What’s Next

by John Holbo on November 4, 2006

The Washington Monthly has sort of a fun “Dewey Defeats Truman” gimmick: bunch of folks writing ‘Dems Win’, ‘Reps Hold On’ morning after wrap-ups. All fun and games aside, I have two really rather depressing thoughts about ‘what’s next’, one assuming the Dems win (go Dems!) One not.

Assuming the Dems win there will be a Constitutional crisis when the President claims privilege and refuses to cough up documents for investigations into corruption and cronyism in Iraq reconstruction, bad intelligence, etc, in response to congressional subpoenas. Does that seem likely? But I don’t know enough to guess what form it is likely to take – the legal wrangling, that is. What is likely to happen? (I can’t say I’m depressed at the thought of the investigations. Far from it. But I don’t relish the prospect of the wrenching legal struggles that will be necessary. Or maybe I’m wrong and it will be smooth enough, and gloriously cathartic.)

UPDATE: I was being vague, to encourage general discussion. Let me say: my specific worry is that, somehow, there will be 2-years of semi-successful executive branch stonewalling, followed by Bush proving himself his father’s son in at least one way – by handing out a bunch of Christmas pardons, meaning the guilty are never brought to justice, and even the truth about what happened is never officially investigated to the fullest extent. And the Constitutional framework is, in this way, brutalized in one final way even as the door hits Bush’s ass on the way out.

What is going to happen in Iraq? Again, I don’t know enough. (Who does?) But is the following plausible? You might call it (W. said the word himself not long ago): the Tet model. Things will decline until, at some point, some dramatic spike in American casualties occurs due to some particularly horrible incident. This acts as the trigger for many in power to advocate withdrawal, even if really what they are responding to is the steady decline. This Bad Day, whatever it turns out to be, serves as the occasion, rather than the justification, for setting withdrawal wheels decisively in motion. And later people will take grim pleasure in pointing out that the withdrawal, when it happened, was a response to an event that wasn’t, strictly, a turning point. But never mind about that. How plausible is this? It strikes me as likely that powers – colonial, imperial, hegemonic, ruling – when they find themselves mired in some corner of the map, might often behave like this. That is, it seems like a natural political dynamic: gradual decay of the situation, but no one wants to be the one who ‘lost’ that corner of the map. Then some dramatic Bad Thing, not so much altering the situation, but allowing people to say ‘we should leave now’. Does history actually present many such Tet-like examples. Russia, dealing with the ‘near abroad’. China trying to hold various far-flung areas. Rome trying to hold Britain. I’m honestly not able to think of many clear cases, but it seems to me a likely way for things to go. (So I realize this is sort of a weak argument actually. Just a speculation.) I hope it doesn’t, although – like everyone – I’m just stupefied that all thoughts about Iraq lead to depression. (I do think withdrawal is necessary, somehow. I’m just saying that withdrawal triggered by some dramatic catastrophe is probably not the best way.)

UPDATE: Appreciators of black humor may refer to this hypothesis as the paradox of the heap of dead young men and women in uniform.

UPDATE 2: Cheney, if subpeonaed, would ‘probably not‘ appear before congress.



P O'Neill 11.04.06 at 1:40 pm

On the first scenario, I think an extension of it is that Bush will severely endanger his Senate majority (assuming he still has it in January) if he is too aggressive about asserting privilege in withholding documents. For whatever reason, it’s such overly broad refusals that seem to most get under the skin of the New England Republicans (Snowe, Collins, Sununu), and if they detect a sinking ship and a recalcitrant Bush, they might bolt. Now “bolt” might just mean that they become petitioning Republicans after their next primary race, joining Joementum with the word “petitioning” before their party affiliation. But for practical purposes they might vote Dem.

I also think there’s something to the Bad Day Scenario, although in a sense the whole military strategy is designed to avoid such days — the Green Zone, the hands-off policy towards routine security. It’s the one upside to not having enough troops. Bad Day could mean a major assassination, or it could be orchestrated. Wouldn’t a coup be a nice reason to leave?


bob mcmanus 11.04.06 at 1:46 pm

“But I don’t relish the prospect of the wrenching legal struggles that will be necessary”

The more “wrenching” the better, with no particular upper limit. I feel like my life (50+ years)corresponds in time to a wrenching war between forces who want America to become a good citizen of the world and forces of American exceptionalism, chauvinism, imperialism and racism. It is shameful that most of the battles have been fought overseas at the expense of innocents. This current election should help, again, to clarify the the geographical, religious, and political divisions, some centuries old, that have killed and are killing millions. Bring the war home. This is the duty of the left.

