Thursday, June 26, 2008

Supporting the Future Impeachment of President Obama: A Liberal Dilemma

Obama's recent support for the foul FISA capitulation brings to the fore a liberal dilemma, one that we will, most likely, face in future years -- and one to which I have no ready answer. This is the dilemma that Atrios, in his usual pithy way, captured in this post:
...Democrats will regret embracing the expansion of executive power because a President Obama will find his administration undone by an "abuse of power" scandal. All of those powers which were necessary to prevent the instant destruction of the country will instantly become impeachable offenses.
So the question is: what do principled liberals -- ones who don't believe in untrammeled executive power or unconstitutional structures such as spying in defiance of the fourth amendment -- do about this situation?

The answer of principle is easy, and probably correct, but it leads to a larger structural problem that I have no idea how to deal with.

The answer of principle is: unconstitutional acts are unconstitutional acts whoever does them; if Obama does them, he must be impeached.

As far as it goes, this is obviously correct.

But the problem is, it won't do jack to reign in executive powers -- because the Republicans are totally partisan in their interpretation of these matters. We learned this (if we didn't already see it) with the comparison between the Clinton impeachment and the Bush support: to Republicans, Clinton's lying under oath about a private affair was an impeachable offense -- but Bush's repeated, blatant and admitted violation of numerous laws (including FISA and the laws against torture) are not. So all their bullshit about upholding the rule of law... was, in fact, just bullshit. Their principle is, if a Democratic president does it, it's illegal; if a Republican president does it, it's not illegal. End of story.

So when Republicans call for President Obama's impeachment on grounds which are A) substantively correct, and B) far less than what President Bush ('43) did, what are progressives to do?

If we say yes, Obama's actions are impeachable, we will be holding to principle -- but we won't be restraining executive power at all, because even if Obama is impeached and convicted and removed from office for a given offense, the overwhelming majority of the Republicans voting for this will turn on a dime and support worse actions from the next Republican to be elected President. All supporting President Obama's impeachment will do is damage any power that any Democratic President might have.

So the response of some liberals -- no, scratch that: liberals stand on principle; the response of some Democrats -- will be to say, Bush did worse and wasn't impeached, so we will oppose the impeachment of Obama on those grounds.

And this will make sense on the grounds of realpolitik: they did worse, why should we attack our own team for less than they supported their team for?

But the problem is, it's unprincipled. It's wrong. Liberals actually believe in checks and balances, in restrained government and the rule of law. If -- or when -- Obama breaks these things, we have to support his impeachment.

So we have a dilemma.

What do you do when the Republican party will support the impeachment of anyone on the other side, whatever the actions, and no one on their side, whatever the actions? For us to adopt those standards would be to sell out the principles we are fighting for. But for us to embrace them will be to inevitably and irrecoverably damage Democratic politicians, while doing nothing to restrain Republican ones.

Let's assume that half of all Democrats stand on principle, and half stand on party, while all Republicans stand on party, and none on principle. This is an exaggeration for the sake of simplification, but it's close to true -- how many Republicans would support the impeachment of Bush now? Given the open-and-shut nature of the case, it's a good bellwether for party v. principle. So, given these simplifying and reasonable assumptions, then, further assuming a rough parity of parties, any Republican president violating the constitution will have a 50-50 vote -- either won't be impeached (as now), or won't be convicted -- while any Democratic president will have a 75-25 vote -- will be impeached & convicted. Again, this is a simplification; but it reflects the reality... except insofar as a fair number of Democrats are actually in a third category, one that will support the unconstitutional expansion of Presidential power whatever party is in office. Which is to say, things are worse than this little scenario implies.

So what do we do?

I don't see any way out of this dilemma which won't mean either A) selling out vital constitutional principles, or B) loosing on all substantive political issues due to the lack of principles of the opposing party.

