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Postmodern Conservatism

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

Ross Douthat and the Week of Obscene Silences



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Last week was one of the more dismaying ones in the history of our republic.  A president suggested that he was ready to take an action that would violate the separation of powers in a major way. In Ross Douthat’s words:

…the president is contemplating — indeed, all but promising — an extraordinary abuse  of office: the granting of temporary legal status, by executive fiat, to up to half the country’s population of illegal immigrants.

It even appeared plausible he was signaling this for the sake of provoking demands for impeachment  that he calculated would aide his party’s fortunes at the next election.

Did the president deny the rumors—likely planted by his minions—that he was considering this patently unconstitutional action?  He did not. 

Did he respond to the speculations of his wanting to provoke impeachment talk by denying them?  He did not. 

Were any reporters able or willing to aggressively ask our president about the origins of these rumors?  About how such an action could be constitutional? No again.

Did he seek to distance himself from claims that the GOP would impeach made by many in his party in fund-raising letters and speeches?  No.  Rather, the sudden adoption of that tact appears to have been coordinated, and we can rightly suspect that such coordination was approved by him.  Rather, he modeled for one and all how to characterize Republican concern and debate about how to combat his unconstitutional expansions of executive power–referring to the lawsuit resolution passed by the House, he delivered this:  stop hatin’ all the time! 

And the response of Americans, particularly those of the political class, to all of this?

Crickets.

Oh, there was talk alright, but among the Democratic leaders it was all along the lines of how to better drive home the hatin’ angle, and among Republican ones it was all along the dishonest-in-spirit, utterly unsustainable, but sure, technically true lines of “WE haven’t said the I-word!” 

A mere word, of eleven little letters that begins with an “I,” and every conservative strategist is shaking in fear of it, and every other Democratic partisan is suddenly brandishing it about like a talisman!  Available at a click are carefully thought-through and exquisitely constructed sentences from our Founders laying out what they intended, both for the separation of powers and for impeachment, but a president of these latter days utters some schoolyard Miley Cyrus phrase, and that’s it, everyone knows and accepts that there’s nothing more to see here. 

Well, thank God that Ross Douthat is not among those.  The man’s had many a great column, but this week he stands particularly tall, for being one of the few willing to warn that a very dangerous line is about to be crossed (although in the strict sense, it is not, as he said, a “Rubicon”-type line of no-return).  It is the line between confining the power to make and repeal legislation to one branch, and allowing it to be shared by two.  If there is anything sacred about our Constitution, then the mere suggestion given by a president that he might erase such a line is tantamount to a high priest uttering blasphemies before the whole congregation. 

But for those of you who think this language is overheated, here’s Douthat:

Such an action would come equipped with legal justifications, of course. Past presidents have suspended immigration enforcement for select groups, and Obama himself did the same for certain younger immigrants in 2012…But the precedents would not actually justify the policy, because the scope would be radically different. …in this case the de facto repeal would aim to effectively settle…a major domestic policy controversy on the terms favored by the White House.

This simply does not happen in our politics. Presidents are granted broad powers over foreign policy, and they tend to push the envelope substantially in wartime. But domestic power grabs are usually modest in scope, and executive orders usually work around the margins of hotly contested issues.

…the tone of media coverage right now… [is largely that] …what the White House wants to do on immigration is assumed to be reasonable, legitimate, within normal political bounds.

It is not: It would be lawless, reckless, a leap into the antidemocratic dark.

Someone had to say it.  And may I add that Douthat likely thinks, indeed, he would have to think so given what is said in Federalist No. 65, that that which is “lawless, reckless” and “antidemocratic” rather plausibly deserves impeachment.  I say he would have to think that whether or not he is for the Republicans impeaching the president, or even just threatening to do so, at the present time.    

The real scandal does not lie so much in the arrogant, dangerous, and childishly half-clever nature of the president’s act last week, but in the complacency about it, whether automatic or calculated, exhibited by our political and media elites.

I’ll begin with, and mostly linger upon, the Democratic ones.  Everyone understands the wisdom of sticking by your party’s president through thick and thin given the nature of the American political system.  But everyone also understands that this rule of thumb cannot be absolute, and at some level of bad or law-violating governance has to be put aside. 

