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The Dems’ New Power: Investigative Hearings Done Right
Friday, 10 November 2006 02:49
by Andrew Bard Schmookler

On Election Day, America took a step that history may show to have been absolutely crucial in saving this republic. At a time when the soul of America has been gravely endangered by our ruling powers, the American people have handed significant power back to the opposition party. Perhaps they will be an effective check on the hitherto unchecked power of this usurpatious presidency.

But winning even an important battle is not winning the war (if you will allow the martial metaphor– indeed, in a meaningful sense, this IS war).


To continue to roll back these dark forces, it is imperative that the opposition exercise its new powers wisely. In the coming days, I hope to explore here what that may require. I will begin now with some thoughts –and a question– about what the Democrats should do with their new-found power to conduct investigative hearings.

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On Election Day itself, I indicated how important I regard that investigative power to be. The criterion for victory, I argued, was whether or not the opposition party could take control of any one chamber of Congress, for such control would mean “the ability –with hearings backed up by subpoenas–to ferret out the truth in a governmental system that has lately been ruled by lies and cover-ups. It means the ability to apply power to block the usurpation of powers by the presidency in violation of the letter and spirit of our Constitution.”

It is also important, however, that the Democrats exercise that power wisely, because it seems clear that there are possible pitfalls in such a course of action.

We can assume that the Bushites, for example, will pull out all the Rovian propagandistic stops to discredit such hearings. With their usual shameless hypocrisy, they are sure to cry “partisanship” against the Democrats. They’ll say that the Democrats are playing politics rather than addressing the real needs of the American people. They’ll say that the opposition is dwelling on the past, and not providing ideas for how to solve the real problems we face NOW. And so forth.

If the media could be trusted to do well their job of helping the American people to see accurately the reality they face, those Rovian ploys would likely fall flat. But of course, the media can be counted on for no such thing: if the media had been talking appropriately about what’s been going on right in front of their noses, we wouldn’t have gone so far down the dark Bushite path to begin with.

A vignette from the televised coverage of Election night illustrates the pitfalls against which the Democrats need to protect themselves in devising their stategy for investigative hearings.

On MSNBC, as the evidence was growing that the Democrats were on course to take over at least the House, Chris Matthews was talking to presidential scholar Michael Beschloss about what the Dems might do with their power and, with obvious disdain, he brought up the matter of hearings.

Matthews framed the issue by recalling how, back in the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy had distracted the country for a couple of years with hearings which ended up netting only one communist. A waste of time. Were the Democrats now going to waste the American people’s time with hearings, too?

Beschloss chimed in obligingly about how the Republicans, back in the 1990s, had invested so much in hounding Clinton with the Whitewater and Monica investigations. And that produced a pro-Clinton popular backlash against the Republicans. Were the Democrats likewise going to produce a pro-Bush popular backlash by hounding Bush with investigations?

One can be outraged at the cluelessness of these supposed pundits. How can they not see the absolutely essential difference between the investigations of the Bushites that are now required and those earlier instances?

How can they not see that McCarthy was engaged in a demagogic exercise regarding a mostly phony threat, whereas the Bushite lawlessness and mismanagement is the very kind of thing that CRIES OUT FOR INVESTIGATION?

How can they not see that the Republican hounding of Clinton was a vendetta conducted for purely political purposes –an intention to destroy a president that preceded any discovery of a basis to investigate the president–that eventually landed on a scandal that had nothing to do with Clinton’s performance of his office, whereas the issues concerning the Bush presidency are about our most profound public concerns, e.g. the matter of war and peace and that of the rule of law and the integrity of our Constitution?

Why, when they talked about the possibility of hearings, were these two presumably centrist media pundits drawn to talk about those irrelevant precedents, and make no mention whatever of the hearings that are most pertinent to the present task, i.e. the Watergate hearings, which are generally recognized as among the Republic’s finer moments?

Yes, outrage is called for when listening to such garbage and obfuscation as Matthews and Beschloss provided on Tuesday evening. But more important than indulging that outrage is taking a realistic look at what such blather implies about the challenge facing the Democrats.

The Democrats need to proceed with whatever hearings they conduct in such a way as to bring the preponderance of the American people with them. (It is not enough to satisfy the demands of people like us who have understood the Bushite menace, and have been passionately engaged in the struggle against it, for some time.) And therefore, in devising their strategy for these hearings, the Democrats need to anticipate and insulate themselves against such nonsense as Matthews and Beschloss bestowed on their viewers on Election evening.

