America Has No King. Period.
by J. Andrew Zalucky
Executive Power Needs to be Always Challenged and Limited by an Assertive Congress and an Adversarial Press
There are two recent events in American politics that have fully captured both the absurdity and the hope of American political culture. The absurdity being the silly non-event that was the Bob Woodward “You’ll regret this scandal”, the other being Rand Paul’s Filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination as head of the CIA.
Sound and Fury Signifying BS
I bring up the Bob Woodward incident only to show the crazy ironies that emerged from the whole episode. For those of you who don’t know about Bob Woodward, he and fellow reporter Carl Bernstein were instrumental in the investigative reporting that unearthed the illegal activities of The Nixon Administration during the Watergate Scandal. This earned the two men the reputation as symbols of investigative journalism. More to the point however is the quality of Bob Woodward’s work since then, which has mostly been that of journalistic stationary hung around the windows of the Washington consensus. He still manages to bring up some interesting items from time to time, but in general he tends to be more conciliatory and thus gains more access to high-ranking officials and gets to retain his status as a “Washington insider.”
Conor Friedersdorf has covered the “You’ll Regret this” incident extensively here and here, but in-short, here is what happened. President Obama was pretending that the recent budget sequestration wasn’t partially his idea, and Bob Woodward was planning to go public with criticism of the President’s obscurantism. Sounds good right? It’s this kind of dishonesty from an elected official that the 4th estate should totally slam him for. However, here’s the problem, when he went on Morning Joe, his criticism was centered on how the President warned that the resources of one of our carrier groups in the Persian Gulf may have to be reduced:
Take one example here where President Obama came out and acknowledged that we’re not sending the aircraft carrier Truman to the Persian Gulf because of this budget agreement …. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there saying, “Oh, by the way, I can’t do this because of some budget document?” Or George W. Bush saying, “You know, I’m not gonna invade Iraq, because I can’t get the aircraft carriers I need?” Or even Bill Clinton saying, “You know, I’m not going to attack Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters” — as he did when Clinton was president — because of some budget document? Under the Constitution, the president is commander in chief and employs the force. And so we now have the president going out, because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can’t do what I need to do to protect the country. That’s a kind of madness that I haven’t seen in a long time.
Here’s the problem…what Woodward is actually criticizing Obama for is obeying the law. So in other words, you have the famous journalist who exposed President Nixon for operating outside the law, criticizing a President for threatening to obey the law. Just let that irony sink in for a moment.
Then consider what Friedersdorf went on to say about what Bob Woodward could be doing instead:
The funny thing is that, personally, I’d love for Woodward to get permanently angry at Obama and spill all the scandalous, source-burning information he doubtless possesses, rather than staying on good terms with the president so we can all read an access-rich but fawning book in two years.
If Bob Woodward really wanted to enshrine his reputation as a symbol of what investigative journalism should be, the best thing for him to do would be to say “you know what, I don’t care if everyone on Pennsylvania Avenue hates me for it, I’m spilling my guts.” I realize there are limitations on this, as when you sit down for any discussion with an important official, he or she may ask you to keep the discussion “off the record” and in those cases your values will have to guide you accordingly. However, that does not leave you off the hook for being too nice to those in power, just so you can have the opportunity to shake in your knickers because you got to meet President A or Senator B.
Journalists should also remember that the ability to be adversarial and aggressive without being a boorish can help draw attention to your message and can actually help distinguish you from the army of faceless reporters and hacks out there. It doesn’t mean walking into the Oval Office and saying “What the F%@# President Obama!?!?!” Being adversarial means being able to represent your fellow citizens when your Congressmen and Senators fail to do so. At worst, you’ll be able to open reader’s minds to the principles and issues at stake in a clearer way then any hollow banter about “the national conversation” could ever hope to achieve. At best however, you might be able to influence a future Senator, or aid the cause of one already seated in Washington.
