Politicians, legal experts and progressive activists grappled with Republican abuses of power at the third annual netroots convention on Friday, debating how an Obama Administration might restore the rule of law. Cass Sunstein, an informal adviser to Barack Obama from the University of Chicago Law School, urged caution in prosecuting criminal conduct from the current administration, while also noting that egregious crimes should not be ignored. Prosecuting government officials risks a "cycle" of criminalizing public service, he argued, and Democrats should avoid replicating retributive efforts like the impeachment of President Clinton–or even the "slight appearance" of it. (Note: I updated this passage after talking with Professor Sunstein; the earlier version did not include his remarks about not ignoring egregious crimes. Some of the panel videos are available online, though so far not this one, if possible I will post more quotes from the panel when video becomes available.)
"Give me a break," responded former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, when told about Sunstein’s advice during an interview with The Nation. Siegelman took a court-sanctioned trip to tell attendees about his conviction for corruption, currently on appeal, which he says was motivated by a malicious Republican effort to destroy his career. Discussing alleged White House abuse of the Justice Department, which led to Alberto Gonzales’ resignation, Siegelman said "what Karl Rove has been accused of doing would make Watergate look like child’s play." The former governor also urged activists to press Congress to hold Rove in contempt for defying a House subpoena in a related investigation. His supporters have launched an Internet campaign, ContemptforRove.org, to advance the cause. Noting that Rove’s potential testimony "could not impact" his appeal, Siegelman said he was still pressing the issue because it was fundamental to "restoring justice and preserving our democracy." He learned how blogs were scrutinizing the Republican corruption at the Justice Department when supporters sent him print-outs from TalkingPointsMemo while he was serving the first 9 months of his prison sentence.
Attendees and bloggers are disappointed with the emerging, bipartisan consensus in Washington that the lawlessness of the Bush era can largely go unpunished. After emphasizing more investigations over actual accountability, Sunstein and Nixon-era White House Counsel John Dean faced pointed questioning at a packed panel on "The Next President and the Law." Mike Stark, a blogger who helped organize the spying protests within Obama’s social network, asked why politicians should ever be above the law. And Hunter, a popular "front-page poster" on DailyKos, captured the mood in a long post kicking off the conference:
It seems evident, at this point, that there will be no comeuppance as a result of the excesses of the Bush administration. There will be investigations; they will investigate. There will be subpoenas; they will simply be refused…We know misrepresentations were made that led us, apparently inexorably, into war. In the end, we are as a nation (public, press, and government) not particularly interested in hearing the particulars of how or why; the truth is that we were aching for a good war, and the rationale was an afterthought not just for the Bush administration, but for most of their audience.
We know the rule of law itself was politicized, made into an apparatus of partisan advantage, a weapon for the ruling party to use against opponents. We know who did it, and we know it was not just unethical, but illegal. But to push it farther than that would require taking the last step — from investigation, to prosecution — and that step seems illusory, at best…. There will be reconciliation, and reconciliation will be defined by the conservative punditry as letting bygones be bygones — anything but that will be unacceptable and partisan, in itself.
The conference continues through Sunday, with addresses by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Chairman Howard Dean, netroots favorite Donna Edwards, columnist Paul Krugman, DLC head Harold Ford, blogger Markos Moulitsas and a host of writers and policy wonks. (I’m moderating a panel on "War Pundits.") Barack Obama, who attended last year’s conference, sent several aides in his place this time. Campaign spokesperson Hari Sevugan told The Nation that the "netroots community is an important voice in our public discourse" that can impact policy and "help keep people involved after the election."
Update: Glenn Greenwald discusses these issues in a post about preemptive pardons.
Howard Dean arrives at Netroots Nation