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One branch justice

JONATHAN CHAIT is a contributing editor to Opinion and a senior editor at the New Republic.

AS ATTY. GEN. Alberto R. Gonzales takes to Capitol Hill to testify today, it’s worth keeping in mind what this whole imbroglio is really about. It’s not about whether Gonzales and his minions lied to Congress and the public. (They did, repeatedly.) It’s not even about whether the Justice Department improperly fired federal prosecutors. (It did, of course.) It’s about whether the Bush administration sought to subvert democracy by turning the federal judicial system into a weapon of the ruling party.

Many people think of democracy as free elections, some other basic rights (like free speech) and not much more. But really, that’s only the beginning. There are plenty of countries that have free and fair elections and yet are clearly not democratic because their ruling parties have a permanent, immovable hammerlock on power.

One key thing that separates strong democracies (such as the United States) from weak democracies (such as Russia) is that the latter use the police power of the state as a tool of the ruling party. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin doesn’t mind throwing his enemies in jail or sending out the police to break up protests.

I realize that the United States is not becoming Russia. But isn’t this behavior, in a sense, what the Bush administration stands accused of? If true, it’s an incredibly serious violation.

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The prosecutor scandal first surfaced in New Mexico, where Republican officials and the Bush administration repeatedly pressured the U.S. attorney to bring electoral fraud charges against Democrats before the election. The prosecutor, David Iglesias, refused and, suspiciously, was subsequently fired.

But President Bush may have had more success elsewhere in cases that have gotten less publicity. In Wisconsin last year, for instance, a federal prosecutor indicted an appointee of a Democratic governor on a charge so spurious that a federal appeals court unanimously threw out the conviction this month, calling the evidence “beyond thin.” But the conviction, and the appearance of corruption, played a major role in November’s gubernatorial race. The U.S. attorney in Wisconsin who brought this flimsy case had originally been targeted for dismissal by the Bush administration but was later removed from the list of those to be fired.

Communications professors Donald Shields and John Cragan have found that, since Bush took office, U.S. attorneys have investigated or indicted 298 Democratic officeholders and only 67 Republicans. This massive disparity, which I have not seen any Republican even try to explain, is deeply suspicious.

And there are other ways in which Republicans have tried to use the legal system to win partisan disputes. In 2003, Texas Democrats fled the state to try to thwart a highly partisan Republican redistricting plan. GOP leaders sent state troopers to bring them back, and a state police officer even sought the aid of the Department of Homeland Security to track the plane carrying the Democrats. In 2004, Democrats in the House Ways and Means Committee left a hearing to hold their own caucus elsewhere in the Capitol. Republican Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, then the chairman of the committee, ordered the Capitol police to break up the meeting.

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The New York Times reported in March that New York City, led by a Republican mayor eager for his party to enjoy a smooth convention, had its police spy on all manner of groups planning demonstrations at the 2004 Republican National Convention. The espionage was carried out under the rubric of anti-terrorism, but many of the groups targeted (such as the satirical street theater group Billionaires for Bush) had not the slightest whiff of violent intent.

It would be very easy to overreact to all these things and conclude that our democracy is imperiled or that Republicans are wannabe Putins. But almost nobody seems to be overreacting.

Most people are under-reacting. Allowing the security apparatus of the state to help tilt elections is an extremely grave precedent. When the line of acceptable behavior can be moved without much protest, it often can be moved further the next time.

No, we’re not becoming Russia. But becoming just a little bit like Russia still ought to be considered a major scandal.


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