The Kind of “Obstructionism” America Needs
In his 13-hour filibuster last week, Rand Paul quoted various adversarial journalists, including writers from FireDogLake, The Guardian, and The Atlantic, hardly the type of publications you would imagine a Republican Senator from Kentucky to use. This is because those articles actually bothered to be critical of the President and his drone policy, his continuation of warrentless-wiretapping, and his execution of the War on Terror in general. To show a little fairness, the press is slowly getting better on this issue, but it took some loud Libertarian and Leftist voices to rub the issue in the face of the mainstream consensus. Even poll numbers are beginning to shift as a recent Reason-Rupe poll shows:
When asked if they thought it was “constitutional or unconstitutional for the president of the United States to order the killing of American citizens who are suspected of being terrorists,” 57 percent of respondents said they thought it was unconstitutional, including 65 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of independents, and 44 percent of Democrats
What Rand Paul’s filibuster does is explode the issue even further so that, as his opening statement said, “the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”
To me, this is what is so essential about Rand Paul’s filibuster. Yes, his references to Hitler are a little hyperbolic, but even he admits that the analogy is overused. And yes, he has some questionable views on the constitutional validity of The 1964 Civil Rights act (though for the record, his views have nothing to do with racism whatsoever) and he is certainly on the wrong side of a few social issues. But honestly, in light of the issue at hand, the issue of whether or not the government can kill you for being a suspected terrorist without trial, without legal counsel, and without even an in-absentia indictment by a grand jury- who cares? Yes, he’s not right about everything, but he doesn’t have to be. As Glenn Greenwald told me on Wednesday when I got to meet him at Yale Law School, “No one is right about everything. And no one is saying you have to marry this person, you can support them on an issue by issue basis.”
This is why much of the negative response to Paul’s filibuster has been so ridiculous. Hawkish Conservatives love to mouth off about how they care about placing limits on government power and about conspiracy theories regarding Obama’s imperial Presidency. But when it comes to questions of civil liberties, all you get is the disgraceful display made by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham deriding Senator Paul for stirring up trouble with young libertarians “sitting in dorm rooms”. Similarly, you have a clutch of partisan Democrats either ignoring the filibuster or outright dismissing it merely because of its source. Take MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell for instance who tweeted “Stand with Ron Wyden if you are concerned about drones. Don’t get muddied with Rand Paul’s paranoia and hatred of Pres Obama.” First of all, if Rand Paul is paranoid about the drone program, he has very good reason to be. And again, even if he “hates” Obama, who the hell cares? His feelings about the President himself are totally beside the point and in this context are a complete non-sequitur. Besides, one need only look to the transcript of what Rand Paul said to see him affirm this fact:
I don’t question the president’s motives. I don’t think the president would purposely take innocent people and kill them. I really don’t think he would drop a Hellfire missile on a cafe or a restaurant like I’m talking about. But it bothers me that he won’t say that he won’t …. This decision to let this go, to let this nomination go without an answer is a big mistake for us. If we do this, if we let this nomination go without a debate, without significant opposition, without demanding more answers from the president, the problem is, is we’re never getting any more answers
O’Donnell, who actually tends to be pretty good at adversarial interviews, should know better than to simply pander to the rampant confirmation biases of MSNBC’s viewership that uncritically supports the President simply because he’s a Democrat. At least he mentioned it, which is a lot better than what you could say about Al Sharpton, Chris Matthews, and Ed Schultz.
Not to be deterred, Paul went in to say in a recent Politco interview, both camps are very much on “the wrong side of history.” Not to get too starry-eyed about this personally, but this issue has created an opening for Liberals and Libertarians to unite in defense of the Rule of Law and Civil Liberties. In fact, it took this kind of cross-party support to get Senator Paul the information he needed:
On trying to get the President to acknowledge that he won’t do drone strikes, there have been people on the Democratic side of the aisle who have allied with me and helped me to get some of this information. In fact, the president would have refused probably until hell froze over of giving me anything.
The United States has no king, period. By that I mean the executive branch needs an assertive check and balance on its own power. When the legislature fails to do this, it slowly opens the door to third-world style corruption and despotism. Some people, out of their delusional admiration for one President or another, would prefer to see their national celebrity wield unlimited power, so long as it served their ends (all in the name of some vague notion of “Progress”). The appeal of the cult of personality is a dangerous one that merits a strong opposition from both Congress and the press. One need not be personally hostile to the President to be able to say that executive power needs to be exercised within firm boundaries, especially in cases of the use of force.