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, January 14, 2007

The collapse of the Bush presidency poses risks

(updated below)

From Rasmussen Reports, the favorite polling firm of Bush followers:

For the second straight day, 35% of Americans approve of the way that George W. Bush is performing his role as President. That’s the lowest level of Approval ever measured by Rasmussen Reports.

That polling was conducted after the President's "surge" speech. What is particularly notable is this observation:

It is interesting to note that the last time the President’s Approval Ratings hit a new low followed the President’s speech on immigration. Typically, President’s (sic) expect to get a positive bounce following a national address.

It really is striking that whenever one is convinced that Bush's unpopularity ratings have reached their nadir, the one thing that can always drive them even further downward is Bush's appearance on national television to explain himself to the country (or, to use Jules Crittenden's classic formulation: for the President to "address us . . . and show us the way forward"). Even after six years, the more Americans see and hear from George Bush, the more they dislike him.

The collapse of the Bush presidency is truly historic. It is always worth remembering that when Richard Nixon was forced to resign the Presidency, his Gallup approval rating was 25%. The 35% Rasmussen figure for Bush is above the low points measured by most other polls (which is why it is the favorite metric for Bush followers), but it is still abominably low. AP-Ipsos reported several days ago that Bush had just reached an all-time low in its poll -- 32%.

If George Bush continues to appear in public and makes speeches, he's going to soon be within the margin of error of Nixon's resignation-compelling unpopularity. While a weakened Bush presidency may appear intuitively to be a cause for celebration, it poses a serious danger.

In a characteristically perceptive Op-Ed in this morning's Washington Post, Dahlia Lithwick makes the point that Bush's extremist actions -- such as Jose Padilla's detention, the Guantanamo abuses, and omnipotence-declaring signing statements -- have no real objective except one: "The object is a larger one: expanding executive power, for its own sake."

When I began writing about the Bush administration's violations of FISA, what confounded me at first was the sheer pointlessness of the lawbreaking. It was not merely that the FISA court has always allowed the President -- all presidents -- to do whatever eavesdropping they wanted, and that bypassing it was therefore unnecessary.

That is true. But more significantly, if the President wanted FISA changed, even radically, to vest him with still greater powers, the unprecedentedly compliant post-9/11 Congress was as eager as could be to grant all of his wishes and to give him whatever new powers he wanted. It did so repeatedly, at exactly the time (October, 2001) when he ordered eavesdropping in violation of the law.

In fact, Congress did amend FISA to grant expanded eavesdropping powers -- in complete accordance with the President's request -- at the very same time Bush ordered illegal eavesdropping. As I wrote in my book:

The picture that emerged [from the Times story on NSA eavesdropping] presented a sharply contradictory set of circumstances. A president who commanded the support and loyalty of national politicians in both parties. A president who sought, and was given, expanded powers by Congress to combat terrorism. A Congress that, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, repeatedly and with virtual unanimity agreed to every request the president made. And yet a president who chose to secretly order eavesdropping on American citizens, on U.S. soil, in violation of the very law he had just requested.

The reason Bush violated the law when eavesdropping is the same reason Lithwick cites to explain his other lawless and extremist measures -- because he wanted purposely not to comply with the law in order to establish the general "principle" that he was not bound by the law, to show that he has the power to break the law, that he is more powerful than the law. This is a President and an administration that are obsessed first and foremost with their own power and with constant demonstrations of their own strength. Conversely, what they fear and hate the most is their own weakness and submission to limitations.

For that reason, the weaker and more besieged the administration feels, the more compelled they will feel to make a showing of their power. Lashing out in response to feelings of weakness is a temptation most human beings have, but it is more than a mere temptation for George Bush. It is one of the predominant dynamics that drives his behavior.

His party suffered historic losses in the 2006 midterm elections as a result of profound dissatisfaction with his presidency and with his war, and his reaction was to escalate the war, despite (really, because of) the extreme unpopularity of that option. And as Iraq rapidly unraveled, he issued orders that pose a high risk of the conflict engulfing Iran. When he feels weak and restrained, that is when he acts most extremely.

Bush officials and their followers talk incessantly about things like power, weakness, domination, humiliation. Their objectives -- both foreign and domestic -- are always to show their enemies that they are stronger and more powerful and the enemies are weaker and thus must submit ("shock and awe"). It is a twisted world view but it dominates their thinking (and that is how our country has been governed for the last six years, which is what accounts for our current predicament). As John Dean demonstrated, a perception of one's weakness and the resulting fears it inspires are almost always what drive people to seek out empowering authoritarian movements and the group-based comforts of moral certitude.

The most dangerous George Bush is one who feels weak, powerless and under attack. Those perceptions are intolerable for him and I doubt there are many limits, if there are any, on what he would be willing to do in order to restore a feeling of power and to rid himself of the sensations of his own weakness and defeat.

UPDATE: This great Digby post (including the update) concerns Iran and relates to all of the issues in this post.

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