Friday, May 4, 2007

Hillary Two/Obama Still Zilch

The better to annoy the freedom fries crowd, why not, like Zagat’s, rate the Democratic candidates the way the French grade baccalaureate exams – on a scale of zero to twenty? Then John Edwards would merit, say, a ten for urging Democratic legislators to throw Bush’s veto of their war funding bill back in his face for as many times as it takes to get him to back off. [This was essentially what Mike Gravel proposed in the April 26 South Carolina debate and, apart from most of what Dennis Kucinich said there, it was the best idea to come out of that spectacle.] By this standard, Hillary Clinton deserves at least two points for agreeing to co-sponsor Robert Byrd’s proposal to have Congress’ war authorization expire after five years – that is, in October. Five years ago, twenty-three Senate Democrats opposed the war. Back then, that was not enough cover for Clinton. Evidently, she now calculates that she can’t afford not to side with Byrd. Still, we must give credit where it is due. If she’d apologize for having voted for the war in the first place, as Edwards did long ago, she could get a point or two for that as well.

But lets not make too much of a good thing. Robert Byrd has been, from the beginning, an honorable opponent of Bush’s wars. He is as aware as anyone of the threat the Cheney/Bush administration poses to constitutional government. But he still thinks that Congress has it within itself to assert its constitutional role, and that the courts will back them up. I fear he is mistaken. Since the days of Truman, Congress has allowed its indisputable authority to declare war to lapse. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it tried to reassert a semblance of the authority the republic’s founders assigned to it by passing the War Powers Act. Then, while it abjectly acquiesced, a succession of Presidents from Reagan through Bush, including Bill Clinton, undid even that timid measure. Meanwhile, as the recent ruling on so-called partial birth abortions makes clear, the Supreme Court has become little more than a vehicle for its white conservative Catholic males to do as they please. The Roberts Court will give the Cheney/Bush administration carte blanche – unless they violate Constitutional arrangements so starkly and unambiguously that it would lose its last semblance of legitimacy if it didn’t intervene. That’s a high standard. If the Supremes can go along with the de facto nullification of habeus corpus, they will surely find a way to allow the ‘unitary executive’ to make war in the face of a bill like Byrd’s. In a word, Byrd’s proposal won’t work. It is important symbolically, but it will not end the war.

What will work because there can be no doubt that Congress still has the right is defunding the war. There is similarly no doubt that Congress can remove Cheney and Bush from office. Were Congress to defund the war and were Cheney and Bush to wage it anyway, either they would have to go or the Constitution would. In these circumstances, Republicans of integrity – they exist, probably in similar numbers to Democrats – would rise to the occasion. However they won’t help precipitate it. That is a task for the Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers. But, of course, they won’t do anything of the sort. That would require a backbone. As we know, unlike the GOP, the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity, suffers from a congenital lack of one.

Nevertheless, the fact remains: Robert Byrd is a man of principle. Therefore, the question arises: what is Hillary doing with him? In part, it’s the horse race: by supporting his measure she can inch ahead of Obama for a while in the hearts and minds of Democratic voters. But you don’t stay married to Bill for so long without becoming slicker than that. I would speculate therefore that she realizes that, inadvertently, Byrd has contrived a way for Democrats to let Bush off the hook; to give him the money he wants. They can let him have his war – and therefore not look “weak on defense (sic)” -- with whatever passes for a clear conscience in the POP by funding the war and then rescinding its “authorization.” In other words, they can pass a resolution that, in a better world, would precipitate a constitutional crisis, but that in the actual world amounts to nothing more than a symbolic gesture. On balance, it is a good thing for Hillary to be less of a War Democrat by supporting the end of the Iraq War even to this extent; it’s bad that Obama still hasn’t signed on. But, as with everything else Clintonite, the good in her gesture is opportunistic posturing and little, if anything, more.

Note: there is an interesting article on Obama by Larissa MacFarquhar in the May 7 New Yorker. It’s not quite a puff piece, though it does depict Obama as, above all, a man of vision. However its “argument” boils down to the claim that Obama’s vision for America has more to do with his character than his policies, and that what is remarkable about his character is, as a former teacher of his at Harvard Law School put it, his calm -- that he is like someone “able to lower his blood pressure at will.” That may be fine for quashing white fears about black male rage. But does it translate into a vision for governance? So long as Obama’s score remains zilch, it’s anybody’s guess.

No comments: