Reasserting the rule of law

The Saddam verdict and sentence aren't a surprise. The former dictator's crimes were not a secret, but a source of sick pride. He ordered the death of more than a hundred villagers to make an example out of them — so at the time he carried out the slaughter with as much attention-grabbing publicity as he could muster.

And it's not like he was claiming innocence (When? I was out of town then — and Mrs. Saddam and I went to bed early …). Saddam's defense, rather, was that he had the right to do what he did because he was the president, dammit, and it can't be illegal if the president does it.

That's how Saddam thought and apparently how he still thinks. He still can't wrap his mind around the idea that he should be forced to stand trial accused of violating the law. He thinks he is the law, or at least that he was the law. He was the law because he was the strongest, and whoever is the strongest makes the rules. The closest he can come to understanding what's happening to him now, then, is thinking that a new strongman has taken charge and that his trial, conviction and sentence are simply a function of that new strongman setting his own new, arbitrary rules. The idea that his conviction is due to his having broken laws that exist outside of and above the whim of any particular strongman — the idea, in other words, of the rule of law — still seems beyond Saddam's grasp.

It's a shame if this reading of the man is true, because it means he is still able to think of himself as something other than what he really is: a criminal. I'd prefer that, before his execution, he could be made aware of this, that this is all he is — a criminal and a murderer who got caught. Instead, it seems, he will go to his death thinking of himself only as a powerful man who lost a struggle for power, but who did nothing wrong because right and wrong don't apply to powerful men. It can't be wrong if the president does it, he thought, and still thinks.

All of which is why I doubt George W. Bush is 100-percent happy to see this verdict and sentence. Yes, apparently, the announcement of this verdict was rushed in the hopes of influencing tomorrow's U.S. election (the verdict won't actually be ready until Thursday, but they made sure to announce it before the vote anyway), but I still think this verdict likely makes George W. Bush a little bit nervous.

President Bush has argued — often and explicitly — that, as president, he is not subject to the rule of law, that it can't be illegal if the president does it. This is the explanation his lawyers, Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo, have repeatedly given for why no American law or treaty can limit the president's options by forbidding warrantless wiretapping or, God help us, even torture. This is the rationale for the 600 or so "signing statements" in which President Bush has repeatedly claimed, even while signing into law legislation that governs everyone else, that he is personally, officially and regally exempt from their authority.

My point here is not simply that Bush is wrong to declare himself and his office above the law (although he is wrong). My point here is that if you think as Mr. Bush thinks, then you cannot afford — ever — to allow power to leave your hands. Allow that to happen and you could very well find yourself, like Saddam, standing in the dock and being called to account for violating the law you had declared yourself exempt from. Which means you need to be prepared to do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening.

So Bush is bound to be a little nervous watching what happens when someone formerly supposed to be above the law finds himself caught beneath it. And I am, in turn, a little nervous to consider what might result from Bush's nervousness. Articles like this one, for instance, "Rove Sees No GOP Fall in the 2006 Election," are worrisome:

Karl Rove, President Bush's top political strategist, says he doesn't believe the polls — at least the public polls that claim the Republicans are likely to lose the House of Representatives and possibly even the Senate on Election Day. …

I realize, as Media Matters points out, that it's Rove's job to project such optimism. But it still makes me nervous.

NPR's Ron Elving says this nervousness comes from Rove's electoral successes, such as in the 2004 election, in which John Kerry swept the presidential debates and went into election day with a substantial lead in the polls. Exit polling confirmed those pre-election polls, but then — wow! look at that! — the actual counting of ballots showed something different and Rove wins again.

Elving credits this to Rove's tactical genius:

Relying on sophisticated, computerized voter-targeting and swarms of contact people working the final 72 hours of the campaign, Rove's machine can erase multiple points of polling margin in important races. It costs millions, but Rove raises money with the best of them — including powerful officeholders.

And that Official Story, Elving is confident, explains why George W. Bush, trailing in the polls, saw a sudden spike in his popularity on Election Day 2004. The spike was short-lived — Bush's approval numbers quickly fell, again, below 50 percent and have stayed there ever since. But that hardly matters because Rove's "sophisticated, computerized" 72-hour campaign was able to engineer this one-day spike in Bush's otherwise undetectable popularity, and that was enough for victory. That is the Official Story and, as such, is not subject to the need for substantiation.

