The GOP Agenda: Permanent Constitutional Crisis

Reading about Newt Gingrich’s latest idiocy (that we should consider altering our notions of free speech in light of the war on terror) and Dennis Prager’s latest moronic statement (that we should institute a religious test for public office), reminds me that the Republican Party’s deepest agenda seems to be the creation of a permanent constitutional crisis. To wit:

1. 1995: Shut the government down.

2. 1998-99: Impeachment over trivial matters

3. 2000: Riots at the Palm Beach County canvassing board and refusal to count Florida votes; party-line SCOTUS vote to give the election to Bush

4. 2001-2002: development of warrantless wiretapping

5. 2001-2002: use of signing statements to violate Congressional enactments

6. 2003: “nuclear option” to end judicial filibusters, based upon facially absurd reading of “advise and consent” clause

7. 2003-2004: development of torture memos: President’s Commander-in-Chief power means that he can unilaterally take any and all measures in the name of national security.

8. 2004: Gay Marriage Amendment endorsed by Bush

9. 2005: Schiavo: federal pre-emption of state family law

10. 2006: President can declare any resident an “unlawful enemy combatant.” No judicial review.

11. 2006: general suspension of habeas corpus without invasion or rebellion

12. 2006: Gingrich declares that free speech provisions must be changed.

I’m sure that I have forgotten several.

Note that while many of these concern presidential power, not all of them do. Many were initiatives taken by the Republican Congress, having nothing to do with the President’s Commander in Chief power.

2007’s version will occur when Henry Waxman subpoenas documents and the administration refuses to hand them over; it will essentially be a replay of the Cheney energy task force scenario. This might have nothing to do with national security, although it will clearly be a separation of powers issue. Waxman is very concerned about clean air and climate change issues.

It does generate an interesting question, though: why has the Republican Party declared war on the United States Constitution?

“Constitutional revision” has long been a rallying cry for conservatives: Bismarck repeatedly threatened it in the late 19th century when it looked as if German social democrats would insist on further democratization of the German Empire. The notion of a “revolution from above” has been a staple of right-wing thought for more than 200 years. But in this case it is particularly intriguing because of the relatively conservative nature of American political culture; we have never had a socialist movement in this country coming anywhere close to taking power. Our Constitution and political system is one of the most conservative of all western countries. I suppose that one could lay a lot of this on American religious conservatism, but that seems too pat.

In any event, we should expect several more attempts by the Republican Party to cause constitutional crises. Bush’s Imperial Presidency is the fullest flowering of the trend, but it extends far beyond the White House.