Perhaps more than most liberals, I actually do sympathize with Barack Obama in his strong desire to avoid prosecuting (soon to be) former Bush officials for their various crimes. It would look vindictive. Most importantly, it would create a political firestorm at the very moment he needs to push an incredibly full legislative plate through Congress.
And to be honest, there is something to be said for the idea of not wanting to “criminalize” politics. Do we really want to get into a position where every time there’s a turnover in party control of the White House, the new guys go on a scavenger hunt looking for things to prosecute the old crew for?
Who could claim that would be in the national interest?
But as reasonable as all this sounds, ultimately it suffers from a fundamental flaw of logic due to the failure to take into account the fabled 800 pound elephant in the room — the fact that when it comes to criminality, the Bush boys and girls aren’t just any old administration. No, we’re talking here about the Corleone family of presidencies — an administration that almost from the opening bell, and continuing for every second thereafter, claimed an almost absolute right to disregard the rule of law at its whim.
Whether we’re discussing politicizing of the Department of Justice, torturing suspects, illegal surveillance, disregarding environmental statutes, frustrating all efforts at congressional oversight, outing a CIA agent for political revenge and then covering it up, handing out massive bribes in the form of no-bid contracts to political contributors (and so much more), the story is always the same.
“The rule of law?” say the Bushies. “Don’t make us laugh.”
And if George W. Bush is free to ignore the law anytime his chickenhawk little heart desires, what exactly prevents any future president from claiming the same privilege?
There are some things so obvious they shouldn’t have to be spoken, but I guess this one needs to be screamed out loud again and again. The rule of law becomes meaningless unless there are consequences for its violation.
Let’s say it again: the rule of law becomes meaningless unless there are consequences for its violation.
And as it happens, this is something I wrote about more than six years ago, back very early in the Bush Administration. See if you don’t think the words are as timely today as they were back then:
Welcome to George W. Bush’s America, where we no longer have a “government of laws and not men,” but increasingly a government of just one man (with a little help from dad’s friends).
We have to ask ourselves what this means for our democracy, already hobbled by the last election. The rule of law is, after all, the life blood of any democratic system - what separates true democracies, like the United States, from fraudulent ones, like the old Soviet Union. The right to vote by itself isn’t ultimately the point: it’s the right to have that vote translated into controlling law that gives the process meaning. When a president claims the privilege to simply make up the rules as he goes along, this meaning evaporates.
It’s the same sad story on individual liberties. James Madison always worried that the Bill of Rights would become a mere “parchment barrier,” with little practical power to protect individual freedoms. It now seems that Bush agrees with him, although unlike Madison, he views this as an opportunity, instead of a threat.
So, yes, the importance of the rule of law has been haunting my thoughts lately. Maybe it’s been haunting yours, too. The question, of course, is whether it will ever haunt enough of us badly enough that we will finally do something about it.
So, I’m sorry. I understand where Obama is coming from in wanting to avoid the political fallout that would come from pursuing criminal charges against Bush officials. I really do. But there’s more on the line here than just what’s politically expedient for him right now.
Maybe people don’t have to go to jail. Maybe not every one of the bottomless pit of high crimes and misdemeanors committed by this group of hoodlums needs to be prosecuted.
But there must be some measure of accountability. The future health of our democratic system depends on it.