Monday, February 19, 2007

This morning we have Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman. First, Bob Herbert, who says the question for 2008 is not so much whether a Republican or a Democrat takes the White House; it’s whether we can take back the country. Second, Paul Krugman says the Democratic base wants someone who doesn’t suffer from an infallibility complex, who can admit mistakes and learn from them. (He also takes a few well-aimed shots at McCain and Giuliani.) Here’s Mr. Herbert:

If we could manage to get past the tedious and the odious — like the empty speculation on whether a woman can win, or whether Barack Obama is black enough — we might be able to engage the essential issue facing the U.S. at this point in our history.

And that is whether, once the Bush administration has finally and mercifully run its course, the country goes back to being a reasonably peaceful, lawful, constructive force in the world, or whether we continue down the bullying, warlike, unilateral, irresponsible, unlawful and profoundly ineffective path laid out by Bush, Cheney & Co.

The question is not so much whether a Republican or a Democrat takes the White House in the next election; it’s whether the American people can take back their country.

I don’t think most Americans are up for perennial warfare. And whatever the polls might say, it’s very hard for me to accept that the men and women who rise from their seats and cover their hearts at the start of sporting events are really in favor of dismantling the system of checks and balances, or holding people in prison for years without charging them, or torturing prisoners in U.S. custody, or giving the president the raw power and unsavory privileges of an emperor.

It was Richard Nixon who said, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, operating behind the mammoth fig leaf of national security, took this theoretical absurdity to heart and put it into widespread practice.

There are, however, many thoughtful Americans who want to stop this calamitous disregard for the rule of law, two of whom I’ll mention today — Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr. and Senator Chris Dodd.

Mr. Schwarz is one of the most decent men I’ve known. I covered him when he was the chief lawyer for New York City during the Koch administration. He was then, and still is, the quintessential straight arrow.

In the 1970s Mr. Schwarz was chief counsel for the Church Committee (named after its chairman, Senator Frank Church), which uncovered extraordinary abuses and led to historic changes in the nation’s intelligence services. He is now the senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

To say that Mr. Schwarz is disturbed by some of the things that have occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush is an understatement. In a book to be published next month by The New Press, “Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror,” Mr. Schwarz and a colleague at the Brennan Center, Aziz Z. Huq, write:

“For the first time in American history, the executive branch claims authority under the Constitution to set aside laws permanently — including prohibitions on torture and warrantless eavesdropping on Americans. A frightening idea decisively rejected at America’s birth — that a president, like a king, can do no wrong — has reemerged to justify torture and indefinite presidential detention.”

Undermining checks and balances here at home and acting unilaterally abroad have made us less safe, said Mr. Schwarz. Some of the actions the U.S. has taken “have so hurt our reputation,” he said, “that Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay have become in many eyes more the symbol of America than the Statue of Liberty.”

Senator Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who is running for president, has introduced legislation that would definitively bar the use of evidence obtained by torture or coercion, reinstate full U.S. adherence to the Geneva Conventions and restore rights of habeas corpus for certain terror suspects that were stripped away by the federal government last year.

(Habeas corpus is a legal proceeding that allows suspects to challenge their detention in a court of law. To get a sense of its significance, imagine that you were locked up somewhere and were not permitted to show that a mistake had been made, that you were innocent. Imagine that you, or a loved one, were held under those circumstances for a period of years, or forever.)

Senator Dodd said this corrosion of the rule of law has been tolerated primarily because “people have been frightened.” As he put it, in an atmosphere of crisis, “the temptation to succumb to the demagoguery of these things is strong.”

The senator and Mr. Schwarz, in their different ways, are among the many quiet patriots who are spreading the word that the very meaning of the United States, the whole point of this fragile experiment in representative democracy, will be lost if the nation’s ironclad commitment to the rule of law is allowed to unravel.

And now here is Mr. Krugman:

Many people are perplexed by the uproar over Senator Hillary Clinton’s refusal to say, as former Senator John Edwards has, that she was wrong to vote for the Iraq war resolution. Why is it so important to admit past error? And yes, it was an error — she may not have intended to cast a vote for war, but the fact is the resolution did lead to war; she may not have believed that President Bush would abuse the power he was granted, but the fact is he did.

The answer can be summed up in two words: heckuva job. Or, if you want a longer version: Medals of Freedom to George Tenet, who said Saddam had W.M.D., Tommy Franks, who failed to secure Iraq, and Paul Bremer, who botched the occupation.

For the last six years we have been ruled by men who are pathologically incapable of owning up to mistakes. And this pathology has had real, disastrous consequences. The situation in Iraq might not be quite so dire — and we might even have succeeded in stabilizing Afghanistan — if Mr. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney had been willing to admit early on that things weren’t going well or that their handpicked appointees weren’t the right people for the job.

The experience of Bush-style governance, together with revulsion at the way Karl Rove turned refusal to admit error into a political principle, is the main reason those now-famous three words from Mr. Edwards — “I was wrong” — matter so much to the Democratic base.

The base is remarkably forgiving toward Democrats who supported the war. But the base and, I believe, the country want someone in the White House who doesn’t sound like another George Bush. That is, they want someone who doesn’t suffer from an infallibility complex, who can admit mistakes and learn from them.

And there’s another reason the admission by Mr. Edwards that he was wrong is important. If we want to avoid future quagmires, we need a president who is willing to fight the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom on foreign policy, which still — in spite of all that has happened — equates hawkishness with seriousness about national security, and treats those who got Iraq right as somehow unsound. By admitting his own error, Mr. Edwards makes it more credible that he would listen to a wider range of views.

In truth, it’s the second issue, not the first, that worries me about Mrs. Clinton. Although she’s smart and sensible, she’s very much the candidate of the Beltway establishment — an establishment that has yet to come to terms with its own failure of nerve and judgment over Iraq. Still, she’s at worst a triangulator, not a megalomaniac; she’s not another Dick Cheney.

I wish we could say the same about all the major presidential aspirants.

Senator John McCain, whose reputation for straight talk is quickly getting bent out of shape, appears to share the Bush administration’s habit of rewriting history to preserve an appearance of infallibility.

Last month Senator McCain asserted that he knew full well what we were getting into by invading Iraq: “When I voted to support this war,” Mr. McCain said on MSNBC, “I knew it was probably going to be long and hard and tough, and those that voted for it and thought that somehow it was going to be some kind of an easy task, then I’m sorry they were mistaken.”

But back in September 2002, he told Larry King, “I believe that the operation will be relatively short,” and “I believe that the success will be fairly easy.”

And as for Rudy Giuliani, there are so many examples of his inability to accept criticism that it’s hard to choose.

Here’s an incident from 1997. When New York magazine placed ads on city buses declaring that the publication was “possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for,” the then-mayor ordered the ads removed — and when a judge ordered the ads placed back on, he appealed the decision all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

Now imagine how Mr. Giuliani would react on being told, say, that his choice to head Homeland Security is actually a crook. Oh, wait.

But back to Mrs. Clinton’s problem. For some reason she and her advisers failed to grasp just how fed up the country is with arrogant politicians who can do no wrong. I don’t think she falls in that category; but her campaign somehow thought it was still a good idea to follow Karl Rove’s playbook, which says that you should never, ever admit to a mistake. And that playbook has led them into a political trap.


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