When University of Pennsylvania statistician Dr. Steven F. Freeman examined the Unexplained Exit Poll Discrepancy" [.pdf] in the 2004 election, he calculated that the odds against so many polls being so very wrong in precisely the same way were about 250,000,000 to 1.

Elving sees nothing suspicious about Rove's amazing, 1-in-250 million election day miracle. It was simply the result of his "sophisticated, computerized voter-targeting and swarms of contact people working the final 72 hours." Anomaly explained. It certainly had nothing to do with this:

… He touched the screen for gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis, a Democrat, but the review screen repeatedly registered the Republican, Charlie Crist. …

Mauricio Raponi wanted to vote for Democrats across the board at the Lemon City Library in Miami on Thursday. But each time he hit the button next to the candidate, the Republican choice showed up. Raponi, 53, persevered until the machine worked. Then he alerted a poll worker.

Or with this:

KFDM continues to get complaints from Jefferson County [Texas] voters who say the electronic voting machines are not registering their votes correctly.

Friday night, KFDM reported about people who had cast straight Democratic ticket ballots, but the touch-screen machines indicated they had voted a straight Republican ticket.

Some of those voters including Lamar University professor, Dr. Bruce Drury, believe the problem is a programming error.

Saturday, KFDM spoke to another voter who says it's not just happening with straight ticket voting, he says it's happening on individual races as well, Jerry Stopher told us when he voted for a Democrat, the Republican's name was highlighted.

Stopher said, "There's something in these machines, in this equipment, that's showing Republican votes when you vote for Democrats, and I know Ms. Guidry's a nice lady, and she's working hard, but her theory that my fingernail was somehow over the Republican button is just unrealistic, my fingernail was not. The equipment is not working properly as far as I can tell."

(Both links via The Sideshow.)

To draw any connection between such stories and Rove's extreme confidence that pre-election polling is, once again, inaccurate would be an example of what Elving calls, "darker scenarios … bruited about on talk shows and blogs." You know, the kind of wacky conspiracy thinking that worries about machines that flip votes, always in one direction, and that worries about massive, inexplicable discrepancies in exit polling, and that worries about the glib complacency of NPR analysts who would be happy, if every pre-election and post-election poll were again found to be mistaken, to attribute it all to the godlike powers of Rove's 72-hour, sophisticated, computerized genius.

Journalists like Elving seem to think of Karl Rove as an electoral Chuck Norris. Karl Rove can divide by zero. Karl Rove counted to infinity — twice. Karl Rove can slam a revolving door. Karl Rove can make a rock so big he can't lift it … and then he could lift it.

So if Rove delivers another miraculous Roundhouse Kick on Election Day, such journalists won't be surprised. "Wow," they'll say, "that Karl Rove is really something! None of the polls predicted the GOP would maintain control of the House, but I guess those polls didn't account for the sophisticated, computerized genius of Rove Fu. Please go back to sleep, and dream pleasant dreams of democracy."

Here's hoping that the "darker scenarios" are as off-base as Elving seems to think and that we won't spend tomorrow evening, yet again, watching the pundits flail about for some new narrative — butterfly ballots! evangelical stealth voters! maybe the nation's fingernail accidentally hit a GOP button … — to provide an excuse for yet another set of unexplained exit poll discrepancies.

  • the opoponax

    oh, yeah, election day is fixed on the first tuesday after the first monday in November (don’t ask…). if there will be an election of any kind in any given year, it’s always that one day.
    unless someone dies in office or is forced to resign after a scandal or something odd like that, in which case they have special elections as needed. this is not the case for the president, wherein there is a line of succession rather than a quickie emergency election.

  • the opoponax

    oh, and “in each state” = “in each house”, above. sorry to add to the confusion.

  • cjmr

    oh, yeah, election day is fixed on the first tuesday after the first monday in November (don’t ask…). if there will be an election of any kind in any given year, it’s always that one day.
    Well, federal and state-wide elections, at any rate. We used to live in a city that insisted on holding city elections on a Monday. In May. I never managed to remember to vote on Monday…

  • the opoponax

    wow. i’ve never heard of anything like that. how silly.
    even the primaries and special elections are held on tuesdays here. in fact, primaries for everything but president are generally held the 2nd week of september in new york. even when 9/11 disrupted the 2001 mayoral primary, the special rain-date (terrorism-date?) primary was on a tuesday.

