No Limits?

Eric Mink, in a column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch [*], mentions the Plame affair (though not her name) in passing as part of a long catalogue of the Bush Administration’s horse’s-head-in-the-bed tactics. (The first half of the column is about the same thing at Fox News.)

It’s not at all far-fetched to compare Bush, in this regard, to Nixon; the fact that he doesn’t look nearly as evil, though it makes the charge seem far-fetched, isn’t really relevant. In the winter of 1972-73, when Nixon was riding as high as Bush was last December, and when the Watergate scandal seemed as likely to come to naught as the Plame affair does now, Richard Neustadt responded to a student’s despairing comment with what proved to be prescience: “Don’t worry about it. Nixon has no sense of limits, and that will destroy him.”

I think about that prediction often. The American system of government, as Neustadt among others pointed out, relies heavily on the forbearance of its politicians toward one another: their self-restraint in not pushing every personal or partisan advantage to its maximum. Thus the sort of short-term maximization of the capacity to help friends and harm enemies that impresses the commentariat in a Nixon or a Gingrich or a DeLay or a Karl Rove (yes, or a James Carville) frequently carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. Yes, I admit that sounds like wishful thinking. But there’s enough historical precedent to make despair as unjustified as blithe confidence.

[Summary of the Plame affair here.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: