Thursday, July 03, 2008

Why not impeachment?

Matthew Yglesias describes my own puzzlement as well. His post points out that back in 1974, Republicans joined with Democrats in proceeding toward impeachment for Nixon; Bush's behavior is comparably egregious -- but any sort of breaking of ranks, or public outcry, is virtually unthinkable. What's changed?

My mostly unhelpful take, which echoes some of the comments on Matt's page (especially mine), is that the counterpoint to the conventional wisdom about Watergate ("it's not the crime that brings you down, it's the coverup"), the unconventional wisdom if you will, is that you can get away with murder if you really stick to the coverup story.

Empirically, Bush & company saw this work with Iran-Contra (which gave birth to "plausible deniability"), and just took that ball and ran with it.

More abstractly, the whole idea of adversarial debate (political parties, litigation, etc.) is that there's some arbiter that'll decide that one side or the other has the better argument, or makes the valid point. In politics, this role might be filled by the rationality of the opponent (who concedes the point), or the media (the journalists report the point with supporting facts), or the elites (the pundits concede the point), or "the people" (the opinion polls convince the politicians to concede the point).

If all those potential arbiters are impugned, indecisive, or unwise, whoever's in power can do whatever they want. Any outcry or opposition can be met with sheer stubbornness, and there's no authority to make you submit to reason or punish your transgressions.

The first and last potential arbiters (the opponent's fair thinking and the public) are pretty idealistic concepts, and have been ignored routinely by politicians throughout history, usually without repercussion. (Note, however, that even though he knew it would be disastrous, Nixon didn't burn the tapes. Maybe even his understanding that there was the rule of law, or at least no justifiable reason not to turn over the tapes, was what led to the truth coming out and the requisite consequences. Have some politicians concluded from this that they need to ignore their reason in the pursuit of power?)

In my opinion, a large part of the "difference" between 1974 and now is due to the failures of the other two arbiters (reporters and pundits). If every news network were running McClatchy's stories, and Broder and his peers were agitating for impeachment...

The failures of the media (reportage and commentary) are ample fodder for the blogosphere, but my notions about why they're failing so spectacularly now are ill-formed and naive. Clearly the qualification process for punditry (and journalism) has broken down, and most importantly, wrongheaded thinking and/or meaningless coverage isn't resulting in loss of audience, at least not enough to provide economic pressure to get rid of lousy news & opinion.

But I don't know why that is, or why it hasn't been such a problem until now. Maybe James Watt put stupid juice in the water supply under Reagan, and their brilliant plan has finally come to fruition. (I did say "ill-formed and naive", right?)

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