The big task facing the next president will be cleaning up the mess left by the last president. How big the task may be is not yet fully appreciated. There is the economic mess and there is the mess we call “the war.” Included in the larger mess of the war are active military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; a semiclandestine war of increasing intensity in the Pakistani tribal areas; and continuing military tension with Iran that could open a new theater of active warfare more or less at any time.
Who got us into this mess? The answer is the Republicans, and more particularly the Bush Republicans, who had control of both Congress and the White House for six years and did as they pleased. The Bush Republicans have no one else to blame and neither do Barack Obama and the Democrats. You would think that a presidential campaign could be built around this fact but so far it does not appear to have happened. The change Obama seeks remains oddly bloodless, as if the mess were a found object, not something that someone had done.
But the architects of the mess could not be plainer. The credit crisis, like the savings and loan crisis of twenty years ago, was the predictable result of changes in regulation of banking and financial markets. The rollback of regulations was driven by free-market theories put into effect mainly by Republican presidents. More than seven hundred S&L institutions collapsed during the first crisis and it cost the American public more than $120 billion to clean up the mess. The price of cleaning up the current credit crisis is going to be a lot higher than that. For this money, the public gets nothing but the bitter solace that still worse calamities have perhaps been avoided.
In both cases the government bailout undermines the bedrock discipline of markets—mistakes are supposed to hurt. Shoring up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has the effect of insulating mortgage buyers from the consequences of stupid speculations, and encourages future speculators to count on friends in Washington for a soft landing when the next frenzy begins to heat up. The Bush Republicans stuck to free-market theory while their friends were making zillions, then abandoned free-market theory when the whole financial system threatened to collapse. The bailout in itself condemns the policy of deregulation which made the bailout necessary. But who is holding the Bush Republicans to account?
The cost of the ever-growing credit bailout is no longer pocket change, and may equal the cost of the war when it is all totted up. Figures for Iraq have reached the trillion-dollar range; Afghanistan is heading in the same direction. All of this money, like the money for the credit bailout, and the money for the taxpayer rebate stimulus intended to soften the recession triggered by the credit crisis in the first place, is borrowed money. Some of it is borrowed from Americans, some from foreigners, all of it from future generations. What happened to the Republicans of yesteryear who preached a gospel of fiscal responsibility? Many years ago when the Reagan Republicans were setting the stage for the savings and loan crisis, my speechwriting friend Tom Lewis, an astute observer of politics, summed up the ethos of the Republican Party in a single word: more.
But the biggest legacy of the Bush years is not debt. It is the idea that the United States must, and can, control the political landscape of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. The American military is waist-deep in the first two, knee-deep in Pakistan, and threatening to wade right into Iran as well if the Iranians don’t accept our demand to dismantle their nuclear program.
John McCain intends to press the attack on all fronts. Barack Obama, if elected, could march us back out of this suckhole but it will not be easy. I fear he would find himself trapped by our national need to appear to succeed in any contest where Americans have shed blood. It somehow fails to matter that we are trying to do what no country can ever do for long—force strange people in distant places to reshape their politics and society more to our liking. The effort passes as nation-building at the outset, but in the long run counterinsurgency always comes down to the same self-defeating strategy—killing locals until they stop trying to make us go away.
In seven years of war, public debate has never managed to get out in front of events, and it is still trailing behind. The thing to keep in mind is that this all can get a lot worse. The American presence in the greater Middle East is large, unwelcome, and disruptive. We have shattered an equilibrium that kept Sunnis and Shiites from each other’s throats for centuries. We have conceded to Turkey the right to send its military into Iraq at will. We have disrupted the understanding between the government of Pakistan and its tribal areas; and we have granted ourselves leave to chase after our enemies in Pakistani territory, an intrusion no government can tolerate for long. Over time the number of our enemies in this expanding arena of conflict and the cost of trying to control them will grow until we are half-crazy with frustration, are on the brink of something dangerously like civil war from arguing at home, and have run out of places to borrow money.
