Sunday, December 28, 2008

Suggestion 15: “Truth and Reconciliation?”

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:

1) 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.

(Part of a 12/08 series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.”)

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! (See elsewhere my article about “The Miracle of 1947”.)   Rather than dangerously leaving all asseriveness in democratic hands, a rejuvenated “adult conservatism” could have a great deal to contribute to our national negotiations.  Still, who would be so naive as to bet thatRupert Murdoch won’t order his boys at Fox to go for the Obama Failure Option -- even if America suffers, as a result?

2) 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 #6&7.)  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:

3) ”Shall we vigorously pursue the truth about the full range of dark activities that went on, under he dark 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 #12)

* 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-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 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.

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 (see#7).  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.

Next time... Suggestion #16: More Truth and Reconciliation: Why President Obama might instead choose to soft-pedal bringing some crooks to justice.


David Brin said...

A CNN poll earlier this month found that 79% of the American people approve of the job President-elect Obama is doing so far.

"An Obama job approval rating of 79 percent -- that's the sort of rating you see when the public rallies around a leader after a national disaster," said Bill Schneider, CNN's senior political analyst. "To many Americans, the Bush administration was a national disaster."

Matt DeBlass said...

I think an ideal, both in the benefit to the United States as a whole, and the Republican Party specifically, would be that the decent conservatives were somehow encouraged to root out their own corrupt elements.
If the change were seen to come from within the party, it would 1) not feed the culture war and 2) make the reformers come across as real heroes, and put their stock on the rise.
We saw this idea paid lip service during the campaign, of course, but we would need to see it really happen. Obama obviously can't directly influence this, but there are ways for a smart person to encourage the REAL loyal opposition to flex its muscles.

"humbl" so humble you don't even affect a silent "e"

Anonymous said...

Nice spin on what to expect from Obama, but you will be disapointed, politics especially presidential politics is just an exercise in giving the proles a feeling that they did something.
You still believe that electing the right people and hiring the right bureaucrats will make it all come out rosy.

The state is incapable of planning it's way out of a paper bag.

Anyone getting elected president has so much baggage that he is bent over with the weight of obligations.

My opinion of Mr Obama is that he will do the same stupid things that Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did and make a severe recession into a greater depression.
He is already spending money that tax receipts will not keep up with.

I pity you your belief in 'change' and 'hope'.

What this country needs is secession , smaller governments, and less power to any sociopaths that make it into office.

Unknown said...

I am struck mute with disbelief when faced with the claim that FDR and Herbert Hoover reacted in essentially the same way to the economic troubles of their day.

Anonymous said...

I’d suggest we need a vital conservative movement, if by “conservative” I mean the ideals that attracted me to the party all those years ago -- fiscal responsibility, correctly-sized government (the smaller the better, but with room to discuss what “correctly” means), and an emphasis on individual rights.

That doesn’t really resemble where the party’s heading now.

Without such a balancing movement, the Democratic party will not have something that I think critical to our success -- a source of valid criticism. CITOKATE is important.

David Broder’s editorial today had a good summary of the Republican situation. President Elect Obama has appointed Ray LaHood as his transportation secretary. Mr. LaHood appears to be a reasonable conservative, yet it appears he’s going to have a lot of trouble trying to gain cooperation from what’s emerging as the dominate voice in Republican politics -- a voice Dr. Brin has well characterized in other posts. Reasonable Republicans are loosing, and they may already have fallen so such a low percentage that they’ve lost.

Regarding the prosecution dilemma facing Mr. Obama: I think Dr. Brin did a good job capturing the two extremes. I’d like to suggest another possible danger of not prosecuting: artificial moral outrage. Remember that the far right has adopted a mantle of theology. In actuality, it doesn’t resemble any real Christian theology, but it does give its adherents a great public relations tool. If Mr. Obama doesn’t go after the Bush Administration officials who broke the law, then that group -- some of whom would no doubt be a target of any such legal cleansing -- could accuse President Obama of being soft on criminals. That strikes me as a Rovian/Machiavellian thing to do, and I’m afraid they could get some mileage out of it.