2) Do you mean like Augustus:”Where are my legions?” After that Claudius and Hadrian advanced in Britannia, and Trajan took Dalmatia, but there were no further territorial ambitions in Germania.

Syracuse. Leuctra.

Nicopolis was critical,the Fall of Constantinople was mop-up. Tannenburg. Tenochtilan. King Philip’s War set in stone that the white devil was not going to share the new continent, and established the American predilection for genocide and slavery.

Khartoum, Gallipoli, Iraq?


abb1 11.04.06 at 2:00 pm

If it gets too scary, people who bankroll the whole thing could alway force the administration to resign and bring on a short-term clean-up crew. Like the Nixon-Ford thing. Then it’s “our long national nightmare is over”, “time to move on”, blah, blah, blah – and everything is back to normal, everybody is happy, talking about something else.


Bruce 11.04.06 at 2:10 pm

My prediction?

There won’t be a “wrenching legal struggle.” Republicans are willing to say bad things about Bush now that he’s looking unpopular, but when it comes to exposing some of the horrors that the Republican party has been up to, party loyalty will win out. Given that there will undoubtedly be a fair number of Democrats that will be in favor of “bipartisanism” and not making waves, I think there won’t be enough votes for an investigation to seriously get off the ground.



Steve LaBonne 11.04.06 at 2:38 pm

My prediction is that if the Dems win there will be no such constitutional crisis- because they won’t have the cojones to mount any serious investigations at all, fearing to anger that sacred cow of punditstan, the “swing voter”, in advance of the 2008 election.


Rasselas 11.04.06 at 3:23 pm

Seconded, #5. People tend to think that “We won!” means “Now I get everything I ever wanted, including universal healthcare!” and I’ve read quite a bit of this sort of thing lately, but almost all the Democrats in Congress will be the same gunshy, thwarted middle-aged men and women.

I’ll be happy if Tuesday ends without violence at polling places.


Slocum 11.04.06 at 3:57 pm

Hard-hitting investigations? Nope — the Dems don’t just want to retake congress in 2006, they want to hold it and take the White House in 2008. If they drag the country through a huge fight, they’ll be blamed. I think CT’ers are misinterpreting polls that suggest most Americans now think Iraq was a mistake. What that means isn’t that they now agree that “Bush lied, people died”, what they think is, approximately, “The Iraqis are too backward to grab the chance at democracy that they’ve been given and, so, the effort is a waste”.

What the Dems will probably do, if they take one or both houses of Congress, is let Bush continue to ‘stay the course’ on Iraq if he chooses, so that they can run against Iraq again in 2008 when the presidency is on the line.


Peter Levine 11.04.06 at 4:02 pm

Against “wrenching legal battles” … Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, conservatives can be basically satisfied with the fundamentals of American politics. Politicians of both parties are embarrassed to mention raising taxes, even if the alternative is to borrow money from the next generation. None of them seriously wants to cut the incarceration rate or end the “war on drugs.” They are almost all afraid to criticize the military brass for anything it might do.

If I were a conservative, I would be hoping that a Democratic Congress would concentrate on the malfeasance of the Bush administration. In the worst case (from my imaginary conservative perspective), the Dems would uncover some really bad behavior that Americans don’t already know about–not launching a war on weak pretenses, but some actual felonies that don’t look like mere technicalities. Fine–In that case I would join the Democrats in outrage against Bush and back a new set of Republican leaders in ’08. All the fundamentals would still be in place.

In the best case (again from a conservative perspective), the Democrats would find nothing startlingly new, would waste two years, and would reinforce a reputation for lacking vision and competence.

My biggest fear, if I were a conservative, would be that the Democrats would largely ignore Bush and pass a series of smart, aggressive, progressive bills to help working families, ameliorate the sitation in the Middle East, strengthen education, and tackle oil dependence. Then my guys would have to filibuster or veto popular bills, or else allow them to pass and thereby move the country somewhat leftward. By ’08, Democrats would have a reputation for vision and competence and my side would be in real trouble.