  • bulbul

    but 435 seats for 300 million people is verging on ridiculous.
    Weeelll…. The US is a federation, after all. So I guess it’s all a question of proportion: how many issues are handled on federal level and how many on state level and whether the respective representation is really proportional to that.
    To compare: 5.5 million people in Slovakia, the National Council has 150 members. Czech Republic: population of 10 million, the lower chamber of parliament has 200 deputies, the Senate has 81 members. And there are 61 million people in continental France, while the National Assembly has 577 deputies.
    Germany, on the other hand, is a federation as well and with a population of cca. 83 million, the 16th Bundestag has 614 deputies.

  • bulbul

    Oh and to stick to the LB theme:
    Romania has a population of 23 million, the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) has 332 members and the Senat has 137 members. Although there are deputies with weird names (Attila Béla Ladislau Kelemen is my favorite), there is no one by the name of Carpathia in the Romanian parliament :o)

  • http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/andrew_brown/2006/11/the_last_american_elections.html Comment is free

    Giving up the vote

    If the Republicans are not punished at the polls for what they have done in the past six years, voters could lose faith in democracy.

  • Scott

    Congress cannot give the President indefinite authority to do anything.
    The entire regulatory system is based on Congress giving vague and broad authority to the executive branch.

  • Scott

    Like money, it has no worth of its own–it can only ever be a means. So…power to what end?
    Power to prove how morally superior you are, of course.

  • alexela

    One of the weirdest and most screwed up things about the American electoral system, though, is that the people in charge of running it are partisan. So you have democrats and republicans in charge of running elections to select democrats and republicans. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the hen house. This was most visible recently in Florida, where republican election officials (Kathleen Harris) shut down an election controversy while the republican was coincidentally ahead. I’m not sure why Americans are so resistant to fixing this… possibly something to do with America not seeming to understand ‘arms length’ government bodies… In canada, for example, elections are run by a federal body (‘elections canada’), but the people running it are non-partisan, and ensure a trasnparent process.
    Re: the death penalty, there’s a lot of sociological evidence that it does nothing to prevent crime… As carried out in civilized countries it is not certain or swift after a crime (though certainly severe), and the crimes it covers generally aren’t the type done by people who are rationally calculating pros and cons for their actions. Whether it is morally justified for some people out of a sense of straight ahead vengeance is a different story…. Though you’d better hope it’s a case like Sadam, where you’re 100% sure the person did it… There have been all sorts of embarassing cases recently of people in prison forever being exhonerated by DNA… and even some cases in Texas, where new evidence has come up regarding previously executed inmates, and has been destroyed by the state government before it could be analysed (it would be too embarassing if the results proved the execution wrong).
    As for the potential for fraud in this election – it may well have happened in Ohio, but Raka points out there may not be so much to gain here… Well, there’s not much to gain in terms of laws being passed, that’s for sure. Even a large majority in one house, but not the other won’t get things very far, as senate republicans will be rudely obstructive, as will Mr. “I-have-a-veto”. But what it WILL do is limit the Rep’s ability to ram through truly odious bills, and possibly allow real investigations into investigate Bush’s messes. Best case scenario for Dem’s, they get some investigations, open lots of really nasty cans of worms, and are well set for 2008.
    As for impeaching bush… Even were it possible, there’s probably not much point with 2 years left… other than for the embarassment value, which would at least FEEL good. It seems much better to nail everything possible to him, and use the rep’s “asset” against them.

  • Jesurgislac

    Alexela: Even were it possible, there’s probably not much point with 2 years left…
    In the first two years of Bush’s Presidency, he (a) ignored all threats of a terrorist attack on the US until it actually happened (b) made the terrorist attack an excuse to start planning an aggressive war against a country that was no threat to the US (c) set up the beginnings of the US’s gulag archipelago and (d) broke multiple treaties, including two Geneva Conventions.
    And the next four years were worse.
    You really, really think that there’s nothing much more Bush and Cheney can do if left in power for another two years?

  • New Duane

    You really, really think that there’s nothing much more Bush and Cheney can do if left in power for another two years?
    I’ll be tickled to death if they take away my mom’s social security. I’d really like her to feel some of the pain she has been causing by voting for these crooks.
    Disclaimer: That’s not as hard-hearted as it sounds: Mom can come live on my estate as long as she promises to stop voting.

  • New Duane

    And who doesn’t want to live on an estate??