I think Matt DeBlass has a good insight. Reasonable/moderate conservatives could use this as an accuse to retake control of the party. That would really demonstrate to the American people that the Republican party is still relevant and isn’t simply a reincarnation of the late Russian Czars who tried to hold back the tide of individual freedom and technological progress (the History Channel just had a great documentary about Russian history this weekend). The main impediment that I see is that such reasonable Republicans might already have lost the numbers they need to make it work.

Anonymous said...

With respect, I have to disagree with ErnieG, though I have a sympathy for what he’s saying. Having supported the Bush Administration through two elections only to find after the second that the depth of betrayal was almost unprecedented in American history, I’ve developed a fair level of cynicism. I think Mr. Obama’s greatest strength has been his ability to convince some of us that he might actually be the real deal. He might actually have the intent and ability to rise to the level of Lincoln or Roosevelt or (name your favorite/most effective President).

I’ve chosen -- after a lot of soul searching -- to believe that he might be genuine. Power devolves from the People. If enough of us wake up and throw off our paralyzing cynicism, we can help him succeed. It’s a much better deal than the alternative.

I mean, come on! We’re the great experiment in democracy. We’re the country who planted a flag on the moon. We can’t just give up. I’d hate to think history would judge us a great attempt that finally died of cowardice!

Fake_William_Shatner said...

As much as I am cynical about Obama's chances with the Bush Crime Inc. economy that we are left with -- how is it even a rational statement that "it makes no difference?"

If Bush, can turn a great economy into a Depression, and great military into a depressed one with a powerful mercenary force up for the highest bidder --wow, what could NOT being Bush accomplish.

Even if elections are a farce, and their are powerful special interests,... what about a descent reasonable man who can negotiate with bad guys? Or how about talk intelligently? If all the President is, is a Conductor, and the music is already set, it still makes a difference to how well the music is played.

Sure, I do think things like our markets and manipulated, and the war in Iraq was for resources and money to the Military Industrial complex -- maybe Obama can't withdraw because it will mean unemployment, right?

But our military can build schools as well as bunkers. There is a LOT of leeway in how things are played.

Imagine a guy who doesn't swagger, or slur his words. Imagine a person who doesn't have to hire idiots or crooks, because he cannot deal with people telling him the truth. Someone with some self-assurance.

Is Obama the best person? Maybe and maybe not. But at least we aren't saddled with the village idiot who happens to lead the local mafia. If it's just a show, than at least we have a better actor like Bill Clinton -- who was a huge disappointment to me because he did much of what the Conservatives wanted. That seems like Camelot now.

Fake_William_Shatner said...

I have to strongly agree with TC;

Prosecutions of the corrupt Republican machine should be his top priority.

Here are a few bullet points;
>> They will be complaining about a witch hunt anyway.
>> By prosecuting, the people who have the most incentive to make things worse, will be made a lot more busy.
>> The Reasonable Republicans are losing to the most radical and corrupt of their party. They are isolated as being "too liberal" or "not liberal enough" so there is no political benefit for them, if there isn't a corresponding "down side" to being corrupt.
>> Again, NOT prosecuting, means that there are no penalties to corruption, and the sentiment "they are all crooks" is what will make it impossible for honest people to stay in power.
>> The people are going to become angry -- really, really angry. It is inevitable, and the Reactionary Insecurity of the BushCo government, made it all the more inevitable. When Bush after the shoe dodging incident, and Rumsfeld after an insurgency broke out in Iraq, both commented that "this is what you get with a Democracy" it showed that they think Democracy is anarchy and dangerous -- well, it is, if you are a totalitarian bastard, but thats' beside the point. The herd can be content chewing grass, but when that runs out they stampede. Either you can have them run over the field you just planted, or you can have them chase the cow tippers -- that's your only choice.
>> Before our country gets better, it will get a lot worse. Political reality dictates that you give people a reason WHY things are bad. If you do not TEACH them what went wrong, they will look up and blame everything you are doing to make it better. The short memories of our public are a blessing and a curse.

