PRESIDENTS, PRINCIPLES AND POLITICS
Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, December 31, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”
Salit: Commemorations and discussions about President Gerald Ford were a focus point today, including Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon after Watergate. Ford had once explained that he thought the pardon was the best thing to do for the stability of the country and the stability of the political system, that we should put the whole Watergate affair behind us and move ahead. The basic argument was that the American people couldn’t handle something that was more open-ended, like a criminal trial of the President of the United States. What do you think about adjudicating what the American people can and can’t handle?
Newman: When people say things – in these self-serving ways – like ‘The American people couldn’t handle the details of Watergate,’ it’s useful to remember that the American people are the group around here that made a revolution and created our country. The issue right now, it seems to me, is figuring out how to finish that revolution, how to complete it.
Salit: Are you making a connection between dealing with political corruption and completing the American Revolution?
Newman: Yes, completing it means engaging the question of corruption. We have to ask ourselves, has American politics become so structurally partisan and corrupt that we can’t effect the necessary reforms within the current structure?
Salit: Well, Ford and the people advising him and the critics who have now come around to Ford’s position, feel you can’t trust the American people to handle such questions.
Newman: I do trust the American people. What’s more, why should I trust the people who haven’t figured out how to complete the American Revolution, when I can trust the people who made it.
Salit: That’s really very interesting because the Watergate scandal ushered in an era of political and electoral reform and created the contemporary constructs on which we run our national elections. The Federal Election Commission existed prior to Watergate, but it was largely an administrative body. Following Watergate it was given a huge amount of power to regulate elections. And, the public financing system was put in place.
Newman: But, whatever reforms were introduced, there was no accountability for the president – even though that was, arguably, the issue in Watergate. What they worked out in that deal – and the Nixon pardon was a deal – was agreeing that it’s better for the country if we don’t pursue accountability. I can see that argument on the short term. But, is it also a way of saying we’re willing to discontinue our progressive revolution? I think it is.
Salit: Can a revolution be finished?
Newman: Why not? Think of this in a scientific and commercial context. Mr. Edison says Let’s mass market electricity. You have to revolutionize a whole society and its infrastructure to do that. Now we have lights everywhere. That revolution was completed.
Salit: One more question on the Ford era. Bill Safire, who was in the Nixon White House, said on “Meet the Press” today that the thing that Nixon learned from his political career – culminating in the Watergate experience – was that if you hate the people who hate you, you destroy yourself. It wasn’t exactly a guiding principle for Nixon, because Nixon’s career was over by the time he came to that realization.
Newman: I’m not sure what I think about that principle. In some ways, the next stage of the American Revolution, if there’s going to be a next stage, is going to be about having to bring principle and politics together. I think that’s part of what the hoopla over Barack Obama is about. It’s one thing to ask Is Barack Obama a principled guy? And, it’s another thing to ask Can anyone be principled in that position? Is it possible to have principles?
Salit: And be in politics.
Newman: And be in politics. It’s unbelievably corrupt.
Salit: Is that simply inevitable, do you think?
Newman: For it not to be inevitable you need to constantly attend to the development of politics. And it hasn’t, by and large, been attended to.
Salit: Some people would argue that the Watergate reforms were an effort to cleanse politics of its tendency towards corruption.
Newman: I don’t think that was a cleansing. You began this discussion by citing the notion that many elites have that bringing principles into politics is too much for the American people. Well, some American people, almost 300 years ago, were ready to fight a revolution over principles.
Salit: Speaking of politics, principles and accountability, the year-end prediction by the pundits today was that the president will seek a surge in troop levels in Iraq and the Democrats will, by and large, go along with that. A few congressional voices will oppose it, like Dennis Kucinich, though they’re not getting huge play. Are the Democrats going to back Bush on the troop surge?
Newman: Surely. The serious question, after you say surely, is how are they going to try and sell that unprincipled corruption to the public?
Salit: In the roundtable on “Meet the Press,” all five of the commentators agreed that the big story of ’06 was Iraq and the American public turning against the war.
Salit: And, the impact that had on the midterm elections. One commentator, E.J. Dionne, said that he thought the other big story of ’06 was the corruption story. He’s referring to the Mark Foley scandal and the Tom DeLay scandal and the Duke Cunningham scandal, which drove the Republican numbers down. But maybe he was also asking a question, which is whether there was a response by the American people to the corruption of the political process.
Newman: Meaning, have things reached the tipping point?
Salit: Yes, have they reached the tipping point?
Newman: It’s hard to say. Everyone’s seeking clarity about what the message of the elections was. People spoke out, I think that’s true. Now, everyone wants to interpret what was said. But what was said, and how it’s spun aren’t always the same.
Salit: They often have nothing to do with each other.
Newman: I listen intently. I hear a bunch of people – on both sides of the aisle – trying to figure out how to do the least damage to their position, while doing something that the American people, at least that portion of it that voted the Republicans out, are satisfied with. But, is anyone in a position to go beyond that? The fascination with Barack Obama is driven by the question of whether he is both sufficiently above this crowd of hoodlums and sufficiently popular to force the Democrats to go with someone as untested and perhaps as unpredictable as he is. That’s what it comes down to. Now, I agree with everybody who says Obama is very skillful. He is. He is very good. But, is he good enough to gain advantage off of exposing this incapable, corrupt bureaucracy and to intimidate the Democrats into taking steps that are, arguably, not in their immediate self-interest?
Salit: Or, do the Democrats undermine him because he’s too much of a risk, nominate someone else and then say to the American people, This is the best we could do, and now it’s us or the Republicans.
Newman: Are they going to break with conventional wisdom? I don’t know. It’s very hard to predict Abraham Lincoln.
Salit: Not to mention that Lincoln was a third party candidate.
Newman: It’s hard to predict, because it’s not a totally rational choice. And ultimately, I think it depends on what you want and what the voters want. It’s that nagging and complicated question which polls don’t handle very well.
Newman: Like with Mike Bloomberg, for example. The underlying question is the same. What does he want? What is he going for? Does he want to try to use his money to affect an unlikely revolutionary advance in American democracy, or does he want to use his power to consolidate what he’s got and make use of that for some minimal reforms.
Salit: It’s a little like the choices you make while playing poker.
Newman: You bet.
Salit: Thanks, Fred.