Politics

Power from the People

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Last summer, President Bush and the Republican congressional leadership had a problem. The legislative linchpin of the president's reelection effort, a bill to add prescription-drug coverage to Medicare, lacked the votes in Congress, where conservative Republicans were chafing at the expense. GOP leaders finally secured a bare majority by consenting to the demands of 13 Republican House members, who agreed to vote yes if the cost would not exceed $400 billion over ten years. But that created another problem: The administration knew the bill would cost considerably more--$534 billion, to be exact.

The only non-loyalist who seems to have known the real number was Richard Foster, a 31-year veteran of the bureaucracy who was serving as chief actuary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The job of putting a lid on Foster fell to his boss, Thomas Scully, appointed by Bush to run Medicare. Scully instructed Foster not to reveal the number, or even to answer queries from Democrats, without his approval. Foster later said he understood Scully to be operating at the White House's direction. In one e-mail obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Foster asked Scully for permission to answer congressional queries that "strike me as straightforward requests for technical information." No, replied Scully's assistant, who then warned, "The consequences for insubordination are extremely severe." (Scully, by the way, later admitted to having negotiated a job with lobbying firms while he helped craft the bill, in which they had a massive interest.)

The Medicare bill was therefore widely understood to cost $400 billion when, at three o'clock in the morning on November 23, the House of Representatives assembled to vote on it. Surprisingly, a majority voted no. In response, the GOP leadership violated the customary time limit on votes, holding the vote open for nearly three hours and twisting enough arms to reverse the result shortly before dawn. (A hint as to their methods of persuasion came from retiring Republican Representative Nick Smith, who offhandedly revealed a few days later that certain "members and groups" had offered to contribute $100,000 to the congressional campaign of his son Brad, who was running for Smith's seat, if he voted yes.) When Democrats controlled Congress, they had extended a vote once, in 1987, for 15 minutes, after a member inadvertently caused a budget bill's defeat and then left town--provoking spasms of indignation from Republicans. The three-hour Medicare vote, congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute later wrote, was "the ugliest and most outrageous breach of standards in the modern history of the House."

To ensure that it received proper credit for the new law, the Bush administration employed similarly unconventional means, hiring a pharmaceutical lobbyist to help sell it to distrustful voters. The advertising campaign included $9.5 million in TV advertising--which, astoundingly enough, was financed not by Bush's campaign, but by taxpayer dollars. Promotion of the law also involved the production of "video news releases," in which a "reporter"--actually, a p.r. agent--touted the virtues of the new Medicare law. The General Accounting Office (GAO) later concluded that the videos amounted to an illegal use of government money to produce propaganda, but not before 40 TV stations had already aired them.

Here we have a sample of the style of governance that has prevailed under Bush's presidency. It's not the sort of thing you would find in a civics textbook. Bush and his allies have been described as partisan or bear-knuckled, but the problem is more fundamental than that. They have routinely violated norms of political conduct, smothered information necessary for informed public debate, and illegitimately exploited government power to perpetuate their rule. These habits are not just mean and nasty. They're undemocratic.

What does it mean to call the president "undemocratic"? It does not mean Bush is an aspiring dictator. Despite descending from a former president and telling confidants that God chose him to lead the country, he does not claim divine right of rule. He is not going to cancel the election or rig it with faulty ballots. (Well, almost certainly not.) But democracy can be a matter of degree. Russia and the United States are both democracies, but the United States is more democratic than Russia. The proper indictment of the Bush administration is, therefore, not that he's abandoning American democracy, but that he's weakening it. This administration is, in fact, the least democratic in the modern history of the presidency.

There are many definitions of democracy, but let us begin with one supplied by Bush himself. A democracy, he told Al Arabiya television in May during an interview on the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, is "where leaders are willing to discuss it with the media. And we act in a way where, you know, our Congress asks pointed questions to the leadership. In other words, people want to know the truth. That stands in contrast to dictatorships. A dictator wouldn't be answering questions about this."

It's ironic that Bush used this definition because, by this measure, he has run the least democratic administration of any president since the advent of television and radio. Since Franklin Roosevelt made press conferences a regular feature, Bush has held fewer of them than any president--14 solo press conferences, as compared with Bill Clinton's 41 and George H.W. Bush's 77 at this point in their presidencies. When he does appear before the press, Bush routinely refuses to answer difficult questions. (Why did he insist that Vice President Dick Cheney appear by his side before the 9/11 Commission? "Because it's a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 Commission is looking forward to asking us. And I'm looking forward to answering them.") The president is so evasive that his technique has become a point of pride for his admirers. "Watching President Bush's press conference Tuesday night, you could see why he drives the press crazy," wrote Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard this April. "No matter what they asked, his answer was invariably the same."

