It's time to explore one of many political minefields that lie in front of President Barack Obama, and some of the hardest tradeoffs he must face. Yes, American national governance may finally be back in the hands of grownups, who (by all appearances, so far) consider power something to be used in a pragmatic search for the common good, rather than as an ultimate goal, in itself. Yet, Mr. Obama and the Democrats cannot ignore some facts of life:
Amid an atmosphere of rancorous culture war, we cannot expect the core rulers of the GOP to negotiate in good faith, as a loyal opposition. They can read the election results and demographic trends — e.g., the surge in young and latino and other minority voters, who seem poised to give strong generational loyalty to the Democratic Party. There is also a rising education effect — the higher the fraction of Americans who get a college degree and beyond, the more devastating things look for a party that deliberately paints itself as biliously anti-intellectual.
Given also that the Republican "big tent coalition" is in danger of shredding under the strain of internal contradictions (e.g., libertarians vs bedroom police, budget balancers vs supply-side wastrels, and freemarketers vs kleptocrats) the party would seem to have only one hope — a catastrophic failure of the Obama Presidency.
It is either that or try to revitalize conservatism back into a constructive force in American life — a strenuous and painful task. One that I fervently believe possible! Rather than dangerously leaving all assertiveness in Democratic hands, a rejuvenated "adult conservatism" could have a great deal to contribute to our national negotiations. (Still, who would be so naïve as to bet that Rupert Murdoch won't order his boys at Fox to go for the Obama Failure Option — even if America suffers as a result?)
President Obama could not have hoped for a better "before" picture to enter office with. Despite contortions floated by Coulter and Limbaugh, it's clear that blame for our current mess will fall on the Bush era and the GOP's swing down Loony Lane. Indeed, the public may give Obama extra time to dig us out of this hole, perhaps avoiding the usual electoral setback for the presidential party, in 2010. Hence, almost any "after" picture ought to look good, by comparison.
Of course, there are wild cards. For example, how many scandals await public revelation, once eight thousand Bush appointees no longer obstruct the FBI and other civil servants from doing their jobs? (See "suggestions "Repair the U.S. Civil Service" & "Free the Inspectors General.") What if these disclosures come as rapidly as they have in November and December, when we successively learned that CitiBank concealed billions in off-book assets, that Bernard Madoff was sheltered in his Ponzi scheme by a complicit SEC, and that federal regulators actively helped IndyMac engage in outrageously illegal, secret practices? How much of the iceberg is yet to be discovered... and how much more damage to our Titanic?
A lot may depend on what George Bush does with his power to pardon. Elsewhere I talk about how Democrats ought to do some hurried contingency planning, in case Bush unleashes a "tsunami" of get-out-of-jail-free cards for cronies and potential stool pigeons. If this happens... and especially if it doesn't... The Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress face a critical decision:
Shall we vigorously pursue the truth about the full range of dark activities that went on, under the tenure of George W. Bush? There are serious concerns to balance. On the one hand, yanking malfeasance and betrayal-of-trust into the spotlight can have a cleansing effect.
It would punish the wicked and serve as a warning against anyone ever again so horrifically abusing power — treating the U.S. people and government as an enemy fiefdom, to be ravished and raided at will.
There might also be a chance to recover substantial amounts of restitution... ill gotten gains that rightfully belong to American citizens. Especially if "emergency" contracts awarded during the Iraq War can be proved to be sweetheart deals. (See "Re-Negotiate War and Other 'Emergency' Government Contracts.")
It could help galvanize decent conservatives in their coming effort to purge their movement of the immature (at best) elements that hijacked it, for so many years. No single event might benefit the United States more.
And, of course, proof of systematic criminality on the part of Bush backers could help reinforce the Democrats' image as the cleaner, preferable party.
But there is also danger in that very advantage. One of Barack Obama's chief goals — and a top priority for anyone who genuinely loves America — must be to end Culture War and return our nation to its tradition of practical negotiation among citizens and groups, bridging our ideological gulfs with genuine goodwill. In effect, emulating Abraham Lincoln and — with malice toward none — ending phase three of America's Civil War.