Here is what I believe to be the essential point: these hearings need to be seen by the American people as a noble effort to take care of the people’s business. That means several things: the endeavor should not look partisan; it should not be seen as basically punitive in purpose; it should be conducted with the highest level of integrity.

Initially, the heart of the task will lie in framing the investigations in a way that is persuasive and even compelling to the American people. There are a whole lot of issues that I would like to see laid bare before the American people. But I feel it is necessary to exercise discipline and judgment in designing the process of disclosure so that it works effectively to achieve our vital, long-term political purposes– that of saving this country from these dark forces and of repairing the damage that they have done.

Regarding the presentation to the American people of such investigative hearings, I would stress two points.

First, it should be clearly argued that the period we have just been through is one in which power has sought as never before to hide the truth from the American people. Hence, this is a time when bringing into the open, in a public forum, those truths that were previously hidden is of vital national importance.

Second, and related, the point should be stressed that the proper functioning of our democracy is completely dependent upon the American people knowing what is going on in the conduct of their public business. Hence, the investigations will be geared to telling the American people what they need to know.

Let me say that again: the investigations should be focused on those issues regarding which it is clear that the citizens need to know the truth.

I am not saying that it is necessarily only such “need to know” questions that should be investigated at the outset. Perhaps there are questions that so urgently need to be addressed for other reasons that they should be put on the table forthwith even despite their making the Democrats vulnerable to the anticipated attacks.

But I would like to make the attempt here to formulate a strategy that will enable the Democrats to move in such a way that they gather momentum, that they bring more and more of the nation behind them, and that thus empowers them for taking on other battles as the process unfolds.

Here’s an invitation to readers: What questions can you propose that you think the Dems should investigate, AND THAT MEET THE CRITERION THAT I HAVE PROPOSED– namely, questions regarding which it can readily be shown that the American people, in their capacity as citizens, need to know the truth?

And, for extra credit, please also supply the argument that the Democrats could present to the country as to WHY it is important –for the nation’s welfare, to take care of the nation’s business– for this question to be investigated.

I would hope that all the important issues –the lawlessness of the administration, their lying us into war, etc.– can be investigated while meeting this criterion. And so I am hoping that the creativity of the readers here will show how these investigations can be framed in such a way as to make them invulnerable to the tactics of Karl Rove and to the commentaries of our oh-so-perceptive media pundits.

We have won this important battle. We would be foolish to proceed without regard to the additional battles to come.


To get this process started, let me provide one salient instance of something on which the Democrats ought to hold hearings, because so much of what the Republicans have done –both in the White House and in Congress– up to this point has been intended to deck out the grim reality in the costume of mere propaganda.

The Democrats should conduct hearings, calling in the best independent experts in the country, to address the question, “What are the real options that the United States now faces in Iraq, and of these which is the best?”

Surely, when it comes to matters of war and peace, the public needs to be given an accurate picture of reality on which to form its opinions.

(I can imagine some rejecting the need for hearings on any such question, believing that they already know the answers. But whether or not it’s true that some of us already know the answers is irrelevant. The issue is not only what is done in Iraq policy and what happens as a result of any such policy. It is also what the repurcussions of all that will be on the unfolding political battles in the United States.

If the public does not understand what our options are right now, as the Democrats become players and not just observers in the formulation of policy, the propagandists of the right might succeed in making sure that those chickens of theirs that are coming home to roost will instead be manipulated into roosting on the Democrats. They might, in other words, use the ignorance of the American people to play a new version of the old game “who lost China?”

If the opinion of the best experts is that –as of right now– the possibility of anything remotely like an American “victory” in Iraq is virtually non-existent (and the leaks indicate that James Baker’s group will report this to be, indeed, the case), it would be very valuable for the reality that failure is already a fact to be brought home to the American people.

Hearings can help do this. They can also help clarify which of the bad options the United States now has in Iraq is the “least worst.”

In other words, it is important not only to resolve this fiasco in Iraq in as least-bad a way as possible, but also to make sure that the preponderance of the American public knows just whose chickens have come home to roost when that failure is ratified by the decisions that now need to be made.)