PoliticalCritic 11.04.06 at 4:17 pm

My prediction is that the Dems will win the six seats they need to take the Senate. They’ll win MO and VA, but lose TN. As a result, they will investigate this president for two years straight. If the investigations reveal what we all expect, the right will have a lot of trouble winning in 2008.


Matt Weiner 11.04.06 at 4:19 pm

Disagreed on 5. Subpoenas don’t require a bill passed in a whole chamber, do they? They’re done by committees. I think some (not all) of the committee chairs will be principled enough, and are angry enough about Bush’s crimes, that they’ll launch some investigations. As to how it plays out, that might depend partly on what they uncover. Also on whether the media decides to turn on Bush. I think they will, they know which way the wind blows.


art durant 11.04.06 at 5:09 pm

As everything else in this country, justice and fairness will return to the polis after Tuesday’s vote. And, redemption will finally address how Bush got into office in 2000 and then into the Iraq war. Reasonable, balanced investigations shall reveal a myriad of malfeasance bordering on high crimes perpetuated by the bush people.


Brett Bellmore 11.04.06 at 5:18 pm

Heck, Peter, I’d switch that around; The GOP so desperately needs new upper level leadership, that I’d much prefer the Democrats do the work of mucking out that mess, than that it stay poluted. Investigate away, the more effectively, the better!


Stephen Frug 11.04.06 at 6:45 pm

Echoing what #4, #5 & others have said:

A Constitutional crisis and “wrenching legal struggles” is very much a best case scenario. Far more likely is that the Dems simply roll over and play dead when Bush refuses legal subpoenas. So I am put in the odd position of hoping for a Constitutional crisis… since the alternatives are no investigations into the crimes of this administration at all. (Since Bush obeying the law is clearly not a possibility.)

Along somewhat parallel lines, I have some of my own depressing thoughts on the forthcoming election here in case anyone’s interested.


Larry M 11.04.06 at 6:54 pm

Not to be harsh, but what are some of you smoking? I fully expect all types of cowardice from the Dems if they get in power, but the one thing we can be darn sure of (thank goodness) are aggressive investigations. I never understood this “if they drag the country through a huge fight, they’ll be blamed” meme. It would only be true if the investigations didn’t turn up anything – and I don’t think anyone, even supporters of the administration, thinks that such investigations won’t turn up a cesspool of corruption. Far from hurting prospects in 2008, those investigations might keep the republicans out of power for a generation. Which is why you can bet that the white house will indeed do all they can to avoid cooperating. But my attitude is: constitutional confrontation? Bring it on. It’s a no lose proposition for the Dems, and for the nation.


bob mcmanus 11.04.06 at 6:54 pm

10:”Subpoenas don’t require a bill passed in a whole chamber, do they?”

According to my understanding, supoenas and Contempt of Congress Resolutions have to be implemented and enforced by the DoJ/AG. Separation of powers gives Congress zero effective policing powers, just as the Judiciary has none.

So, for example, Nixon simply caved on inpoundment, but if Bush wanted to sign over the entire Social Security Budget to Jenna and not-Jenna in a check, the only way to stop him is impeachment after the fact.


ozma 11.04.06 at 7:28 pm

Wow. Your depressing thoughts totally cheer me up. When I have depressing thoughts about what’s next they are along the lines of fascist takeover, nuclear conflagration, invasion of Iraq, enormous and violent bloody war in the middle east on an unimaginable scale in which the U.S. has to take part. Then ecological breakdwon and human extinction (but that part comes later).

My most optimistic thoughts are things like legal wrangling and distorted memories about withdrawal from Iraq. I think that’s really the best we can hope for, actually.


Adam Kotsko 11.04.06 at 10:27 pm

Are you worried that we’ll leave Iraq “for the wrong reason”? Or are you just worried about the massive casualties that a Bad Day pretext would require? If it’s the former, I really don’t understand — my priority is for US troops to be out of there, immediately, for whatever reason they want to tell people.


bob mcmanus 11.04.06 at 10:28 pm


Maybe a little off topic, but with obstruction and Const Crises acoming, somehow I think an impoundment dispute may arise, since the budget is one the main weapons Congress has against the President. A possible article of impeachment could be the diversion of funds from Afghanistan to Iraq.