Americans have an odd way of arguing about politics. We don’t like plain talk about matters that call for harsh judgments or recognition of failure. But some things are too big to hide or explain away, and so in the end I think voters will decide by a whisker for change.
It depends on how you measure these things, but it seems fair to say that the “24/7” news cycle has been with us since the 1992 presidential campaign. The year before, CNN had supplanted the traditional networks as the go-to information destination during the Persian Gulf War.
By the time Bill Clinton ran against George H.W. Bush, we were, tentatively but ineluctably, leaving the “news age” (dominated by print and by serious television reporters named Cronkite, Chancellor, Wallace, Schorr, etc.) and entering the “media age,” in which information was delivered and discussed by “personalities” on networks that now found time to broadcast events like Gennifer Flowers’s press conference during the day, and then spent the evening dissecting their “meaning.”
In each presidential election since, the media age has grown ever more encompassing. MSNBC was launched in July 1996, and the Fox News channel that October. The Drudge Report Web site first appeared in the following year. By 2000, a few posted remarks called “blogs” offered commentary on the political news. By 2004, bloggers were receiving credentials for the conventions. YouTube made its mark in 2006, as a camera captured Virginia Senator George Allen’s “macaca moment.” This year, of course, the truly informed political junkie constantly streams sound and video and has a dozen or more blogs bookmarked, surfing obsessively through them all and giving each perhaps nine seconds in which to hold his interest whenever a major (or often a minor) development occurs.
Presidential candidates have responded to this development by organizing their campaigns around it. George W. Bush, Al Gore, and John Kerry all had “war rooms” devoted to monitoring the old and new media and trying to influence their coverage. John Edwards wined and dined important liberal bloggers. Hillary Clinton hired one. All these candidates met with varying degrees of success. But what united them is that they all agreed on the overwhelming importance of triumphing in the media culture, winning that day’s news cycle.
One of the most fascinating things about the current election is that Barack Obama’s campaign is less concerned about coverage by blogs and television than any other presidential campaign in the short history of this media age, and that John McCain’s operation seems utterly consumed by it. And it’s not merely that this is fascinating: each side’s attitude toward its media coverage may well determine who wins the election.
Obama’s campaign is based on its field operation. It has opened dozens of regional offices in important states. In August, the campaign spent $2.8 million on payroll compared to McCain’s $1.2 million, suggesting a vast disparity in the number of paid organizers in the states.
And that leaves out entirely the battalions of volunteers. All these volunteers are contacting friends and neighbors and co-workers, and one of the core beliefs of the Obama campaign is that people will trust hearing from their friends and neighbors and co-workers that a vote for Obama is a safe and sensible one. Unlike Clinton and Edwards, Obama never hired a high-profile blogger to join his campaign. Instead his volunteers were invited to start blogs on his site. The leaders of the liberal “netroots” (a word combining “Internet” and “grassroots”) seem a little cranky about the fact that Obama hasn’t made a big priority of currying their favor.
The McCain campaign is organized entirely around daily news cycles—the belief that winning the media war will win the election. The two defining decisions of his campaign make this obvious. First, Sarah Palin was selected as his running mate to shake up the conversation on cable television and in the blogs. The selection was announced the Friday after the Democratic convention to deny Obama a prominent place during the next two or three days of news cycles.
Second, McCain’s cynical decision to “suspend” his campaign (which he did not in fact do) and return to Washington for the bailout negotiations was solely about his recognition that he was losing attention in the news cycles and he had to do something to staunch the bleeding. Virtually every major move McCain has made has been about trying to win that day’s headlines.
Obama has tripped him up, and no doubt confounded him and his handlers, by not playing the game. Even in Obama’s post–Labor Day nadir, when he slipped in the polls and liberals everywhere were panicked, Obama didn’t resort to stunts or grandstanding hyperbole. Indeed, many of his supporters wanted to hear more hyperbole. During the bailout shenanigans, one thought he might have taken a jab at McCain’s stunt. He would have gotten big headlines by doing so, and the liberal blogosphere would have loved it. He never came close to such rhetoric.