An additional thought:

I propose that the Democrats could hold hearings organized around the question: “Have we Americans, in the name of the ‘war on terror,’ taken steps that represent unnecessary and unacceptable changes in our constitutional democracy and the rule of law?”

Surely, given that Congress takes an oath of office to “defend, protect and preserve the Constitution of the United States,” an inquiry into whether or not it needs any defending and protecting and preserving should be readily defensible.

Also, this posing of the issue –unlike any bill of impeachment, or censure motion– is not directed against individuals but rather focuses on measures and assertions and practices (like the Military Commissions Act, and the assertion of unchecked presidential powers in the Yoo memo, and the practice of warrantless surveillance) which it is within the provence of Congress to judge and to deal with.


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Comments (3)add comment

Jimmy Montague said:

Time will tell on Democrats
I've always thought that the Democrats sat on their hands and did nothing while Republicans raped the country because Democrats were just as dirty as the opposition. I still think so, though it's one of those ideas I've got that I'd love to be wrong about. I'm willing to give Pelosi and her troops a chance to do so. I think the rest of the new Democrat majority feel the same skepticism and the same hope.

Pelosi, in my opinion has already shown herself unfit. One of the promises she published at HuffPo (the post was titled "One Hundred Hours") on election day was "We will not pass a pay raise for Congress until there is an increase in the minimum wage." My immediate response was: "Why not just raise the minimum wage to $165,200 per year (which is what congresscritters now get) and forget about raising your own pay?"

Of course I know that's unrealistic and unworkable and all, but it raises at least one valid point: Congresscritters could afford to forego a pay raise for a few years, I'm sure -- long enough, at least, to show us that they've earned a pay raise. We've been paying them $165,200 per annum to sell our country down the river. Will they not now undertake to save our country for the same price? And if they won't, why should we send them back to Washington in 2008?

The fact that Pelosi mentioned a congressional pay raise before she won the election bodes ill for any meaningful change in Washington. You talk of bringing the country with you while you investigate and punish the crimes of the Bush administration. Maybe you have enough sense to pull that off -- I hope you do but I doubt it, as anyone rightly should -- but it's clear enough to any rational person that Nancy Pelosi doesn't have what it takes.

And if you're so smart, why can't you see that?
November 10, 2006 | url
Votes: +0

Andrew Bard Schmookler said:

The Fallacy of Moral Equivalence
The Dems are all-too far from perfect, to be sure. But to equate the two parties is to miss one of the most dramatic and dangerous developments in American history. Not only are the Bushite Republicans far more dark and destructive than the Democrats of today, they are very far even from the Republican Party of earlier times.

To explain the Democrats' failure to turn back these dark Bushite forces in the previous three election cycles, one would need to examine a variety of shortcomings in that Party. But those shortcomings do not include their being "just as dirty" as the Republicans. To see it that way would be to imply that the Democrats did not MIND being powerless in and irrelevant to the business of running the United States' government, did not MIND losing elections.

What political party, what politicians, can THAT be true of.

A fascist menace has arisen over the past generation from the American right. It needs to be stopped, and the power of the opposition party is an absolutely necessary tool to achieve that task.

To paraphrase our late and unlamented Secretary of Defense: One does not go into battle with the opposition party one WANTS, but must rather go into battle with the opposition party one has.
November 10, 2006 | url
Votes: +0

Jimmy Montague said:

I wasn't talking about the Democrats "failure to turn back these dark . . . forces at the polls." I was stating the fact that Democrats voted for the Iraq War. Democrats voted for the Military Commissions Act. Democrats voted for the USA Patriot Act. Etc.

What sort of party would do a thing like that? The sort of party that goes along with the opposition's agenda because the opposition is doing what the Democrats want. They're all rich, so the tax cuts benefit Democrats as well as Republicans. They all feed at the same trough. It was easy to let the Republicans do the heavy lifting while Democrats like Daschle and Kerry threw up their hands and said there's nothing they could do. The kind of party that partnered with the opposition to sell out their combined constituencies. The kind of party that Mickey Z writes about in his "Midterm Election Post Mortem" column. The kind of party that thinks about a congressional pay raise before they won the election.

I want fascism rolled back just like you say you do. And I'm not willing to settle for a Congress that's going to let it roll forward and half- or quarter-speed while they tell us they're fighting for our interests.
November 10, 2006 | url
Votes: +0

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