November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day Musing: Obama's Ratio Decidendi

A little odd, I suppose, to crank out one of these posts on this holiday morning, but I awoke last night in the middle of the night (it may have been cat-related; they are nocturnal hunters, you know, even if the prey comes in a can) and something occurred to me that may be worth passing on (and "passing on" can be taken in either the transmittive or dismissive sense).

I think I understand President Obama's M.O. It was prompted by recent stories that he fired his White House Counsel, Greg Craig (whose parents really should have dug a little deeper for names), because Craig kept bringing up uncomfortable "discontinuities" between Obama's campaign positions and his policies in office; to wit, closing Guantanamo within a year (will not happen), warrantless wiretapping of American citizens and telecom immunity therefor (Obama was vehemently against during the campaign, it's okay with him now), military commissions as trial courts (Obama was completely against them, now he plans to use them), the state secrets doctrine (Obama demanded transparency, now he freely uses the doctrine to get rid of troublesome lawsuits prying into war crimes), publication of photos of detainee abuse (Obama wanted full disclosure, now he helped Lieberman permanently withhold them from the reach of FOIA requests), and, of course, the enforcement of the investigatory obligations under the Convention Against Torture (which Obama used to honor by saying "no one is above the law," but now says, "if a putative war crime happened in the Past, it cannot be prosecuted; only crimes which happen in the Future can be prosecuted Now, except they can't, because they haven't happened"). You can add to the list the unconstitutional decision to exercise preventive detention for those who can't be convicted but might do something someday, and the denial of habeas corpus to Bagram detainees (who sometimes wind up there by being shipped from Guantanamo, where they do have such rights). Craig had a problem with every one of the Presidential positions on these issues; so he got canned, having become an irritant.

It's quite a list. Even if Greg Craig's parents had an off-day when christening came around, they must have instilled in him something we used to call ethics and principles. I guess Obama made a mistake by appointing someone so "unpragmatic" to such a key spot.

So back to the thesis: you read everywhere about Obama's yearning for "bipartisanship," which I'm beginning to see is off the mark. That isn't it. It works this way, I think. The key lies in his reason for abandoning the idea of Single Payer in the health care debate, another principle he advocated on the campaign trail but abandoned once in office. If you're going to reform the system, that's about the only thing that would really work. Trying to restructure health care around the existing system of for-profit insurance companies just creates a Rube Goldberg contraption that combines the worst of government incompetence and insurance gouging. But Obama said that "single payer" would be "too disruptive," and that was that.

That's the answer, the sword that slices through the Gordian Knot. Can you imagine FDR in 1932 shying away from some big initiative to turn things around because it was "too disruptive?"Being disruptive" was the whole idea. That's how you effect change when the system is highly dysfunctional. Obama's great gift as a politician is his uncanny sense for the consensus status quo. The current status quo on many issues was formed by Obama's predecessor, who didn't mind being "disruptive" at all. Bush/Cheney were blatantly illegal, unconstitutional and radical; in time, the country sort of got used to it, but they got rid of Bush because they wanted their country back in some recognizable form. The precedents that Bush established, however, became a kind of new status quo or consensus position. The Washington/New York media, always following a herd instinct, stopped pointing out the unconstitutionality and illegality of many political actions. Thus, we became a lawless country.

It was probably within Obama's reach to bring the country back within a legal and constitutional framework, but he decided not to do so. I think, again, it was because the actions necessary to do so would have been "too disruptive." We've gotten used to the idea of being a country which tortures people, fights major wars without formal Declarations of War under Article I of the Constitution, which disregards the Bill of Rights, conducts show trials which allow the introduction of evidence produced under torture, and which scoffs at its treaty obligations under the Convention Against Torture. If we went the other way and operated within a framework of laws, it would require a major shift in public policy. Obama does not use such guidelines as his North Star; instead, he figures out the consensus, however illegal the premise on which the consensus is based, and uses that as his starting point for consideration of "Change." Since the country drifted fairly far to the Right during the Bush years, the consensus position on may issues of civil rights and legality also drifted to the Right. Since Obama rules from this position, he himself has become a Rightist or conservative President who is actually far more at home with Republicans than with his nominal affiliation.

His transmutation will become more apparent during the Afghanistan surge discussions and the speech he will give next week. You will hear him preach the gospel of fiscal restraint, sanctity for human life, of the necessity of "off-ramps" (he seems sometimes more like an L.A. traffic engineer than a chief executive), and "partnering" with the Afghan leadership. All glad noises designed to make him sound kind of liberal and rational. Then he'll announce the only part that matters, a big commitment of more troops on an open-ended basis. When I first heard that McChrystal wanted 40,000 more troops, I knew instinctively (using my new decoder ring) that Obama would decide on a number which was closer to McChrystal's number than to zero, because that's how he operates: in an ingratiating way, where he gives the status quo the benefit of the compromise. I thought the number, therefore, would be about 25,000. It will apparently be 35,000, or roughly the same number as the Iraq surge.

Sic semper gloria mundi. We're all just Pilgrims here, I guess.

1 comment:

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