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The mandate of heaven and the tipping-point

Godfrey Hodgson
7 December 2005

There have been many political scandals over the White House in the past. Some were financial shenanigans that affected the president only indirectly, because they involved his administration’s political allies or cabinet secretaries – the Crédit Mobilier affair in the Ulysses S Grant administration and the selling of government oil properties at Teapot Dome and elsewhere under Warren Harding come into this category. Others, like the various allegations of petty corruption brought against Harry Truman, affect a president more nearly, but not to the extent that seriously damaged his reputation.

Twice in a little over thirty years, however, the American system has come close to applying the ultimate sanction: impeachment. President Clinton survived impeachment because the Senate did not find him guilty as the House of Representatives charged. President Nixon, faced with a decision by the Supreme Court dismissing his attempt to defend himself by protecting the “smoking gun” of a tape-recording that showed him beyond reasonable doubt to have been guilty, chose to resign rather than face the humiliation of conviction.

It is one of the strengths, but also one of the weaknesses, of the American presidency that the president, once elected, is the chief executive for four years. However much he may be seen to have lost political authority and credibility, however disastrous his policies and however many and sordid may have been the scandals that muddied his administrating, he is safe unless the House of Representatives impeaches him of “high crimes and misdemeanours” and the Senate finds himself guilty as charged.

Also by Godfrey Hodgson in openDemocracy on American politics:

“Can America go modest?” (October 2001)

“The Senate’s filibuster deal: only a truce in the culture wars” (May 2005)

“American media in the firing-line” (June 2005)

“Gimme five! US Republicans’ amoral minority” (June 2005)

“After Katrina, a government adrift” (September 2005)

“Oil and American politics” (October 2005)

“The death of American politics” (October 2005)

“The Democrats’ dilemma” (November 2005)

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Uneasy lies the head

This is very different, at least in theory, from the situation in Britain and other “Westminster-style” parliamentary democracies. There, once the prime minister is defeated on a vote “of confidence” in the legislature, he is out – immediately. Regime change takes place. The “in theory” qualification is needed, because in practice it is possible for a British or Australian or continental European prime minister to survive a certain number of parliamentary defeats. Once the point is reached, however, when his defeat is clearly on an important issue – understood as such before the vote is taken – then execution is instantaneous. By morning, furniture vans arrive in Downing Street.

The prime minister in constitutional monarchies, of course, is head of government. The monarch assures continuity, while the head of government changes. In the American system, the president is head of state as well as head of government.

That, no doubt, is one reason why impeachment is such a “nuclear option”. It is almost certainly the reason, for example, why there was no serious call to impeach President Reagan over his administration’s picturesque illegalities in the Iran-Contra affair, in which Congress’s prohibition on sending arms to right-wing guerrillas in Nicaragua in the 1980s was circumvented by selling arms to Iran and shipping the proceeds to the guerrillas. Congress and public opinion are reluctant to see the American head of states impeached except in the clearest cases.

There is another reason why President George W Bush is not in danger of impeachment, at least until after the mid-term elections in November 2006. For the time being, he commands a clear majority in both houses of Congress. If ever he were to lose that majority, impeachment would be possible, though not – on the basis of anything that is known so far – likely.

Both in Congress and in public opinion, however, the tipping-point may be near. The President’s poll ratings have fallen below 40%, which is all the more damaging when it is remembered that, immediately after 11 September 2001, 90% of Americans approved of his performance. Republicans in Congress are less united in his support than they were. There are a series of discontents, for which Iraq has become the lightning-rod – from the administration’s refusal to forbid torture (Senator John McCain has been especially vocal on this issue) and evidence that the nation was deceived about the reasons for going to war in 2003, to the spreading disaster of the war itself.

Closer to home, recent revelations suggest that under the Republican ascendancy corruption has reached into Congress itself. At first, press reports of the machinations of the Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is close to several key conservative operators in Washington, including the president’s key domestic adviser, Grover Norquist and to the all-powerful White House grey eminence, Karl Rove, could be dismissed as peripheral. Similarly, Tom DeLay, the Texas congressman so feared on Capitol Hill that he was known as The Hammer, was able for a time to shrug off his own indictment for corruption as a Texas political feud.

