Writing about Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, Andrew Sullivan, a British ex-pat conservative who used to advocate for Republican Party positions, sums up how the American conservative movement lost its way:
One of the most strikingly anti-conservative aspects of today’s allegedly conservative movement, after all, is its contempt for institutions, especially elite institutions that in any way limit the scope of fundamentalist ideology. And so Newt Gingrich’s crucial innovation was throwing out the politeness and manners and decorum and rules and traditions of the House of Representatives in order to gain power by populist demagoguery. You can see his legacy in Tom DeLay’s implementation of the Medicare D entitlement under Bush, an essentially lawless and rule-free process that made a mockery of parliamentary procedure. You saw this contempt for the rule of law, if it got in the way of desired policy, in the torture policy under Bush, cynically making the patently illegal “legal” through cynicism and double-speak.
Similarly, McConnell’s use of the filibuster is essentially a display of contempt for the American constitutional system, rigging the system to nullify legislative majorities and to conduct politics as a zero-sum war for power, rather than as a means to debate, discuss and implement necessary changes in an evolving society. The give-and-take of American constitutionalism has been essentially reduced by the GOP in the last two decades to take-and-take-some-more. They impeached one successful president, in an act so disproportionate to the offense (and the offense was real; Clinton was a shameless perjurer) that it helped gut any bipartisan functioning of an institution designed for deal-making across the aisles or within them. They treated the 2000 EdmundBurke1771election, when Bush lost the popular vote, as a landslide mandate election – again with no deference to the other side or sense of governing as one nation.
After Bush vs Gore and then Citizens United, I think Roberts saw the full political and constitutional consequences of a radical Court vote to gut the key legislative achievement of a duly elected president and Congress. In other words, he put the institutions of American government before the demands of partisan power-mongering. And he deftly nudged the issue back into the democratic process, where it more comfortably belongs.
I cannot say this is the moment the fever broke. The “movement right” is still furious at Roberts, pushing Romney as the principle-free instrument of their next round of institution-smashing (Medicare). But that a conservative placed the country’s institutional stability before ideological fervor is so rare at this point it deserves some kind of praise. It’s a start. If the GOP is beaten this fall, it may even be seen as the moment the tide began to turn, and conservatism began to reach back toward its less feral traditions and ideas. But I know I’m getting way ahead of myself here.
As someone who has never been a conservative — although I did read “Atlas Shrugged” twice when I was 16 — I don’t share Sullivan’s optimism. My take is that the root of the right’s institution-bashing today goes back to Pres. Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon.
The message that sent to young conservatives like Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney is that, for conservatives who obtain great power in this country, there will be no consequences — nor even any accountability. For Democrats like Pres. Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, consequences abound.
Like Nixon, Clinton was charged with high crimes and misdemeanors by Congress. But Nixon was accused of directing the IRS to harass his political enemies, ordering burglaries, eavesdropping and “dirty tricks” like stealing the psychiatric records of his enemies — crimes for which 43 people, including senior Nixon White House aides, eventually went to jail.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan and his vice president, George Bush Sr., were never held accountable for their decision to break the law — the Boland Amendment, which forbade further U.S. funding of the Nicaraguan Contras — by selling arms to Muslim terrorist-hostage takers and sending the proceeds to the Contras. When Reagan was finally called to testify, he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, which lent credence to his 124 answers of “I don’t remember” during his testimony. George H.W. Bush’s records as vice president were suppressed by his son. One of George W. Bush’s first acts as president was to countermand Pres. Ford’s executive order that presidential records be unsealed 12 years after the president’s term has ended.
By contrast, Clinton’s crime was lying in civil-lawsuit deposition about an affair with a staffer, over which the nation was treated to the first impeachment of a president.
Like John Edwards, Gingrich conducted an ongoing affair while his wife was ill — Gringrich’s second wife Marianne was diagnosed with MS during the five years he was having an affair with his current wife, Callista. After Edwards’ run for the presidency, a Republican U.S. attorney in North Carolina charged Edwards with a spurious, almost laughable crime of receiving a million dollars from a wealthy donor. What did Gingrich get? Nada. This philandering reprobate is considered to be one of the grand old men in the Grand Old Party.
Arguably, had Nixon been served time for his crimes, it might have deterred young pols who, like Nixon, reached adulthood without having developed moral compasses — the Cheneys, Bush Jrs., Gingriches and the rest — from pursuing political careers. Instead, the experience of those Republicans, all of whom are in their sixties now, has bolstered what they learned from the Nixon-Ford example: Republicans who wield ultimate power will not be held accountable — not for eavesdropping, not for shooting a hunting buddy in the face, not for subverting the will of Congress, not for torturing suspects in their custody, not even for taking the country to war, draining a trillion dollars or more from the Treasury and wasting the lives of thousands of innocent people, including U.S. service personnel, based on false or faulty intelligence.
When the Democrats took the impeachment of Bush and Cheney off the table in 2007, it just further reinforced the message that conservatives have been receiving since Sept. 8, 1974, when Pres. Ford pardoned Richard Nixon: The law does not apply to American conservatives who acquire power.