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The Dems' New Power: Investigative Hearings Done Right

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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.

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.)
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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