Bush's attitude typifies his administration's general refusal to speak candidly. Every presidency, of course, tries to formulate a party line. But, before Bush, the spin was usually counterbalanced by off-the-record candor. "In other Administrations, the chief of staff and key deputies--people like [Michael] Deaver and James A. Baker III, during the Reagan-Bush years, and John Podesta and Leon Panetta, under Clinton--have usually been open with reporters; they've even courted the press," Ken Auletta reported in The New Yorker this January. "In the current White House, [Andy] Card and [Karl] Rove usually don't return calls, and staffers boast of not answering reporters' questions."

Some Bush supporters explain this reticence as a justified response to a biased media. Yet Bushies show no more willingness to answer pointed questions from Congress. Last month, Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to release the administration's memos on the use of torture and refused even to offer a legal basis for his refusal. These sorts of incidents have become routine. In 2002, the administration denied requests to have Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge testify on Capitol Hill. That same year, Medicare Director Scully refused to appear at a hearing where witnesses with different points of view were allowed to testify. Last fall, the Bush White House declared it would not answer any questions from Democrats on the Appropriations Committees unless those questions were first cleared with the Republican chairmen. (This latter demand was so outrageous that the administration had to drop it after even congressional Republicans objected.)

The best single measure of Bush's unwillingness to submit to pointed questions may be his disposition toward the 9/11 Commission. First, he fervently opposed creating the Commission. When that failed, he threw up impediments to their work. He sought (unsuccessfully) to prevent national security adviser Condoleezza Rice from testifying. Bush himself initially refused to testify and blocked the Commission's access to important documents. Later, after agreeing under pressure to testify, he refused to do so under oath. He sought to limit his testimony to one hour. He sought to block commissioners other than the co-chairmen from attending his testimony. He demanded that Cheney appear alongside him. He allowed only a single staffer to take notes. And he barred the presence of a transcriber.

Who else has the White House tried to keep in the dark? Oh yes: the public--the people who Bush says "want to know the truth." "For the past three years, the Bush administration has quietly but efficiently dropped a shroud of secrecy across many critical operations of the federal government--cloaking its own affairs from scrutiny and removing from the public domain important information on health, safety, and environmental matters," concluded a long investigation by U.S. News & World Report last December. "The result has been a reversal of a decades-long trend of openness in government." Consider just one example. Bush's 2004 budget cut grants to the states (outside of Medicaid, which rises automatically) by 2.4 percent. After statehouses complained, the administration announced it would cease publishing Budget Information for States, which documents how much states receive from various federal programs. (The administration claimed it did so to save on printing costs.) The result, as Alysoun McLaughlin of the National Conference of State Legislatures told The Washington Post: "There's no one place in the public domain for this information anymore."

The administration has not confined its mania for secrecy to obscure policy wonkery; it has been essential to selling most of its signature policies. The Medicare bill would not have passed Congress had the administration shared its true cost. And both Congress and the public might have been more skeptical of the administration's repeated claims that Iraq's oil could, as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it, "finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon"--and of the case for war in general--had they been allowed to see a secret government study that painted a decidedly bleak picture of Iraq's oil industry.

 

Yale's Robert Dahl, America's foremost democracy scholar, suggests another definition of democracy. "Opportunities to gain an enlightened understanding of public matters are not just part of the definition of democracy," he writes in his book On Democracy. "They are a requirement for democracy." It is not terribly controversial to suggest that democracies function best with an informed public, and the administration's inaccessibility and penchant for secrecy obviously hinder that. But Bush has done more than keep the public in the dark: He has actively sought to mislead it.

One particularly egregious example is the administration's persistent effort to cultivate in the public mind a connection between Iraq and the September 11 terrorist attacks in order to justify a war to oust Saddam Hussein. As one White House adviser told The New York Times, "If you discount the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, then you discount the proposition that it's part of the war on terror. If it's not part of the war on terror, then what is it--some cockeyed adventure on the part of George W. Bush?"