This great project of national healing could be made more difficult, if "red" America perceives wave after wave of Republicans plunged into indictment or prison — whether or not there is copious proof against them. Oh, but the irony! Especially since a real witch hunt, extending across fourteen years, costing upwards toward a billion dollars, diverting public resources, and involving Vesuvius-like spews of bile from talk-radio hosts across the land, never resulted in a single Clinton-era official ever being imprisoned or even indicted for actual crimes having to do with malfeasance in the performance of their official duties. Not one, ever.
To a scientist, this complete lack of evidence would come as close to "disproof by failure to find supporting evidence" as one could get. (Absence of evidence can be evidence of absence, when the search for evidence was so relentless and thorough.) Indeed, the implication — galling to all of my Republican friends — is that the Clintonites were not only the most honest governing clade in US history, but in the history of government on Earth. (Disagree? Then come up with another explanation that comes anywhere near as close to satisfying Occam's Razor!)
Ironic, also — any flood of revelations about Bush era corruption should unfold as a natural consequence of FBI agents and civil servants no longer being impeded in their normal duties. Or as a result of attention drawn to pardoned individuals. Or because whistleblowers will feel safe, at last. Even so, it would spur howls of an Obama-instigated inquisition.
Take the following from columnist Frank Rich: "It took 110 pages for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan research organization, to compile the CliffsNotes inventory of the Bush wreckage last month. It found "128 systematic failures across the breadth of the federal government." That accounting is conservative. There are still too many unanswered questions."
The biggest question hovering over all this history, however, concerns the future more than the past. If we get bogged down in adjudicating every Bush White House wrong, how will we have the energy, time or focus to deal with the all-hands-on-deck crises that this administration's malfeasance and ineptitude have bequeathed us? The president-elect himself struck this note last spring.
"If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated," Barack Obama said. "I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we've got too many problems we've got to solve." Indefatigable investigator, Congressman Henry Waxman recently said that he would rather see any prosecutions augmented by an independent investigation that fills in the historical record. "We need to depoliticize it," he says. "If a Democratic Congress or administration pursues it, it will be seen as partisan."
The crux? President Obama and the Congressional Democrats should divide any push for investigations aside from both the White House and the Congressional leadership, while ensuring that truth-finding and revelation moves ahead, in ways that strike at least a large majority of Americans as fair and above-board.
One method? Try the independent Inspector General of the United States approach I recommended earlier. Or consider the "truth and reconciliation commissions" that have worked overseas, e.g., South Africa, with a credibly bipartisan look and feel. Especially if there are a lot of last-minute Bush pardons.
In fact, some potential pardon recipients may think twice about taking up one of those safety-from-jail cards because, once they have been pardoned in advance, they can no longer claim the Fifth Amendment privilege against self incrimination if subpoenaed to testify, either before Congress or an empaneled truth commission. Any evasion of full disclosure can be cited as contempt of Congress. And there will be no possibility at all — having accepted such a pre-pardon — of appealing to the court of public opinion.
Indeed, I recommended that Congress consider a bill that could hem in (without trying to eliminate) Bush's pardoning power, by defining any pardon as only applying to actions that the pardonee freely avows, admits and describes in detail. See elsewhere for details. This trick — an ironically appropriate reversal of Bush's "signing statement" tactic — could both hew to the Constitution and allow the investigators of wrongdoing to get to the bottom of things. It might also allow maximum possibilities for civil and financial restitution.
Copyright © 2009 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
"Truth: Can We Restore Integrity?" (published in full here) was one of a series of 21 "Unusual Suggestions" Brin posted following the election of 2008, when it seemed that everybody — columnists, political sages, bloggers and citizens — wrote missives about "what I'd do if I were president."
David Brin, "Can We Perform Another 'Miracle of 1947'?"
David Brin, "Free the Inspectors General"
David Brin, "Planning for Pardon Tsunami"
David Brin, "Repair the U.S. Civil Service"
Center for Public Integrity, "Broken Governmen: By the Numbers"
Josh Israel, "Our Broken Government"
Frank Rich, "Eight Years of Madoffs"
Charlie Savage, "Bush, Out of Office, Could Oppose Inquiries"
David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and comments on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe, and Quora specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come to argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.
David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
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