal limits? And conversely, if Congress knows that an Executive Branch controlled by the opposite party is exceedingly willing to use the prosecutorial powers of the Justice Department to investigate and punish lobbyist-driven corruption, aren’t members of Congress going to be more careful?

The true partisan loyalists are always going to want full control of the Government by their party. But for people like John Cole – who care more about political principles than partisan gain for its own sake – isn’t it best to hope and work for the end of unrestrained and inherently corrupting government power resting exclusively in the hands of a single political party in Washington? For disillusioned right-leaning voters like John who are understandably unwilling to simply transfer the same unrestrained power to Democrats, doesn’t logjam and a balance of power seem like an attractive option at this point?

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