Blogs > Cliopatria > A Clear Day and a Gridlocked War

Sep 23, 2007 11:23 am

A Clear Day and a Gridlocked War

It’s a beautiful day outside. In a bit, I’m going to enjoy it and perhaps get my blood pressure back to its normal borderline. Why the need for nature’s blood pressure tonic? This article on the war and senatorial fecklessness.

I’ve written before about the underlying constitutional dilemma. The short version is this.

The constitution is designed to gridlock if a simply majority in Congress wants to change the status quo, unless the president is on that majority’s side. The status quo now is war, and the president still wants to wage it. Even if Congress could pass an anti-war bill, the president can veto it.

So Congress has two recourses. It can stop funding the war by not providing more money, but given the power of the president over the military, Congress would have to come close to not passing any funding at all. In the long run it would work, but it’s the governmental equivalent of braking a car by putting the transmission in “Park.”

The other is impeachment. I think there are grounds for impeachment in Bush’s attempts to legitimize torture. Unfortunately, I have little sense that the majority of the public agrees. Some have argued that the deceptions in the run up to the war amount to a high crime. They may be right, but Bush has had great success in convincing a significant percentage of the public that Saddam was connected to 9/11. About the hardest thing you can do in politics is convince people that they have been wrong. A million years of psychology is against you.

So you may ask, what about the conduct of the war itself? The war has been waged incompetently. Taking the Bush war aims as a given, we have never put in sufficient power to do more than overthrow Saddam Hussein. Again, even if one takes as a given that the current increase in troops has helped, there is no indication that it will have made more than a transitory difference when we begin to draw down forces. This the public understands.

But is incompetence a “high crime” or “misdemeanor?” I suspect the founders would have accepted that sustained gross incompetence on matters of vital interest to the nation could qualify. For mostly logical reasons, since 1787, we have come to define the terms in the light of criminal law. The upside is that this probably reduced the number of politically motivated impeachments in our history. The bad news is that without showing that Bush clearly violated a law that the public wants obeyed—or without showing with remarkable clarity that he has been lying about something that mattered (think of Nixon and the smoking gun tape)—they probably would not support removal from office.

And if Congress finally managed to remove Bush, the result would be Dick Cheney as president. (Intriguing counterfactual: what if Spiro Agnew had been vice-president in the summer of 1974?)

So what can Congress do. Well, just below, Melvin Small made a good suggestion. Force real filibusters. This present political stalemate is not going to be negotiated away quietly. Also a filibuster would force the supporters of the war to be clearer on what they think the US can do when the inevitable withdrawal of troops beings. If they make arguments that convince the public, so be it. If not, then a greater popular majority opposed to the war may begin to do to Bush and his supporters what the Democratic majority has failed to do: force change.

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Jeffrey P. Kimball - 9/27/2007


Oscar Chamberlain - 9/26/2007

Very good point. Like many other people, I have sometimes been too impatient with the Democratic majority on this issue.

If they were being stronger on related issues where they could have more power(examples non-Iraq defense spending and the security/rights imbalance) I would be much happier with them.

Jeffrey P. Kimball - 9/26/2007

I agree generally with your analysis and mainly want to day that the problem isn't so much "Congress" as it is the Republican hawks, who are holding solid for staying the course, and the Republican moderates, most of whom talk the talk but calculatingly don't walk the walk. Depending on the measure and vote in question, some Blue Dog and Bush Dog Democrats are also part of the problem. But look at the vote on the Webb amendment to rotate-in the troops: 56 senators, if my memory serves me, consisting of mostly Democrats with a few Republican moderates voted for it. Other Republican moderates, like Warner and Voinovich, voted against it. (I think the vote was similar on the Levin bill.) Bingo, this important measure -- the Webb measure -- failed. It wasn't Congress generally to blame, it was the Republican Party, with some exceptions. To say "Congress" is to obscure the fecklessness of the obstructionists. But this is what the mainstream press is doing.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/23/2007

I would think that incompetence would be covered by the clause that says a majority of the cabinet can vote the president "incapacitated." Of course, being a bunch of political hacks and loyalists from the get-go, it's unlikely, but that's the way it's supposed to work.

Spiro Agnew was nearly impeached himself; there's no evidence that he would have been anything but a disaster, even as a caretaker. Maryland's greatest shame, at least in modern national politics....