Jail to the chief?

In the current issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn reminisces about the day he became a citizen of the United States of America.  On that day he and his fellows swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, a document which they had all been required to study, and which speaks of limits to state power and protection for the rights of the individual:

But it turns out it was all a fraud. The Uzbek down the row from me who had fled Karimov’s regime probably had no need to anticipate being boiled alive—a spécialité de la maison in Tashkent. But being roasted alive by Hellfire missile, doomed by executive order of President Obama, without due process in any court of law, for reasons of state forever secret, could theoretically lie in his future. If presidential death warrants beyond the reach of scrutiny and review by courts or juries are the mark of a banana republic, then we were all waving the flag of just such an entity.

What moves Mr Cockburn to this bitter declaration is of course the killing of Anwar al Awlaki, a killing for which the president of the United States proudly claimed responsibility.  al Awlaki may have been acquainted with some men who committed or attempted to commit acts of terrorism, and he certainly made unpleasant comments in public forums.  But the Obama administration has yet to do so much as accuse him of complicity in any violent act, much less provide evidence that he was the commander of an enemy force engaged in war on the United States, and as such a legitimate military target.  As it stands, the al Awlaki killing can be classified only as an act of murder.  Mr O’s boast that he ordered the strike is of a piece with his predecessor’s casual public admission that he ordered the torture of terrorism suspects.  Each man is serene in his belief that there is no crime he can commit that will stir the legal authorities to prosecute him.

Ought Americans who stand to Mr O’s left support a candidate to challenge him for the Democratic presidential nomination next year?  If being on the left means that one prefers the rule of law to a regime in which the president may kill and torture with impunity, one might  think the answer would be obvious.  For John Nichols, it’s more complicated.  Some might say that the best thing the president could do is resign, stand trial, and go to prison, accompanied if possible by his predecessors.  For Mr Nichols, not only is it clear that Mr O should continue in office, but it is apparently desirable that he should be reelected.  He wonders whether a primary challenger could help Mr O improve his chances of winning a second term, and seems to wish that one were on the horizon.  He doesn’t claim to know that it would work out that way:

The dramatically sped-up and concentrated primary calendar leaves little time for slow-to-develop challenges. It is already very late in the 2012 process, and no well-known Democratic official or progressive activist seems to be entertaining a run.

“We don’t even have a Pat Buchanan,” jokes Jeff Cohen, the veteran media critic and adviser to progressive candidates who is convinced that a credible primary challenger could win 30 to 40 percent of the vote in some states. Cohen argues that a primary challenger would not have to win to make a meaningful impact; a strong competitor could force Obama to sharpen his message and give progressives a significant role in defining the party. But for every progressive who argues that Obama’s re-election prospects would be improved by primary prodding from the left, there are cautionary voices like that of James Fallows, who asserts: “As for the primary challenges, what similarity do we notice between Jimmy Carter (challenged by Edward Kennedy in 1980) and George H.W. Bush (challenged by Pat Buchanan in 1992)? What we notice is: they held onto the nomination and went on to lose the general election.”

Obama is not likely to be defeated by a primary challenger. Despite the dip in his national approval ratings, polling suggests he retains relatively solid numbers with Democrats in key states—and among critical voting blocs. African-American voters, 86 percent of whom give the president favorable ratings (58 percent strongly favorable), are definitional players in Southern and a number of Great Lakes states. A ham-handed primary challenge could energize African-American voters—who, as Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry notes, may be inclined to ask why the equally disappointing Bill Clinton did not face a primary challenge in 1996. Such a challenge could also antagonize young people and many white liberals inclined to defend the nation’s first African-American president against what they perceive to be an unfair assault.

The prospect that the Democratic Party could divide against itself in an ugly debate gleefully amplified by right-wing media has little appeal even to Democrats who disdain Obama’s policy drift. But there is almost as much concern that a nuanced challenge from a candidate who appeals to African-American voters, such as Cornel West, would weaken the incumbent the way Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to Carter and Buchanan’s 1992 run against George H.W. Bush are perceived to have undermined those presidents’ re-election.

In fact, the theory that primary challenges invariably lead to November defeats is wrong. In the past fifty years, two of the biggest presidential wins were secured by incumbents who faced meaningful primary competition. In 1964 President Johnson and his “favorite son” stand-ins had to fend off a determined challenge from Alabama Governor George Wallace, who won roughly 30 percent of the vote in two Midwestern primaries and 44 percent in Maryland. In 1972 President Nixon was challenged from the right and the left by Republican Congressmen (Ohio conservative John Ashbrook and California liberal Pete McCloskey) who attracted a combined 30 percent of the vote in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Both Johnson and Nixon would go on to win more than 60 percent of the fall vote.

On The Nation‘s website, Dave Zirin denounces singer Hank Williams, Junior, who recently lost a gig after comparing Mr O to the late Adolf Hitler.  It is not entirely clear what it is about Mr O that reminds Mr Williams of Germany’s late tyrant.  Perhaps the fact that each head of state boasted publicly of the murders he had orchestrated, that each dispatched his air force to bomb into submission countries that posed no threat to his own, that each used his office to accelerate the dismantling of the democratic constitution under which he had come to power, and that each claimed the right to detain any number of people for any length of time without judicial process may have prompted Mr Williams to think that they bore some resemblance to one another.  Of course, since Mr Zirin is a faithful supporter of the Democratic Party, one might expect him to find ways in which Mr O is less advanced in his murderous ways than was Adolf Hitler, as faithful Republicans spent the years 2001-2009 counting the degrees that separated Mr O’s predecessor from the same benchmark of wickedness.  Strangely, Mr Zirin says nothing about Mr O other than to describe him as the “first African-American president.”  This description precedes Mr Zirin’s pronouncement of his anathema upon Mr Williams, that anathema taking the form of the label “racist.”  Such a pronouncement is a sort of ritual; to complete it, the officiant needs nothing from Mr O but his skin color.  Once this ritual element is provided, no further information about Mr O could have any possible relevance to the proceeding.

Of course, there are sound reasons why one ought not to compare active politicians to Adolf Hitler.  For one thing, using him as the all-purpose symbol of an unjust ruler gives him a satanic glamour of just the sort that the Nazis used so effectively in their seduction of the more desperate members of Germany’s middle classes in the late Weimar period.  If Hitler must be remembered, it is far better to view him with contempt, perhaps tinged with the sort of pity one feels towards people who have psychological problems that one finds uninteresting.  Besides, the history of humankind is bursting with tyrants and killers; it is dismaying indeed that we share so little knowledge of history that Hitler is virtually the only one of the evil rulers of the past whose name we can be confident will be recognized almost anywhere.  For my part, I think an apt analogy could be made between Mr O and Critias, a fifth-century Athenian who is remembered today as the uncle of the philosopher Plato and the namesake of one of his nephew’s uncompleted dialogues, but in his own day he was rather more widely known as the leader of the “Thirty Tyrants,” a group who seized power in Athens after the Peloponnesian Wars and claimed the right to govern by means of assassination.

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