Independence Day, 2007

Published 3:39 pm Wednesday, July 18, 2007

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” — Benjamin Franklin

The nation recently celebrated Independence Day. Even days after the fireworks, there’s ample cause for optimism that our democracy will survive the presidency of George W. Bush intact. That Americans would reject the Bush/Cheney brand of half-baked authoritarianism hasn’t always been clear. See Joe Conason’s “It Can Happen Here” for details. It was touch and go for a while. Frankly, there have been times since 2001 when it was hard not to wonder whether we still had the intestinal fortitude to govern ourselves.

Politically, the Bush administration is dead in the water. Last week’s Senate rejection of the president’s immigration bill, with bitter infighting among Republicans, dramatized Bush’s record-low 27 percent favorable standing in polls. Also, the nativist rhetoric used by many opponents of what they call “amnesty” appears likely to turn Hispanic voters against the GOP for a generation — potentially turning several western states from red to blue.

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Growing restiveness about the White House’s open-ended commitment to the Iraqi slaughterhouse among Senate Republicans like Richard Lugar (Indiana) and John Warner (Virginia) make it likely that come September, Bush may be forced to confront the fact that although he’s commander in chief, the United States is not a military dictatorship.

Meanwhile, congressional investigations into the politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys and the National Security Agency’s warrantless wire-tapping, in violation of the 1978 FISA (Foreign Intelligence Security Act) law, have the potential to re-educate Americans about their imperiled liberties. White House defiance of Senate subpoenas seems guaranteed to keep the phrase “cover-up” in the news for months.

After years of lockstep conformity, it’s high time the GOP rediscovered the meaning of “conservative.” It means loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, not fealty to Dear Leader.

The deeper these probes dig toward the corrupted core, the more cries will come from Beltway courtier/pundits to forbear for civility’s sake. Congress should ignore them.

The Supreme Court’s surprise decision to rule on the constitutional running sore that is the Guantanamo Bay detention camp could also prove instructive. Shoving so-called foreign “enemy combatants” into an American gulag, with no recourse to habeas corpus rights that have defined civilized justice since the 13th century, has harmed the United States more among our allies than the fulminations of Osama bin Laden could ever do.

The conservative Roberts Supreme Court informed the Bush administration in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld that the government cannot imprison American citizens indefinitely without charges merely because Bush decrees them “evildoers.” In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, it ruled that Vice President Dick Cheney’s vaunted “military commissions” could not serve as prosecutor, judge and jury in trying accused war criminals.

Most observers predict the court will say the administration can’t abolish due process for foreigners, either. It had better, if only so that tyrannical governments around the world won’t be tempted to imitate U.S. lawlessness.

Conservative legal scholar Bruce Fein, a veteran of President Reagan’s Justice Department, places most of the blame on Cheney. In urging his impeachment in Slate magazine, he charges that “President George W. Bush outsourced the lion’s share of his presidency to Vice President Cheney, and Cheney has made the most of it. Since 9/11, he has proclaimed that all checks and balances and individual liberties are subservient to the president’s commander in chief powers in confronting international terrorism.”

An extraordinary four-part series in The Washington Post makes that all too clear. Based upon more than 200 interviews with administration insiders, it portrays a power-hungry vice president bamboozling a callow, easily manipulated president, outflanking cabinet rivals through a combination of obsessive secrecy and bureaucratic skullduggery. It also depicts how genuine conservatives like Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft fought bitter, losing battles against one authoritarian gambit after another.

Reading it, one can’t help but be struck with how unnecessary it all is, as if a nation that defeated the Nazis and outlasted the Soviet Union can’t defeat Al Qaeda — a band of religious fanatics hiding in caves — without abandoning its own democratic liberties. In arguing against abandoning the Geneva Conventions, for example, Powell predicted that most Taliban fighters would not qualify for POW status. His position, an aide explained, was “if you give legal process and you follow the rules, you’re going to reach substantially the same result and the courts will defer to you.”

The same applies across an entire spectrum of issues. Why deny legal rights that actually enhance your moral and political authority? Why circumvent FISA procedures sure to end in legitimate warrants for spying on terror suspects? (Unless, of course, illegitimate eavesdropping on political rivals is your real goal.)

The answer, of course is, sheer, craven fear: a cowed populace guided by weak leaders, hiding behind play-acting and bluster.

Especially in July, the month we celebrate our independence, the America I love is better than that.