So the administration led Americans to believe that Iraq had aided in the attacks on us. Cheney, for example, repeatedly referred to an alleged 2001 meeting between September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague--even though the CIA determined the meeting never took place. Cheney would suggest Iraq's involvement in September 11 in more subtle ways as well: "If we're successful in Iraq," Cheney asserted last year, "we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on September 11." This statement is not false--the terrorists were, in fact, geographically based in the region of which Iraq is the heart--but it is designed to give the false impression that the September 11 terrorists were based in Iraq. Similarly, in his letter to Congress requesting authorization for war with Iraq, Bush wrote that such action "is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001."

This campaign of misinformation succeeded. During the run-up to the war, a large majority of Americans implicated Iraq in the September 11 attacks. Even if you supported the Iraq war (as I did), this fact must be considered a serious problem for American democracy. Bush did not obtain, or even seek, the rational, informed consent of the public.

But the Iraq war was a model of enlightened deliberation compared with the process that resulted in Bush's signature tax cuts. Again, setting aside the substantive merits of the tax cuts (which, regular New Republic readers may vaguely recall, I did not support), two pieces of public opinion data stood out in 2001. First, only 20 to 30 percent of voters deemed tax cuts their highest fiscal priority--the rest preferred increased spending or debt reduction. Second, polls showed that the public preferred tax cuts distributed far more evenly than Bush desired. The most popular option was to give every taxpayer an equal-sized rebate--an option several orders of magnitude more progressive than what actually passed.

The administration confronted both problems by mounting an elaborate disinformation campaign. Bush's approach is thrown into stark relief by a White House memo instructing Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill how to communicate the administration message during his March 2001 appearance on "Meet the Press." "The public prefers spending on things like health care and education over cutting taxes," the memo warned. "It's crucial that you make clear that there are no tradeoffs here." In this case, the phrase "make clear" serves as a euphemism for "lie." More money for tax cuts necessarily entailed less for health care and education.

Falsehoods were embedded in nearly every aspect of Bush's sales pitch: his claim that his tax cut would amount to just one-fourth of the projected surplus (his own figures showed one-third); his assertion that "by far the vast majority of my tax cut goes to those at the bottom" (in fact, some 40 percent went to the wealthiest 1 percent); and his repeated claim that a waitress earning $20,000 a year was the paradigmatic beneficiary of his tax cut (in truth, most such waitresses got nothing from Bush's plan, and the few who did benefit received about $125).

In previous years, the effects of such propaganda would have been blunted by official computations by number-crunchers at the Treasury Department and the Joint Committee on Taxation, who used to release figures on who would benefit from various changes in the tax code. But, when they took control of the White House and Congress, Republicans put a stop to such inconvenient wonkery. True, Republicans could not prevent the Congressional Budget Office from estimating the cost of their tax cuts. But they could, and did, render such estimates meaningless by larding up their tax bills with gimmicks, such as sunset provisions, that obscured the true cost of the cuts and forced public debate to revolve around numbers--as in a "1.3 trillion dollar tax cut"--that experts on both sides understood to be fantastical.

Don't all politicians fudge the truth from time to time? Sure. The difference is that, over the last few years, misinformation has become fundamental, rather than incidental, to the political process. As Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution puts it, "What's striking is the extent of [manipulation] in this administration. The most ambitious and fundamental proposals have been cloaked in language that's designed to mislead." This dishonesty is necessary because the policies do not reflect the will of the majority. As a forthcoming paper on the 2001 tax cut by Yale's Jacob Hacker and Harvard's Paul Pierson notes, "For those committed to core principles of democratic governance, the picture that emerges is unsettling. On the central questions of how large the tax cut should be and how its benefits should be distributed, the preferences of a majority of voters appear to have been systematically ignored. Far from ruling the polity, average voters proved vulnerable to systematic and extensive manipulation."

 

Democracies are also characterized by limits on the use of government power to ensconce the ruling party. Indeed, limits on such abuses are a key determinant of a democracy's strength. This is why we don't allow the president to, say, force federal employees to donate to his campaign, or sic the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on his critics. If the incumbent could turn the entire government into an apparatus of his political party, then dislodging incumbents would become prohibitively difficult. That's precisely what happens in weak democracies--classic "one-and-a-half party" states like Singapore and Paraguay--where ruling parties can hold power for decades despite superficially free elections.

