The Torture Election
The Congressional campaign of 2006 slouches toward election day through a grotesque landscape of torture and excuses for torture, scabrous messages from a Congressman to young boys, a Congressional cover-up of the same, murder and countermurder every day in Iraq (a heart-stopping 655,000 Iraqis have died since the invasion, according to a Johns Hopkins study), and nuclear fallout from North Korea (of the political if not the literal kind).
The stakes, as President Bush likes to say--and on this point he is correct--could scarcely be higher. But they include one stake he never mentions: the future of constitutional government in the United States, which his presidency and his party have put in serious jeopardy. The old (lower case) republican system of checks and balances and popular liberties, you might say, is in danger of replacement by a new (upper case) Republican system of arbitrary one-party rule organized around an all-powerful presidency. That many-sided danger, of course, is the subject of this series of articles. It is simply impossible to know in advance when, in a great constitutional crisis, the decisive turning point--the irrevocable capsizing--might come. We are left wondering whether we are witnessing just one more swing of the familiar old American political "pendulum," bound by its own weight to swing back in the opposite direction, or whether this time the pendulum is about to fly off its hinge and land us with a crash in territory that we have never visited before. There are strong arguments on both sides of the question. Yet there can be little doubt that the election on November 7 will be an event of the first importance in the story. If, by handing one or both houses of Congress to the Democrats--something that current polls say is likely--the public breaks the Republican Party's current monopoly on government power, an important beachhead of resistance will have been gained. But if the public assents to the status quo--confirming and deepening the ratification of Republican one-party rule already conferred in 2002 and 2004 (we cannot count the election of 2000, since Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote that year), it will be hard to see where the path away from the precipice lies.
As the decision has neared, every important institution of the republican system--the Supreme Court, the presidency, the Congress, the press--has been swept into the crisis. Also critical is the President's bid to achieve global military dominance by the United States, presented to the public as a kind of colossal footnote to the war on terror. The interplay, enacted on the electoral stage, between the attempt at dominance abroad and one-party rule at home is probably the most important specific mechanism of the crisis. Its evolution so far has had many surprising twists, turns, sudden spurts forward and reversals; and some recent events, though each perhaps familiar in itself, reveal a striking new pattern. Of special note is a remarkable yearlong, step-by-step process of trial and error in which the Administration, far from concealing its abuses of power, including the torture of prisoners, wound up giving them top billing in its electoral strategy.
A Political Problem
For some time, the Republican Party has been aware that it has a political problem. All year, Bush has gotten unfavorable marks in the opinion polls on every issue but one--dealing with the terrorist threat. (In the most recent polls, even this measure has turned negative.) On everything else--for example, the state of the economy, healthcare, the environment, even "trust"--a majority or plurality of the public has consistently rated the Democrats higher. In such a situation the standard counsel of today's political technicians, whose unalloyed cynicism few scarcely bother even to notice anymore, is to attempt to "elevate" the single issue favorable to one's party at the expense of the other issues, thus "framing the election," or "controlling the agenda," as it is variously put. The aim is not to persuade the public that your party is right on any particular issue but to choose among many issues the one on which the election will turn. The technique is available mainly to the party in charge of the White House, possessor of a PR megaphone that all but drowns out opposition voices, leaving them to sputter in impotence or waste their energies battling on tilted rhetorical battlefields of the Administration's choosing.
As early as January White House chief strategist Karl Rove issued the template for the campaign to come in a speech to the Republican National Committee. "The United States," he said, "faces a ruthless enemy--and we need a Commander in Chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment.... Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats." (He should have said "fortunately," for he planned to use his accusation--amplified and distorted--to renew the Republicans' lease on power in the fall elections.) As evidence of the President's successes, he cited the Iraq War. He stated, "This past year, we have seen three successful elections in Iraq. The Iraqi Security Forces are increasing in size and capability. Iraq's economy is growing.... In the words of the Commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq: '2005 has been a historic year in Iraq, and it marks the rebirth of an ancient nation.'" He added, "To retreat before victory has been won would be a reckless act--and this President will not allow it." And the Democrats? "We now hear a loud chorus of Democrats who want us to cut and run in Iraq." It was not the last time we would hear this expression.
The tactic was hardly new. As Rove noted in his speech, it had led to success in 2002 and 2004. But a new problem arose and grew more acute during the year. The public turned, slowly but decisively, against the Iraq War. In January, when Rove spoke, polls showed on average that some 50 percent thought the war was a "mistake." By midsummer the number was up to 54. The words of the Commander of the "Multinational" Corps in Iraq had not been persuasive to the American electorate. Civil war was breaking out in the country, and the "rebirth of an ancient nation" was drowning in blood. (In the most recent round of polls, approval of the war has sunk to 40 percent.) Nevertheless, as the campaign season began, the public's support for Bush's handling of terror generally was still at 55 percent. This was the political gold that had to be refined from the slag heaps of low poll numbers on other issues.