Now it is plain that several Republican congressmen were bribed. The Abramoff scandal is likely to unravel with the plea bargain of DeLay’s former spokesman, Michael Scanlon; and the indictment of I Lewis “Scooter” Libby – former chief aide to the vice-president, Dick Cheney – in the case of the apparently vindictive outing of the CIA operative Valerie Plame, promises further exposure of very senior Republican figures.

The levee cracks…

The healthy shock of any political scandal, in Washington or elsewhere, is that it reveals a pattern of unacceptable and/or illegal behaviour that people suspected was taking place but whose details they were unaware of. The result is often that people come to believe that the pattern is widespread – perhaps, indeed, more widespread than is really the case.

The danger now for the Republicans is that they will be seen as on the one hand full of ideological hubris, and on the other, to have transgressed acceptable standards of behaviour as a consequence.

For close to four years after the trauma of 9/11, the Bush administration – in many ways understandably – got a free ride. Politicians and journalists alike were reluctant to be seen nitpicking about its conduct when the republic itself could plausibly be presented as being targeted by a dangerous adversary.

Sooner or later this period of immunity from criticism would come to an end. It lasted long enough for the president to be re-elected, albeit with no enormous majority. But the immunity, in both media and politics, is now over.

Now the media are reporting the millions of dollars that members of the Republican inner circle siphoned off from casinos by native American tribes and sordid transactions by Republican lobbyists involving Florida gambling-ships. Now the courts will expose the machinations by which DeLay created five new safe seats for the Republicans in Texas. Now politicians and newspapers are joining bloggers in dissecting the half-truths with which the American public has been duped about what is happening in and around Iraq. Now all these evidences of the Bush administration’s arrogance and mistakes are coming home to roost.

Things can worse, however, without before seriously shaking President Bush. He has a long time to go before his term ends: three years until the winner of the 2008 election is inaugurated as his successor. It is even possible to imagine the political wheel turning in his favour. If the economy recovers enough to improve tax revenues, if the American people simply lose interest in Iraq, even if some new international crisis (Iran? Syria? North Korea? Taiwan?) rallies doubters once more around their commander-in-chief, George W Bush could still limp through to the end of his second term with the shreds of dignity about him – although in any circumstance, an immense work of repair to the American reputation in the world will be bequeathed to his successor.

Everything, however, depends on the mid-term elections. Already there are signs that some Republicans, alarmed at their own prospects of re-election, are breaking ranks. Democratic off-year victories in New Jersey and Virginia have revived Democrats’ morale. However ruthless their willingness to smear their opponents, Karl Rove and his experts will find it harder in 2006 than in 2004 to present their party as a force of united and disciplined veterans, a “grand army” of the Republicans.

Godfrey Hodgson’s most recent book is More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2004)

…but will it break?

Ever since the collapse of the Roosevelt coalition between southern conservatives and northern workers in the 1970s, the Democrats’ prospects of political success depend wholly on their ability to take advantage of the target of opportunity they are offered. As a party, they face two formidable difficulties. The first is the fact that they did not speak out bravely and clearly in the first place about the tragic mistake that is the Iraq war. The second is that they still find it hard not to appear as the party of Schadenfreude, the party that can’t help hoping that things will go wrong. Americans prefer confidence, patriotism and success. Under Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy, the Democrats incarnated those virtues. Since the 1970s, they have been able only briefly to speak for the nation’s hopes as well as for its fears.

It has to be said that they now have a better opportunity than for many years. Recent revelations make their opponents look like a narrow faction led by hubristic ideologues, indifferent to the interests of all but the corporate elite, and unable to see why they should not torture anyone they deem to be “bad guys”.

Many Republicans are coming to realise that the Republican party is better than that, and that the Bush administration is betraying the very conservative tradition it claims to uphold. But next year it may have some difficulty in persuading American voters that it has not deserved to lose the mandate of heaven. And if Republicans lose their control of Congress, then their lease on the White House itself could be foreclosed in two years’ time.

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