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Democracy's Battle Joined, Again

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George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have reignited a long-smoldering war fought over the Imperial Presidency, a conflict that flared in the mid-1970s, after the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam disaster, and resumed a decade later in the Iran-Contra Affair.

This time, however, the legions for the Imperial Presidency seem poised to overwhelm the weakened defenders of the traditional American democratic republic who for years have chosen retreat over confrontation.

That is the real back story behind the disclosures that Bush is asserting his inherent powers to jail citizens without charge, order the physical abuse of detainees, spy on Americans without a court order, ignore treaties, and invade countries without the necessity of congressional authorization.

Bush and Cheney are saying that in the War on Terror, they must be a law onto themselves with the flexibility to do whatever they deem necessary. When they say they are operating within the law, what they mean is that their interpretation of the law gives them unlimited powers.

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As Cheney told reporters aboard Air Force Two on Dec. 20, “I do believe that especially in the day and age we live in, the nature of the threats we face, the president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy.” [NYT, Dec. 21, 2005]

Death Match

So, this White House has thrown down the gauntlet to Congress, the courts, the press and the broader American public – to anyone who opposes an autocratic Executive – daring them to a fight to the finish.

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In this looming showdown, the confidence of Bush and Cheney is buoyed by the fact that they have a huge right-wing media infrastructure that treats whatever they say as truth and will disparage anyone who criticizes them.

This right-wing media machine – built over three decades from the ashes of Vietnam and Watergate – demonstrated its power in the 1980s by containing the Iran-Contra scandal and in the 1990s by nearly hounding a Democratic president out of office. [For details, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]

In contrast, American progressives opted for a strategy that eschewed a counter-media infrastructure. Over the past three decades, liberal funders invested mostly in social projects, such as feeding the poor, and in local organizing with the slogan, “think globally, act locally.” [For details on this strategy, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]

The consequences of the Right’s investments in national media are now becoming obvious, as the Bush-Cheney administration uses its committed defenders to protect against negative public reaction to its historic power grab.

While the White House can count on the Right’s vertically integrated media machine – from cable TV to talk radio, from newspapers and magazines to book publishing and the Internet – the opposition has mostly scattered voices on the Internet and in fledgling “progressive talk radio” to make its case.

In recent months, the mainstream press – humiliated over its credulous coverage of Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction – has published a few revelations from government whistleblowers upset over Bush-Cheney abuses. But the major news media still shies away from going so far as to invite a right-wing backlash.

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How else to explain why New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. held the story about Bush’s warrantless wiretaps for more than a year, when timely publication before Election 2004 would have given the American voters a chance to deliver a judgment on this extra-legal program. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Spying & the Public’s Right to Know.”]

Instead of informing the nation, Sulzberger bowed to the administration’s demands that the Times spike the story. It was finally published on Dec. 16, 2005, because it was about to be revealed in a book written by one of the reporters, James Risen.

Can’t Say Liar

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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