Only Democrats Can Restore Faith in the Political Process
Serious political crimes aren’t the same as regular ones: They require not just punishment for lawbreakers, but also political fixes. That’s why the Democratic Party can’t rely on the likes of Rosenstein and Mueller. In fact, since Republicans largely remain loyal to Trump, Democrats are the only ones capable of truly solving this crisis—if they’re given the power to do so. They just have to convince voters of it.
Watergate is often seen as the zenith of modern political scandal. Yet, there was only a minimal attempt by Congress back then to solve the problem of the imperial presidency. Instead, almost every subsequent presidency has gotten bogged down in legal quagmires, as Congress uses law enforcement as a Band-Aid, without grappling with the real problem of presidential power. To criminalize the political process is to evade checks and balances, and it has resulted in a never ending tit-for-tat, where one party seeks revenge by scandalizing the other.
Gerald Ford poisoned his own presidency from the start by pardoning Richard Nixon, thereby setting a precedent for protecting executive branch lawbreaking. Ronald Reagan’s presidency nearly capsized because of the Iran-Contra affair, which stained his successor, too; George H. W. Bush pardoned many leading figures, including Caspar Weinberger and Robert McFarlane, which broadened the precedent by showing how a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy could be shielded after the fact. Bush’s son followed this tradition by commuting the sentence of Scooter Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice. Democrats got a taste of the criminalization of politics with various ginned up scandals against the Clintons, ranging from Bill Clinton’s perjury during the Monica Lewinsky affair to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
President Barack Obama seems to have escaped this pattern, since his administration was notably squeaky clean. The public largely saw the Benghazi, Fast and Furious, and IRS controversies for what they were: Desperate, partisan attempts by Republicans to damage a popular president. Yet in a different way, Obama contributed to the larger constitutional crisis that has gone unresolved. Obama greatly expanded the power of the president to operate unilaterally, notably through drone strikes and executive orders on domestic policy. This left a dangerous set of tools to be abused by future presidents, beginning with Donald Trump.
In all the major modern presidential scandals, prosecutors and law enforcement officials have played a central role—from Lawrence Walsh to Ken Starr to Patrick Fitzgerald to James Comey to Robert Mueller. It’s easy to see why both liberals and conservatives look to these lawmen as the solution to scandals real or imagined. They fit a familiar cultural pattern found in Law and Order and many other shows: the heroic prosecutor, often an overgrown Boy Scout with a crew-cut, who works relentlessly to put the bad guys behind bars. Prosecutorial liberalism is the dream that the messiness of politics can be replaced with the moral clarity of a cop show.