The Cheney Doctrine. Regular readers of this blog might think that my incessant harping on the authoritarian theme is so much beating of a dead horse, but as long as it remains a threat, it isn't really dead. And it still remains a threat until we drive a stake through its blackened heart.
The trend in America toward authoritarianism began in the Cold War fears that followed World War II, and the Civil Rights and anti-war revolts of the 1960s and 70s were flawed attempts to push back. Flawed because it attacked symptoms and not the disease as aspirin covers up for a time chonic joint pain. Too many Americans complacently identified the threat as limited to a particular personality--Richard Nixon--and not a mentality that was far more pervasive. And the people with this mentality were not going to take Nixon's defeat as the final word on the matter. And in 1980 they were back in the driver's seat.
That push back became characterized by the right-wing backlash as motivated by liberal cultural decadents and anti-war "hippies." Isn't everyone who's against the war, even now, tarred by that hippy brush? Wasn't fear of being thought one a key motivator for many so-called moderates to get behind the invasion of Iraq? Being for the war seemed the grownup, serious position to take. In any event, the interruption of the authoritarian program in the sixties and seventies really riled folks like Dick Cheney, and they made it their life mission to get the country back on track. The etiology of the Cheney doctrine of executive power is very nicely laid out in this article by Charlie Savage in the Friday's Boston Globe. An excerpt:
In July 1987, then-Representative Dick Cheney, the top Republican on the committee investigating the Iran-contra scandal, turned on his hearing room microphone and delivered, in his characteristically measured tone, a revolutionary claim.
President Reagan and his top aides, he asserted, were free to ignore a 1982 law at the center of the scandal. Known as the Boland Amendment, it banned US assistance to anti-Marxist militants in Nicaragua.
"I personally do not believe the Boland Amendment applied to the president, nor to his immediate staff," Cheney said.
Most of Cheney's colleagues did not share his vision of a presidency empowered to bypass US laws governing foreign policy. The committee issued a scathing, bipartisan report accusing White House officials of "disdain for the law."
Cheney refused to sign it. Instead, he commissioned his own report declaring that the real lawbreakers were his fellow lawmakers, because the Constitution "does not permit Congress to pass a law usurping Presidential power."
The Iran-contra scandal was not the first time the future vice president articulated a philosophy of unfettered executive power -- nor would it be the last. The Constitution empowers Congress to pass laws regulating the executive branch, but over the course of his career, Cheney came to believe that the modern world is too dangerous and complex for a president's hands to be tied. He embraced a belief that presidents have vast "inherent" powers, not spelled out in the Constitution, that allow them to defy Congress.
Cheney bypassed acts of Congress as defense secretary in the first Bush administration. And his office has been the driving force behind the current administration's hoarding of secrets, its efforts to impose greater political control over career officials, and its defiance of a law requiring the government to obtain warrants when wiretapping Americans. Cheney's staff has also been behind President Bush's record number of signing statements asserting his right to disregard laws.
A close look at key moments in Cheney's career -- from his political apprenticeship in the Nixon and Ford administrations to his decade in Congress and his tenure as secretary of defense under the first President Bush -- suggests that the newly empowered Democrats in Congress should not expect the White House to cooperate when they demand classified information or attempt to exert oversight in areas such as domestic surveillance or the treatment of terrorism suspects.
Peter Shane, an Ohio State University law professor, predicted that Cheney's long career of consistently pushing against restrictions on presidential power is likely to culminate in a series of uncompromising battles with Congress.
"Cheney has made this a matter of principle," Shane said. "For that reason, you are likely to hear the words 'executive privilege' over and over again during the next two years."
Cheney declined to comment for this article. But he has repeatedly said his agenda includes restoring the presidency to its fullest powers by rolling back "unwise" limits imposed by Congress after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
"In 34 years, I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job," Cheney said on ABC in January 2002. "I feel an obligation...to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors."
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He's Not the Boss of Me. Garry Wills comes at the topic of creeping authoritarianism from another angle in this NYT op-ed in which he decries the tendency of Americans to think of the president as their Commander in Chief. He's not. He's our employee put in place to execute the laws our representatives pass in Congress. This tendency of Americans to be so in awe of the president and his powers leads directly to the kind of abuses that Cheney is promoting. An excerpt:
When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he gave himself the proper title, “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” That title is rarely — more like never — heard today. It is just “commander in chief,” or even “commander in chief of the United States.” This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline. In wartime, it is true, people submit to the national leadership more than in peacetime. The executive branch takes actions in secret, unaccountable to the electorate, to hide its moves from the enemy and protect national secrets. Constitutional shortcuts are taken “for the duration.” But those impositions are removed when normal life returns.
That's why the endless war on terrorism is so important for these authoritarians, and why they must not be trusted to prosecute it. They must be kept as far from the levers of power as possible.