After Nixon’s excesses, Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 was passed. OTOH,

“All of the Presidents of the United States up to Richard Nixon have used this power, which is regarded as inherent to the office. President Thomas Jefferson first used the power…” ..Wiki

…likely is to Dick Cheney as catnip to a cat, a porterhouse to a pit bull, or methamphetamine and…never mind.


Peter Levine 11.04.06 at 10:58 pm

14. Larry, you may be right, but notice you are making three assumptions: (a) there’s a whole “cesspool” of yet uncovered scandals, (b) “the Republicans” are a unit, so that scandals of the Bush administration will rub off on all Republicans, including people like John McCain, and ( c ) voters will conclude that the Republicans are wicked but that government is so trustworthy that they will vote for a progressive agenda.

It seems to me just as likely that (a) the big scandals are already perfectly evident and have taken their political toll, (b) other Republicans will distance themselves effectively from the Bush team, and ( c ) if there are lots of investigations, people will conclude that Washington is corrupt and should not be allowed to handle health insurance, environmental regulation, etc.

The alternative is to use Democratic control of Congress actually to address problems like health care, education, global warming, oil dependence, and Iraq. But that would take focus, energy, public attention, committee time, and strategic partnerships with some Republicans. It is incompatible with a strategy of fighting with Bush all day.


belle waring 11.05.06 at 12:37 am

Adam, I don’t know what a good plan for withdrawal would be. But I’m pretty sure the least bad plan cannot be: do nothing until something horrible happens, and then do things hastily. Preferably we have a plan better than that. Although, admittedly, I can’t personally think of a plan that would really work better than that. Which is sad.


John Holbo 11.05.06 at 1:18 am

Sorry, I’m not sock-puppeting my wife. I was just accidentally signed in as Belle. (On the other hand, if you can’t sock-puppet your wife, who can you sock-puppet?)


Alan 11.05.06 at 2:24 am

I fear a different kind of constitutional crisis: Diebold steals the enough votes here and there for the GOP to retain control of both House and Senate and a lot of people finally smell a rat in the election mechanism.


abb1 11.05.06 at 4:24 am

Diebold steals the enough votes … and a lot of people finally smell a rat

There is already a cover-up story – amazing Republican micro-targeting.


John Holbo 11.05.06 at 5:48 am

I should probably clarify that indeed I regard my two ‘what’s next’ scenarios as more or less best-case, certainly not worst case.


otto 11.05.06 at 6:16 am

I see the Democrats as supporting a US or Israeli attack on Iran quite soon after taking hold of Congress. They have no alternative vision of US ME policy and the interest groups which supported the war are well embedded in the Democratic party organisation. Even Lamont,were he to be elected, would probably be supporting US strikes on Iran. We’ll still have two war parties rather than merely one, which is why the incompetence dodge will suit the Democrats as much as the Republicans.


jonst 11.05.06 at 7:29 am

I don’t know about “Appreciators of black humor”…but “appreciators” of political science history should look back at this column and see more than a few hints as to why the progressive movement lost most of the political battles of the late 20th century and early 21th. You just seem weak and whiney to me. Which is not to say you are. I don’t have a clue. But reading this, that’s the way you come off to me. Its a fight for the Republic man! Steel yourself. Better to have the battles in the courts and in the Congress than in the streets. Which is where they will go next if we fail in the latter two venues. Now THAT prospect will be something you won’t relish.


John Holbo 11.05.06 at 8:17 am

Jonst, it doesn’t strike me as obviously a bad idea to consider what form the legal challenges to the Republicans might take – how they might, predictably, bog down. It is, as you say, a fight for the Republic. And every citizen should attempt to arm him or herself with clues, if possible.


Barry 11.05.06 at 11:22 am

larry m, about blaming the Democrats for ‘dragging the country through the mud’: there are, and always will be, right-wing wh*resons like slocum, who will excuse and and all crimes commited by the GOP, and declare criminal any and all attempts to deal with those crimes.

Such people are the enemies of the Democrats, not just political opponents, and are enemies as well of the United States of America. If we take their advice, we might as well just concede all power to the GOP.


