At the same time, the difference here really is pretty obvious. Nixon broke the law repeatedly for purely political purposes: to help his friends, punish his enemies, and keep tabs on domestic groups he happened to personally dislike. There was no ideological dispute about the value of what Nixon did: once it became clear that he had actually done the stuff he was accused of, liberals and conservatives alike agreed that he had to go. Obviously that's not the case this time around. So far, anyway, there's no evidence that George Bush has done anything wrong for purely venal purposes. He approved torture of prisoners and violated FISA because he genuinely thought it was necessary for national security reasons after 9/11 — and unfortunately, lots of people agreed with him at the time and continue to agree with him today. I too wish there were a broader consensus that Bush has acted illegally and ought to be held accountable, but the fact that he hasn't met Nixon's fate doesn't really say all that much about how tolerant we are of executive lawbreaking. Ideological disputes are simply a different kettle of fish than personal vendettas.Even taking into account Kevin's update -- that these remarks apply only to the FISA/Torture issues, and not to the venality of, e.g., the the U.S. Attorney scandal -- this still won't wash.
This is wrong -- I'm tempted to say 'venal' -- in two respects.
First, the fact that there is a policy dispute about whether torture and widespread warrantless wiretaps ought to be legal is wholly irrelevant to the fact that Bush's actions were, on their face, illegal under our current laws. If he had gone to the Congress and tried to change the law before implementing his policies, that would be a different matter -- a matter of gross immorality and disdain for democratic principles but not flagrant illegality. And, as the recent cave by the Democrats on FISA shows, he'd probably have gotten whatever powers he asked for, up to and including John Yoo-approved crushing the testicles of children. But the point is, he didn't ask. He didn't advocate policy. He broke the law.*
So yeah, it says everything you need to know about our current attitude towards Presidential lawbreaking: IOIYAR. Nixon in today's climate would hardly have to give a press conference to explain himself, let alone resign.
And yeah, I think that Kevin Drum (who I like & read daily) is actually supporting the attitude here that's created this situation. The "as long as there's controversy, it's different" attitude... basically a subset of the old "opinions on the shape of the earth differ" motif.
Also the fact that there is widespread support for Presidential venality makes it no less venal. Under Kevin's reasoning, Nixon would have been fine if Republicans had simply rallied around to what he did. I think there's actually some circularity here: Kevin is arguing that Bush was ok because a lot of people thought that his flagrant breaking of the law was justified... therefore, people gave him a pass on his breaking of the law. Which is to say, if the David Broders of the world had screamed (as Broder, at least, didn't in the case of Nixon, actually) about Bush's lawbreaking, then the right would have had a harder time giving Bush ideological cover... and he might have actually faced some consequences for his misdeeds.
That's the main point, but the secondary point is worth making too: we don't know how venal Bush's actions were, because we still don't have the slightest sense of precisely who he wiretapped, or why. In some of his wiretaps (or even all), Bush's actions may have been as narrowly partisan as Nixon's. We don't know because the press and the Congress and the opposition party have all failed to investigate Bush the way they did Nixon. So to say that Bush's actions weren't Partisan is (perhaps) to excuse a cover-up on the basis of that very cover-up's success.
Nixon was a crook, and he should have been impeached. (And he should have been tried, not pardoned; it might have helped us go down this road again.) But Bush's actions have been, as Nixon aide John Dead said, "worse than watergate" -- many times over.
The only difference is the cowardice, connivance and corruption of the institutions that helped force Nixon out of power.
But don't worry. Once we have a Democrat in office -- FSM willing, Obama -- they'll all go back to believing in the rule of law. Because the flip side of the current "it's okay if you're a Republican" modis operrendi is that it's only okay if you're a Republican. Once Obama is in office, expect David Broder to be shocked, shocked by... well, he'll think of something, I'm sure.
Update: Similar thoughts from Firedoglake, and from Digby. But, once again, Tom Tomorrow puts it best. Update 2: And Matt Yglesias, to whom Kevin Drum was replying, makes the point as well.
* Of course, to change the law in the torture case Bush'd have to have abrogated treaties as well as US law (not to mention US custom going back to George Washington).. but that just shows how seriously embedded in our legal system the Bush-violated prohibitions on torture are (or were).