Of course, there was an easy way out of the dilemma: Democrats could oppose unconstitutional powers in the first place. But Obama just tossed that one out the window when he supported the FISA bill. Bush, in a open-and-shut impeachable offense, established unconstitutional surveillance. Liberals, following principle, called for his impeachment on those grounds. Now Obama has embraced Bush's criminal methods. When Republicans, following party (and a few Conservatives, following principle*), call for Obama's impeachment for violating the constitution by using the powers Bush established... what will we do?

Undermine our principles, and support Obama?

Or undermine our cause -- which include, let's recall, not starting aggressive wars: we're talking about things that can (and have) cost hundreds of thousands of human lives; these are not trivial matters -- and support our principles?

I don't know.

I don't think there's a good answer. I hope I'll support my principles. But the problem with dealing with an entire political party whose fundamental culture is amoral is that they can put you in these positions. Sociopaths have a sort of power that the rest of us do not; and this is true of cultures as well as of individuals.**

But I wish that Obama had allowed us to side-step this dilemma. Oh, I understand -- on some level - why he did not. People don't run for President, generally, to diminish the powers they'll have in office. And, yes, this doesn't mean I don't support him now: he is, at the moment, clearly the least bad choice.*** And he'll do good in a lot of crucial areas -- above all, again, the war.

So I'm not surprised. But I'm disappointed.**** And I'm dismayed by what this will mean in the future, when those who have no principles at all use his violation of ours to attack him with good grounds, and thereby harm all the good he might do.

In the end, I think -- and this is a matter on which I am perhaps naive -- morality is the best policy. In many areas, Obama clearly gets that. But in this area he doesn't. And I fear that it may ultimately prove his undoing.

And ours.

* You can tell the difference easily: any Republican who opposed the impeachment of Bush is simply following party; any self-described conservative who supported the impeachment of Bush (did Ron Paul? Not yet, I don't think, but I can see him doing it...) is following principle. An easy test.

** This is one reason that corporations -- which are legally required to be sociopaths, i.e. to consider only profit and not moral issues, to make their judgments in fundamentally amoral ways -- are so powerful, and so hard to fight.

*** Clinton supporters can, I think, justly crow on this one: she voted against the bill. Although in fairness, it's not clear she would have if she had been the nominee (or that Obama wouldn't have if he'd lost); I think that both of them are using the calculus of power, and standing by principle only when convenient. But given the outcome, this is one that leads her to good things, and him to bad. And neither of them, alas, are doing what Feingold and Dodd are doing, and actually putting some effort into fighting this thing.

**** I expect -- and always have expected, really -- to be disappointed a lot by Obama in the next six months; and, FSM willing, over the next eight years. That I think (and have long thought) that he was by far the best candidate never meant that I was blind to his considerable flaws. And many of these are absolutely endemic to politicians in general, at least to ones who are contesting for (or hoping to contest for) non-safe seats. This is not, really, because politicians are bad people, but because structurally they are led to be. Open-eyed liberals have to support the best candidate -- knowing that they'll disappoint, and willing to fight to make them disappoint as little as possible. On this point, see this important post by Kathy G, "Barack Obama: deeply flawed, and it's our job to make him better". Even the best politicians do terrible things. The job of liberals is to try to make them do as many good things -- and as few bad things -- as possible. The burden I'm trying to articulate in this post is how to balance these issues given Obama's capitulation on this fundamental constitutional issue -- and the fact that the opposition will be totally unprincipled in their dealings about it.


Michael A. Burstein said...

The answer is simple. When Obama attempts to use executive powers to the same level as Bush, the only ones who might complain are the Republicans. And every time a Republican complains, the Democrats can bring up that Republican's voting record, show his/her support for that power when Bush wielded it, and ask him/her what makes it different now.

They'll go stammering into the sunset. :-)

Stephen said...


This isn't an answer; it's a restatement of one of the horns of the dilemma. Your solution would perhaps provide an answer to Republican attacks on Obama (although it is vulnerable to its converse, e.g. "you were against these powers when Bush was in office, what is different now"). But it doesn't do anything to deal with A) stopping the growth of untrammeled executive power; or B) the fact that the arrogation of such powers would *in fact* be an impeachable offense, a fact that would not be lessened by the fact that Bush did it too (or did worse, or did more).