Matt Weiner 11.05.06 at 2:41 pm

Peter, here’s one for 19a at least, and probably 19b too. The whole GOP apparatus has been complicit in criminal election shenanigans for a while.


Martin Bento 11.05.06 at 11:40 pm

This notion that investigations will tend to discredit activist government itself don’t seem well-supported by precedent. The class of 74 got in on the back of Watergate and related investigations, and was probably the most solidly liberal in the big government sense crew since the New Deal. The Iran/Contra investigations seriously hurt Reagan’s approval ratings, and probably would have continued to had the Dems’ gerbillian testes not slithered up to their throats. General attitudes about government are formed over time; the current crop is a result of decades of groundwork by the GOP.

All that said, I do think that excessive liberal trust in the government is what has made it so hard for so many to see through the Bush Admin or to see how bad it really was. Only now is it possible to speak of electoral fraud or Constitutional usurpation without ridicule, when these realities have been visible for 4 years. Most mainstream liberals found it emotionally difficult to believe about the runup to the Iraq war realities that we pretty much all now accept. Liberals need to develop an approach that does not require so much trust, as trust in authority is not necessarily merited and very dangerous when not. I think a strong argument can be made that excessive trust in authority is more dangerous than insufficient trust.

In short, I don’t think revealing more scandals will undermine faith in the government, but it should. I’m also assuming here for the sake of discussion that exposed scandals are limited to the sorts of thing CT’ers would find credible. If they go beyond that, I think the Dems would probably chicken out and slam shut the door again.


Slocum 11.06.06 at 8:24 am

there are, and always will be, right-wing wh*resons like slocum, who will excuse and and all crimes commited by the GOP, and declare criminal any and all attempts to deal with those crimes.

It took a few seconds to fill in the space and figure out what colorful insult was being hurled at me.

Look, I’m not even sure what great ‘crimes and misdemeanors’ you’d expect investigations to turn up. If the Republicans lose both houses of Congress, it’ll be because of how things have been going in Iraq — and that is, obviously, no great hidden secret, but rather is plain for all to see. What’s more, if Democrats do take marginal seats (with, for example, Webb in Virginia and Ford in Tennessee), those will be centrists with many rightish tendencies, and their re-election (and the Democratic majority) would be endangered by unnecessary political warfare.

Simply because of time, Bush’s lame-duck period is rapidly approaching. A Democratic majority would be far better off using its political capital to promote its legislative agenda.


Matt Weiner 11.06.06 at 10:57 am

I’m not even sure what great ‘crimes and misdemeanors’ you’d expect investigations to turn up.

I think further investigation into Hookergate could be interesting, for one.


Barry 11.06.06 at 11:31 am

Slocum, it took less time for you to hurl that favorite GOP ‘advice’ that the Democrats shouldn’t be partisan, or insist on honest government, because such partisanship would hurt the feelings of the GOP.

Do you honestly think that anybody but the right-wingers is fooled by your advice, and Peter’s?

We’ve watched incredibly vile campaigns of lies and slander and slander become the GOP’s SOP. Payback is a bitch. No GOP supporter has the right to give us advice, or tell us what’s moral.


Richard Bottoms 11.06.06 at 12:37 pm

As the Republicans say, ‘Who Cares What You Think’.


Peter Levine 11.06.06 at 12:52 pm

All I’ll say is that I’m a strong progressive who actually wants the government to address public problems and who fears that an attempt at partisan “payback” would kill the chance to rebuild the progressive movement in America. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not trying to “fool” anyone on behalf of the GOP.


Bruce Baugh 11.06.06 at 2:37 pm

The failure of will with regard to investigations and trials for Nixon administration wrongdoing let a lot of careers continue without trouble, starting with Cheney’s. I don’t want to be back here in another 20-30 years doing it all over again.


MNPundit 11.06.06 at 4:17 pm

If they want a life or death struggle, then bring it on. America is worth that kind of struggle to save it. There are a lot of people who are willing to go to the mat for this.

If they think I won’t cheer the capital police or FBI or even the fucking military dragging Cheney and Bush from the White House for under-oath questioning or in some fantasy a permanent trip to the Hague, then they are crazy.

And if as jonst says things fail and we have to have this out in the streets, then believe me I will be out in those streets even if I don’t last that long.