But, if democracy requires a distinction between the interests of the government and the interests of the party that happens to run it, Bush and his allies have little regard for such discrimination. Bush's use of the Department of Health and Human Services to fund propaganda on behalf of its Medicare bill was not an isolated instance. After cutting taxes in 2001, the IRS mailed out promotional notices to the public, gushing, "We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed--and President George W. Bush signed into law--the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes." (Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics told the Times, "I've never heard of anything like this, certainly not from the IRS, certainly not with this rah-rah tone. It's outrageous.") When the checks did arrive, they were helpfully emblazoned with Bush's catchphrase, "Tax relief for America's workers."

The Bush administration has been just as brazen about misusing its powers over state secrecy. While the White House has restricted access to vast swaths of material--even classifying decades-old documents that had never previously been classified--it has been extravagantly liberal in releasing information that suits Bush's partisan interests (see "Secrets and Lies," page 7). In 2002, Bush embarrassed his predecessor by declassifying portions of the transcript of a conversation in which Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak asked Bill Clinton to pardon fugitive tax-evader Marc Rich. When Clinton asked Bush to declassify the rest of the transcript, arguing that additional context would make him look better, the White House refused. This spring, the administration declassified a steady stream of memos and briefings all for the purpose of rebutting criticisms raised by the 9/11 Commission. (For instance, it declassified a 1995 memo by Commission member and former Clinton Justice Department official Jamie Gorelick in an attempt to embarrass her.) "Bush is the first president since Richard Nixon to try to brandish declassification as a political weapon," concluded John Prados, an analyst with the National Security Archive, in an article for TNR online.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Republicans draw little distinction between their partisan interests and the national interest; they have all but said so. As the Iraq war began last year, Republicans argued that patriotism required the passage of Bush's tax cuts. "When our troops are over there fighting," GOP Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison put it, "we don't want partisan bickering to be what they see on television from back home." Once you have equated the security of the state with the welfare of a political party, it's no great leap to turn the former into an instrument of the latter. In May of last year, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay ordered the Department of Homeland Security to track down an airplane carrying Democratic legislators fleeing Texas in order to foil a GOP redistricting effort. Last July, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas ordered Capitol Police to break up a meeting of Democratic representatives. (DeLay's request was heeded; Thomas's was not.)

But the most effective use of self-perpetuating power has been the particularly undemocratic way Bush's party has run Congress, especially the House of Representatives. It's hardly new, of course, for the House majority party to run roughshod over the minority. But, with Bush issuing orders to DeLay, the trampling of minority rights in the last few years has "been carried to a new extreme," as Mann told my colleague Michael Crowley in the latter's definitive report on the subject ("Oppressed Minority," July 23, 2003).

The GOP, for example, routinely denies Democrats the right to propose or amend legislation. As a result, popular reforms--such as allowing the importation of prescription drugs from Canada--have never come to a vote, even though a majority of representatives support them. Republicans restrict debate to an hour or less on major legislation. They bring bills to the floor minutes before they are to be voted on, allowing members (and reporters) almost no chance to understand the details before they are passed. That the Medicare vote took place between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. is not usual--the House does its business in the dead of night, literally and figuratively.

The import of such procedural tactics becomes clear if we consider a couple of examples. Last year, the administration proposed a rule change allowing companies to deny more of their workers overtime pay. Under public pressure, the Senate and the House both voted to bar the change. But then a conference committee--which, by rule, may only iron out differences between the House and Senate, not rewrite provisions on which the two chambers agree--inserted it into a bill anyway. The same thing happened in March, when a conference overturned a vote by both the House and Senate to stop the Federal Communications Commission from weakening regulations on media concentration. The beauty of this end-run tactic, for the GOP leadership, is that they get the unpopular policies they desire, but politically vulnerable Republicans can tell their constituents they voted against them. Democracy only works if voters know who to blame if they don't get their way. Today, however, Congress is run specifically to prevent that from happening.

And, at the direction of the White House, Republicans are working to make sure it stays that way, using--you guessed it--undemocratic means. In 2003, Republicans in Texas and Colorado, at the urging of DeLay and Rove, violated a long-standing tradition by redrawing the congressional map to their benefit without new census data. Both parties have engaged in gerrymandering throughout U.S. history. But, in Texas and Colorado, Republicans have taken the practice beyond the previously accepted norms.

We've grown accustomed to thinking that such excesses, both in governing style and ideology, invariably lead to a correction. The consensus could be summarized in a single line: "The system works." But, in fact, it was the very flaws of the system that gave Bush the means, motive, and opportunity to govern so undemocratically.