There will be no Truth and Reconciliation, UNLESS there is a down side to NOT admitting you were wrong. Until the leaders of this cabal admit that, then their followers cannot reevaluate what was wrong with their own thinking, that made them choose such wrong people.

Not only do I think that Obama will have a hard time if he doesn't prosecute -- I think our country will fail if he does not. There will most likely be a lot of riots this summer, with perhaps a 30% unemployment rate. The public works projects can help a lot -- but just imagine all the corrupt and evangelical beurocrats BushCo has left in place, who have just one incentive; "Make Obama look bad, so that we can get our power/philosophy/Armageddon back on track."

Anonymous said...

The fact that both the far left and far right think Obama is Just Like Them makes me think that he's just what the country needs.

David Brin said...

Stefan expresses what Kim Stanley Robinson and I try to write -- radical reasonableness.

I have long preached that the politically persecuted group in America has long been the non-indignant moderates. True, the worst loony fringe has been the right. But I will take no BS from the left either.

All of the assumptions underlying the Enlightenment are based upon the notion that every single sentence uttered by ErnieG is wrong, that free people using transparent institutions can manage a continental commonwealth and take it to new levels of accountability.

The image he offers, of balkanized little caudillo states, is charming. By all means! Look at any era and see how well and honestly they were run!

rewinn said...

* Ending the Culture War without clensing the body politic would be putting a band-aid on top of a staph infection. We've been there before; Ford pardoned Nixon so our nation could "heal", and that led to (Vice-)President Cheney's acting with no fear of consequences a generation later.

However, the clensing can and should be done in a way that does not attack the "Real Red America" - the voters who put Cheney and his puppet in the White House - but rather in the form of protecting the interests of ALL Americans, Red, Blue and the majority Purple.

IMO "Red America" would happily cut loose such of its leadership at it finds has betrayed it. We just have to SHOW them how they've been betrayed, which will take some cleverness. Fear of such information getting out permiates this Administration, e.g. why else are our dead troops flown into Dover at night but to keep America from seeing the real cost of Bush's wars?

* An America that forced a 911 Commission down the throat of an unwilling Bush Administration may encounter little resistance getting a "What The Heck Happened?" Commission out of the Obama Administration. However, we'd be unwise to put all our ergs in one basket; We The People should push Congress, the Executive, the press AND an independent commission.

THEN we have to present & discuss the information in ways that appeal to people who don't read Reports or blogs, using every traditional political means, plus whatever cleverness These Young Kids can come up with. Along those lines, I really like the Courage Campaign's current "Don't Divorce My Friends" effort using Flickr - how are the haters going to fight that?.

* Obama is only one man, and although he has demonstrated singularly good judgment in many areas, we shouldn't rely on his choices as to what needs to be done to clense our body politic of the poisonous culture war. After all, his whole schtick is based on organizing the community to do what-ever it is that the community figures out needs to be done.

I appreciate that this very blog posting is part of that community-thinking process.

* The "core rulers" of the GOP have already demonstrated their intention to block any useful Congressional action, with a record-breaking number of filibusters in the last Congress, and thoroughly unpatriotic attacks just a few weeks ago on the very idea of paying auto workers a living wage.

How can we stop this thoroughly Disloyal Opposition, from another America-wrecking round of filibusters?

A faint hope is that Harry Reid will develop the stones to do unto the GOP what they did to the Democrats 2000-2006. I understand this would have been hard in the 110th Congress due to the 49-49 split, but what's his excuse going to be now? Let the GOP threaten the filibuster; a ruthlessly effective Senate leader should force hard choices on 6 GOP senators running for re-election in 2010 in states that went Obama (IA, OH, NC, NH, PA, VA).

Again, this has to be in the form of protecting Red America from its betrayers, not attacking Red America. Let's see Arlen Specter step up to the challenge, or pay the price.

* The idea that Life is Hopeless and Obama Is Just Another Shill is at best sophomoric, and at worst memeological warfare from the corporatist party; ignore it.

* One of the nice things about being in the Party of the People (the concept, not any particular organization) is that we can Take Pride and Be Happy, for our work is to improve our nation for all America, not just for the Aristocracy. That gives us a strategic advantage, but it's fun too.