  • Drocket

    *I’m not sure why Americans are so resistant to fixing this… possibly something to do with America not seeming to understand ‘arms length’ government bodies… In canada, for example, elections are run by a federal body (‘elections canada’), but the people running it are non-partisan, and ensure a trasnparent process.*
    A large part of the problem here is that a large number of Americans simply don’t believe that ‘non-partisian’ exists. Bush himself said it (or at least cribbed it…) best: “you’re either with us, or against us.” That’s honestly what they believe. Democrats do this too, to a lesser degree, but Republicans have become masters of this.
    This is the reason why the instant you say you’re against torture, you have people attacking you for being a crazed hippie Democrat. Commentators who have staunch, life-long Republican supporters have come out to condemn the president’s illegal and immoral actions, and are pretty much immediately thrown to the wolves by other members of the party. If you want to be a Republican, you WILL support the president lock-step, no matter WHAT he does.
    This hyper-partisianship is the source of a lot of our (my, America :) ) country’s problems.

  • bulbul

    Congress cannot give the President indefinite authority to do anything.
    The entire regulatory system is based on Congress giving vague and broad authority to the executive branch.
    Even if I were to accept your ‘logic’, “vague and broad authority” != “authority to do anything”. Furthermore…
    You know what, here, have some peanuts.

  • New Duane

    The healing starts here.
    The healing starts now.

  • bulbul

    A large part of the problem here is that a large number of Americans simply don’t believe that ‘non-partisian’ exists.
    Thanks, Drocket, you nailed it. I was just about to write something similar, but you beat me to it.
    For a democracy, “you’re either with us, or against us” is a pretty bolshevik attitude (happy anniversary, by the way :o). What’s worse, the Republicans seem to be exporting it to the entire world using a network of think tanks, foundations and scholarships. Not that us Europeans can’t be partisan or divided, far from it. But this attitude, especially when it comes to things like terrorism or culture wars, is a relatively new thing. And it can be very clearly traced to ideologues in US-financed think tanks and foundations.

  • John E Thelin

    You know, in Western nations with 100% paper ballots and a reasonably well-guarded and transparent counting system, there’s never much of a discrepancy between exit polls and final results. Certainly nothing on the scale of the election-turning Ohio outcome of 2004. Do. The. Math.

  • Llelldorin

    Again, we can’t get rid of Bush. If the rest of this election stands as it appears to be right now, we might just barely scrape 51 seats in the Senate. We’d need 67 to actually get rid of Bush.
    We can impeach him, but that doesn’t actually do anything without 2/3 of the Senate behind us.

  • Skyknight

    Scott:
    Power to prove how morally superior you are, of course.
    How does THAT work? Power and morality aren’t connected at all. The precepts of good and evil are independent of all else–power, wealth, life, God, etc. (Well, that’s the only way I can think of to allow for God to be omnibenevolent. If the precepts of good and evil AREN’T independent of him, he becomes little more than a beast of chaos, guided only by whim)
    Just because you have strength, doesn’t mean you can remake truth itself. “Subjective truth” is a contradiction in terms. If anything, the nettle you spoke of would taint truth and morality with a bias of strength. Except morality ought to have no bias whatsoever. Even before life and God, the precepts were built into the fabric of reality.

  • Jesurgislac

    Lleldorin: Again, we can’t get rid of Bush. If the rest of this election stands as it appears to be right now, we might just barely scrape 51 seats in the Senate. We’d need 67 to actually get rid of Bush.
    Yes. It would obviously be a mistake to impeach Bush now. But after a year of Speaker Pelosi issuing subpoenas, compelling evidence? Is it possible that Republican Senators might be pushed to the point where they know they have to vote to impeach Bush or be held publicly complicit with his crimes?
    Okay, it’s likely never going to happen. Especially under a dishonest electoral system where Republican Senators likely figure out they can sit tight, get themselves Diebolded in providing there isn’t another 2006 run, and never mind what the electorate actually thinks about them. But, just investigating Bush’s crimes will be a start, even if – no matter what he’s done – the Republican Senators won’t vote to impeach him.

  • Andy

    Well, it looks like whatever extremes Roves machinations went to, they were insufficient. Congrats on ditching both Santorum and Weldon, whoo!

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Journalists like Elving seem to think of Karl Rove as an electoral Chuck Norris. Karl Rove can divide by zero. Karl Rove counted to infinity — twice. Karl Rove can slam a revolving door. Karl Rove can make a rock so big he can’t lift it … and then he could lift it.This is those “Why I read this blog” moments. Fantastic.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Er. “This is one of those…”
    Stupid typos.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X