Bush's election, through no fault of his own, depended on a series of undemocratic quirks in our electoral process. First, the United States is the only democracy in the world that allows a popular-vote loser to win an election. (Whether or not this arrangement makes sense, a system that sometimes awards the election to the candidate who receives the second-most votes is, by definition, less democratic than a system that never does.)

Moreover, the electoral college gives disproportionate power to citizens of less populous states. The combined population of the Gore states exceeded that of the Bush states, but, since Bush had more small-state support, he won the electoral college. (And, again, whatever the general merits, giving more voting weight to some citizens than to others is inherently less democratic than giving equal weight to all.)

Finally, unlike parliamentary or run-off elections, our elections offer no way for third-party voters to register a second choice--resulting in perverse outcomes such as a right-of-center candidate winning despite two left-of-center candidates combining for an outright majority. Had any one of these quirks not existed, Bush would not be president, and a platform lacking popular support would not have been thrust to the top of the national agenda. But they didn't exist, and Bush, in power but without public backing, found duplicity an effective tool.

Normally, the consequences of an electoral fluke would have been limited by a Congress sensitive to public opinion. But Congress is not completely democratic either. The House has been gerrymandered to the point where competitive elections are rare and GOP control is all but immune to voter dissatisfaction. And the Senate--reflecting an even more pronounced small-state bias than the electoral college--gives the citizens in the 30 states Bush won in 2000, which comprise slightly less than half of the U.S. population, 60 seats. The 20 states Gore won comprise a narrow majority of the population, but they get only 40 seats in the Senate. Even with this skew, Democrats captured nearly half the seats; balance the scales, and the Senate would have a solid Democratic majority.

Republicans therefore ended up running the presidency, the Senate, and the House, despite a lack of evidence that voters wanted them to control any one of the three. At the beginning of 2001, the conventional wisdom held that Republicans would court a backlash if they exceeded their limited mandate. The common metaphor is a pendulum that, if tilted off center, inevitably swings back. The more apt (and less comforting) metaphor, however, may be a feedback loop. Facing a lack of public support, Bush and his allies circumscribe normal democratic procedures to enact their agenda. The Republican Congress, in turn, spares Bush from paying a price for his anti-democratic endeavors, and this protection only encourages further abuses by the White House.

Indeed, Congress has ceased to provide a check on the executive branch, functioning instead as the legislative arm of the White House. Bush is the first president since James Garfield not to veto a single bill. Whereas the Democratic Congress held hearings about Whitewater, it's simply impossible to imagine today's GOP Congress investigating Bush's past business dealings. Even Republicans confess that their party has essentially abandoned its duty to oversee the executive branch. "Our party controls the levers of government," GOP Representative Ray LaHood told Congressional Quarterly. "We're not about to go out and look beneath a bunch of rocks to try to cause heartburn."

And so, where the Republicans have broken rules--say, using the Treasury department to disseminate political advertising, or employing conference committees to write laws from scratch--the enforcement mechanisms are essentially controlled by the perpetrators themselves. If Republicans stand together, there will be no investigations. (Or, at least, no serious investigations.) If there are no investigations, there is no process for the media to cover. If there's no media coverage, there's no public outrage to constrain the GOP. After the GAO ruled that the administration broke the law with its Medicare videos, Democrats in Congress demanded that the money spent on the ads be refunded. But Republicans simply ignored them, and the story disappeared.

In any case, most of the abuses under Bush--things like suppressing cost estimates, or redistricting more than once a decade--have violated norms, not rules. When you violate norms, you're limited only by your sense of shame and your party's willingness to stick together. Which suggests the most frightening lesson of the Bush administration: The institutional restraints on an anti-democratic presidency are weaker than we believed. When we say "the system works," we think of Nixon's various shady machinations against his foes, or Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing scheme, both of which were duly foiled. But those anti-democratic excesses were foiled not merely by "the system," but by the people who inhabited that system and the particular political circumstances of the time. Nixon's crimes were uncovered by a Democratic-controlled Congress, whose investigations gained bipartisan legitimacy when many Republicans (including members of Nixon's own administration) turned against him. Unlike Nixon, FDR enjoyed unified control of Congress, yet his fellow Democrats were fractious enough to stop him from bullying the Supreme Court. Had those presidents, like Bush, enjoyed the benefits of a subservient Congress and a staff that never spoke out against their excesses, they might have done a lot of damage.

How much damage will Bush ultimately do? The answer is still to be determined, and the biggest single thing that will determine it takes place on November 2.

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This article originally ran in the July 26, 2004, issue of the magazine.

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