On September 26 in the first presidential debate, Obama deliberately eschewed several opportunities to hit McCain with a zinger of the sort generally thought to define winning these affairs. McCain offered several such one-liners and was on the attack more often than Obama was.
Can a strategy of sidestepping the media defeat a campaign that’s organized around the media in the media age? A good field operation is typically thought to be worth perhaps three percentage points on Election Day. For that to matter, of course, the candidate has to be within three points when Election Day arrives. It will be instructive to study the final pre-election polls in a handful of key states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and North Carolina) and compare them to the actual vote to get a measure of what Obama’s field operation was worth and whether his gamble—of deemphasizing efforts to score daily victories in the short-term news cycle—was the right one.
The next president will undoubtedly nominate one or more Supreme Court justices—which, justifiably, makes some worry about the fate of Roe v. Wade. But there should be even deeper worries about the Court. Even if Roe is reversed (and that is no certainty, even with new justices), some states—perhaps many—will legitimize abortions, and others may find a ban unenforceable (more so than Prohibition). But a new justice appointed by a Republican president will with certainty create results more drastic than any affecting Roe.
When Dick Cheney was vetting the last two candidates for the Court, he did not really care about their views on abortion. He concentrated on their attitude toward the many executive usurpations of the Bush administration, and he was satisfied on this account with John Roberts and with Sam Alito.
When Charles Gibson was questioning Governor Palin, he should not have asked about the Bush Doctrine (a wavering concept, and touching only one matter, war). He should have asked for her views on the unitary executive—the question Cheney asked the Court nominees. That is what matters most to the Bush people. It affects all the executive usurpations of the last seven years—not only the right of the president to wage undeclared wars, but his right to create military courts, to authorize extraordinary renditions, secret prisons, more severely coercive interrogation, trials with undisclosed evidence, domestic surveillance, and the overriding of congressional oversight in every aspect of government from energy policy to health services.
All these policies were driven by the unitary executive theory of the Constitution, which emanated from David Addington in Vice President Cheney’s office. Charlie Savage has documented that four Supreme Court justices are already enthusiastic supporters of the unitary theory—Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas.16 It takes only a fifth justice to solder that theory into place for the foreseeable future. This would be the most thorough reworking and distortion of the Constitution in all our history.
The stakes are staggering. That is why the Republicans are so desperate to win this year. If they fail, not only will their previous encroachments be endangered, but the investigation of illegal acts will be removed from protection by presidential veto. Nothing short of wholesale pardons by the outgoing president can give many people cover for acts they undertook on the assurance that the unitary executive was exempt from congressional action. This prospect is so terrifying that John McCain has taken over the thuggish tactics that defeated him in 2000. The Republicans have everything to lose.
The unitary executive theory was elaborated in Edwin Meese’s Justice Department under Ronald Reagan. In its first form, it asserted that Congress can have nothing to do with an agency once it has set it up. Everything after that is an executive task, and only the president can determine executive personnel and conduct.
Whatever one thinks of the theory in that first form, Vice President Cheney, relying on the advice of the extremist law professor John Yoo and on that of David Addington, has stretched the theory far from its early formulation. One of its first formulators in the Meese office, Federalist Society founder Steven Calabresi, now writes:
The cost of the bad legal advice that he received is that Bush has discredited the theory of the unitary executive by associating it not with presidential authority to remove and direct subordinate executive officials but with implied, inherent foreign policy powers, some of which, at least, the president simply does not possess.17
There is something terrifying in the fact that a sweeping presidential power that is rejected even by an early advocate of the unitary executive is now accepted by four of the nine Supreme Court justices. Add a fifth justice to them, and the Constitution will be under the severest siege in its history. There can be no higher stakes.
—October 7, 2008
Charlie Savage, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy (Little, Brown, 2007), pp. 250–278.↩
Steven G. Calabresi and Christopher S. Yoo, The Unitary Executive: Presidential Power from Washington to Bush (Yale University Press, 2008), p. 429.↩