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Living In the Shadow of the Bomb Thrower

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Tuesday marked the ten year anniversary of Independent Counsel (IC) Kenneth Starr sending the report of his investigation to the House. The deafening silence on the occasion speaks volumes. Why haven't Republicans marked it with great ceremony and made sure everyone had the chance to recognize their heroic defense of the Rule Of Law? Going to such great lengths and taking such extreme measures to attempt to rein in the rampant criminality of the Clinton administration had to have been a truly selfless act of public service, no?

Of course not. The fact that the right so studiously ignores mentioning anything about it is an implicit admission that it was a shrill, undignified, hyperpartisan snipe hunt that was undertaken out of pure spite. At this point no one seriously argues impeachment was warranted. It did, however, showcase one of emerging strategies by the GOP: Hopelessly politicize everything to do with government, and thereby render it useless. Grover Norquist's goal of drowning it might not have been realized, but it functions as poorly as if it had. Citizens increasingly do not expect it to act in their interest, and even question its ability to function in that capacity.

The IC law is as clear an example as you could ask for. Giving the legislature the power to delegate authority to an IC sounds like a good idea in principle. I understand the argument that Congress should not be delegating anything, but engaging in investigations directly. On the other hand it makes sense to be able to have someone outside the normal pressures of constituents and lobbyists to follow leads wherever they go. You could argue that the Democrats abused the statute and allowed Lawrence Walsh to go overboard with the Iran-Contra investigation, but again look at the circumstances. Congress forbade the Reagan administration from funding the Contras, so Reagan simply bypassed Congress and set up a shadow foreign policy - and one that involved selling weapons to the same people that had taken Americans hostage just a few years earlier. To me, that is exactly the kind of lawbreaking and abuse of power that an IC ought to be thoroughly examining.

The Republicans instead implemented a perverse concept of equivalence: When Democrats controlled Congress they had an IC running investigations, so logically when Republicans take over they get to have their own - regardless of merit. By the time Starr was finished everyone was perfectly happy to let the authorization lapse. There is an argument for reauthorization but in the current environment it would just repeat the cycle: Creation - politicization - cynicism - obsolescence.

Some people peg the problem back to 1988 and Lee Atwater's Willie Horton/pledge of allegiance brand of content-free campaigning, but to be fair we have a long history in that regard. I trace it to Newt Gingrich, possibly the single most damaging figure in American politics for the last twenty years. He started out simply as a back bencher, but the 1994 elections put him into an actual leadership role - and he was entirely unequipped for it. Remember, he campaigned not just on the Contract With America but on a list of words for his GOP colleagues to use while campaigning (and "'sick,' 'pathetic,' 'bizarre,' 'traitors' and 'corrupt' were some of the choicest"). He also compared Democrats to then-notorious child murderer Susan Smith. It went beyond making fun of foibles, focusing on trivial patriotism narratives or using anecdotal evaluations of policy. Instead he resorted to wholesale attacking the fundamental decency of an entire party by using the crudest terms and vilest comparisons. Unfortunately, becoming Speaker of the House did not moderate his behavior, and he continued to indulge in temper tantrums and breathtaking hypocrisy as though he was still doing nothing more than thunder before an empty chamber.

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The undeniable success of his unrepentant demonization set the tone for what was to follow. Karl Rove would not have succeeded without Gingrich's precedent . And when his ideological cousins made it to the White House there was nothing left to hold back the worst excesses of their approach to governance. We have had the great misfortune of living in a time when the party in power believes that every tactic is acceptable and every event - even the most traumatic ones - are fodder to be used in the pursuit of electoral advantage. And we also have a perpetually timid opposition party that refuses to assert itself. Our system can deal with one but not both. Nothing can force restraint on the former or stiffen the spine of the latter. So until this entire generation of leadership is replaced, discussions on the working of government - on the relative value of a proposed reauthorization of the IC statute, for example - will necessarily be purely academic.

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Dan Fejes lives in northeast Ohio.

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