I know, despite what so many of my fellow conservatives say, that highly ethical liberals and genuinely moderate Democrats exist, and in significant numbers.   But what I cannot bring myself to understand is how they can remain silent before this latest outrage.  Where are their demands that Democratic leaders forcefully speak against this kind of political gamesmanship with the Constitution itself?  Why cannot they say to their top leader—“you remain our leader for now, but you cannot and will not lead us into this”?

They are going to deny that what is proposed would frontally violate the separation of powers?

They are going to endorse the suggestion implicit in this that the president can do more such actions over the next two and half years?       

They are going to go along with baiting conservatives into impeachment proceedings as an acceptable strategy!?!?   And thus risk provoking a constitutional crisis?

The silence of our moderates-so-called does all of these things.

And for what?  Maintaining a Democratic Senate by a hair?  Many in the Party will say, “For a permanent Democratic majority! That’s what the ‘Big Amnesty’ will do!”  And they think the conservative half of the nation can be convinced to just take that, do they? 

Moderate Democrat, ethical Liberal, isn’t it time to cut your losses and accept that your current crop of leaders need to get culled and chastened?  Isn’t it time to accept that this batch is never going to really listen to the likes of you, unless perhaps, the prospect of your refusing to support them is loudly expressed?  Would having to maybe swallow two years of Republican congressional control really be too high a price to pay for encouraging a turn to more moderate or simply more scruple-bound leadership, and for avoiding this “leap into the anti-democratic dark” that Douthat and I are describing?

Impeachment is easily avoided.  The president simply stops the pattern of altering laws on his own that he only really got into in early 2013.  If he did that, few Republicans would call for his impeachment on the basis of the past law-alterations, or on the scandal-investigation obstruction grounds.  So again I ask, what do you get by tolerating the kind of leadership that’s taking us all into these dangerous waters? 

Last week provoked me to call for Republicans to threaten our president, in a very specific conditional way, with impeachment.  Me of all people!  Who once was a pro-life Democrat who voted so in ‘88, ‘92, ‘96, and ‘00, and who opposed the impeachment of Clinton(and who still thinks that was the wrong call).  I now find myself to the right of the whole conservative establishment!  I’m between its position (SHUSH about the I-word!!!), and Sarah Palin’s call to impeach now.  Life takes some funny turns, but my point here is again addressed to the Democratic moderates:  if someone like me is feeling forced, forced by the constitutional ABCs and the prospect of more violations if a line is not drawn, to take this unpopular stand, that is likely a sign that many across America are feeling the same, many of them much more strongly, but are at present biting their lips either out of strategic hope or sheer dismay.  Don’t let the conventional wisdom handed down from the late 90s fool you:  the Democrats risking and/or baiting impeachment could blow up in their faces big-time.

As for my fellow Republicans, well, of course it is good to be focused like a laser on winning in November.  Again, show me that data that proves that impeachment talk is fatal to our chances, and I will shut up.  A recent poll showed 33% in favor of impeachment simply.  So show me one where 67% are against threatening impeachment, or against even talking about the subject.  Meantime, I’m sorry, my eyes keep drifting over to this thing called the Constitution.  And my spirit keeps bucking against and laughing at the sophomoric Machiavellianism that thinks we can deny to our fellow Americans that impeachment isn’t our on minds, and that after a November victory we wouldn’t begin openly discussing whether to seek it.  The situation is what it is.  Leave it to the Democrats’ leaders to talk to them like children with catch-phrases and bogey-words, and let’s talk to them openly, as adults do, about the prospects for impeachment that we’re presently being pushed into.

(Last-minute update:  a WH statement plausibly read as a sign of backing-off from the “Big Amnesty” executive order idea was issued yesterday.  After a full week, mind you, of floating this hideous trial balloon.  Perhaps behind closed doors some Democrats did speak up.  If so, that was better than nothing, even though the nation desperately needs to hear moderates speak openly against this.  But, we shall see.  With this president, and with these Democratic leaders, nearly anything remains possible.)


Tags: Impeachment , abdication of moderates , Ross Douthat , Barack Obama


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