Marginalia

Invasion of the party snatchers
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>paulr@sfbg.com

When the obituary of the Republican Party is written, it will be noted that the GOP died of war wounds, many but not all of them taken during the kamikaze mission in Iraq. For over the past half century, it has gone from being the party of cautious, America-first realism to one of reflexive belligerence; its embrace of militarism has been passionate and, perhaps, fatal. Over the same half century, meanwhile, the world's great powers, except us, seem to have come to a gingerly understanding that war may not have much of a future on an environmentally brittle, densely interconnected Earth.

As for the obituarist: John W. Dean offers a strong audition. Dean, a self-described "Goldwater Republican," served as legal counsel in the Nixon White House and testified during the Senate Watergate hearings of 1973 that he'd warned the president about "a cancer growing on the presidency." After Nixon's crash, Dean left political life for several decades, but he has forcefully returned in the past few years as the author of an accidental trilogy about the Republican Party's long journey into night. The books have raised alarms about the extreme right's taste for secrecy (Worse than Watergate, 2004), the psychopathology of authoritarian conservatism (Conservatives Without Conscience, 2006), and now the extent of constitutional ruin wrought by a party interested only in power, not governance (Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, Viking, 352 pages, $25.95).

Dean's critique carries particular weight because he is, simultaneously, a longtime Republican, a onetime White House insider, and a lawyer who understands that "proper process ... produces good policy," while "compromised processes will lead to bad policy." This is a succinct definition of what is sometimes called process liberalism, the idea that if a society's institutions are established and operated according to a set of rules and customs generally agreed on, those institutions will produce results that most of the population will be able to accept, if not always cheer. Related ideas in America are the rule of law — the notion that individuals, even self-styled wartime presidents and vice presidents, must respect certain institutional constraints — and the separation-of-powers doctrine, which contemplates that each branch of government will try to curb overreaching by the others.

It is beyond dispute that Republican abuses of process in the past 15 years have been unprecedented and calamitous. Dean is particularly interested in the Bush regime's use of so-called signing statements to change the meaning of laws duly enacted by Congress. Neither the Constitution nor any statute gives the president such a power, and so such statements are, or should be, legally meaningless. But their plain political purpose is to create what Dean calls a "presidential autocracy"; the statements are (in the words of Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe) "declarations of hegemony and contempt for the coordinate branches — declarations that [Bush] hopes will gradually come to be accepted in the constitutional culture as descriptions of the legal and political landscape properly conceived and as precedents for later action either by his own or by future administrations."

What invading body snatchers have turned the party of Lincoln and abolition into this freak show of power-crazed pod people? Dean doesn't say, and perhaps he isn't sure, but he is strangely silent on the military angle.

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