Steve LaBonne 11.06.06 at 7:29 pm

Peter Levine- that’s why I’d like to see real, in-depth, quiet investigations rather than a media circus. Investigate genuinely for the sake of getting to the bottom of what’s gone on and preventing it from recurring in the future, and not for political theater and the hope (which I agree would be delusional) of short-term electoral advantage.

But my prediction for what will actually happen remains, more or less, nothing.


Peter Levine 11.06.06 at 8:39 pm

I’m 100% with Steve Labonne–thanks.


Nancy Irving 11.06.06 at 10:12 pm

What I fear is that Bush and Cheney will refuse to respond to subpoenas, and the Democrats will just say, “Never mind.” That our guys will just wimp out in the face of criticism from Dean Broder and the right. That they will cave to the realignment of power which places the legislative and judicial branches under the boot of the executive.


Martin Bento 11.07.06 at 12:07 am

We need the investigations as public as possible. Their political effect is at least as important as their legal one. Our mission here, since we have no choice but to accept it, is to maximally discredit the Republican Party. This is *more* important than passing good legislation, as whatever good we do will be more than washed away when the Repubs come back to power unless they are mortally wounded now. Remember all the “paranoids” who spoke of a secret emergency government during the Reagan administration? Who turned chiefly to be behind it? Cheney and Rumsfeld, the exact powers behind the throne now. Had Clinton been willing to pursue Iran/Contra at the expense of his domestic agenda, everything we are seeing now could probablhy have been averted.

And what are we dealing with here? Suspension of habeas corpus and other basic legal rights that have been recognized as essential to civilized societies for centuries. Eradication of the balance of powers in favor of a dictatorial Presidency. Emergency war powers for a war designed never to end. Proposing the imposition of exit visas (in the form of affirmative-clear rather than affirmative-block travel lists, and by no means limited to air travel). What precisely on the Democratic agenda is more important than this?


Steve LaBonne 11.07.06 at 9:01 am

Reversing those abuses is more urgent than assigning blame for them (as if anybody doesn’t already know where they came from.)
Once there are solid investigative findings, then by all means announce them with as much public hooha as can possibly be mustered. Yes, that will be an essential contribution towards cleaning up our political system. But to turn the process, the investigations and hearings themselves, into a media circus- I guarantee you that would be seriously counterproductive politically. The voters looking for change are looking for the war and their pocketbook issues to be addressed, and (rightly or wrongly) they will not welcome what they will perceive as diversions from that.

(All this is fantasy anyway; the Dems will cling to their narrow majorities if they’re lucky enough to achieve such today, hunker down awaiting 2008, and do- not much of anything.)


Martin Bento 11.07.06 at 11:51 am

The only time I’ve seen that sort of thing backfire was the Clinton impeachment, which was obviously a witchhunt over a trviality. Even that ended up helping the GOP in 2000, but largely because the Dems were too timid to hit back on it. All the investigations into Abramoff, Delay, Scooter,, Cunningham, etc. have helped us, though other than Scooter they were intricate charges of corruption of a kind perceived as common in DC anyway. Loud, public investigations of these matters make them the issue. Currently, there are secondary in the public mind because the Dems and media have permitted this.


Steve LaBonne 11.07.06 at 12:57 pm

Loud, public investigations of these matters make them the issue.

While I can’t prove it, my strong suspicion is that this works only if the mainstream news media buy into it- which is why it worked for the Republicans despite the stupidity of the Clinton witchhunt. And call me crazy, but I have my doubts about whether the likes of Mark “Drudge rules my world” Halperin will give the Dems any media oxygen for their investigations. Additionally, the late Clinton years were ones in which most voters were generally fairly satisfied with how the country was going, which I believe made them more tolerant of being offered side-shows in place of legislative substance than I expect they would be in their current mood.

Don’t get me wrong- I very much want thorough top-to-bottom investigations of this gang of criminals (though I don’t believe this will happen). But I think they should be conducted fairly quietly for some months- accompanied by a much more public show of some actual law-making activity- until there are solidly documented findings of malfesasance that even the average dumbass can’t help but clearly grasp. At that point it’s time to make a big hooha that even Mark Halperin won’t be able to bury.

Just my opinion, of course, worth the $0.00 you paid for it.

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