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June 24, 2005

The Arrogance (and Anxiety?) of Power
Posted by Michael Signer

God knows why, but I woke up at 3:50 a.m. this morning and found only C-SPAN to watch on TV.  Apropos of the Karl Rove debacle, Senator Byrd was cross-examining Secretary Rumsfeld, on the rough topic of the arrogance of power.  I am going to paraphrase here, since there's no transcript available on-line, and I can't find Byrd's comments anywhere (please post below if you find them, and I'll incorporate).

Byrd, very delicately and diplomatically, said that he couldn't recall the Senate being lectured quite as much before by a Secretary of Defense.  He said that he feared that this Administration had forgotten the basic constitutional design of the American system, with three co-equal branches of government.  And he said that it was the unique job of the legislative branch to respond to the people -- and that because the people are anxious about Iraq, the Senate is doing its job to question the Administration aggressively about its answers to the situation there.

The look on Rumsfeld's face was amazing.  I missed his exchange with Ted Kennedy, which from the WaPo account sounds like it was more confrontational and fiery.  What was different about Byrd's monologue (and, believe me, I'm no fall-down fan of his; I think his perspective and career are unique, but his KKK past and grandiose self-conception as a Roman historian muddy the waters for me) was the tone of melancholy -- of a sort of historical sadness.  His reprimand was not angry; it was regretful. 

We truly see the outlines of an Imperial Presidency here.  I have a friend who's a professor of political theory who tells me that in his class on ancient theory, Thucydides has become more relevant every semester over the last couple of years.  Thucydides taught that Athens' empire waned as it became more arrogant with its power, and less interested in earning its authority as a leader from the world community of which it was a part.  Arrogation and demand are the tools of a weakening power; confidence and leadership are the instruments of a strong one.

All of which made me reflect further on what was underlying Rove's disastrous comments before the New York Conservative Party.  I understand our media habits of late of being fascinated by the retrospective derring-do of our political Svengalis, our Rasputins, ranging all the way back to McKinley's Mark Hanna to Reagan's Mike Deaver to Bush I's Lee Atwater to Clinton's James Carville to, today, Bush II's Karl Rove.  Fine. 

But to put my pop-psych hat on:  it's one thing for Rove to coolly diagnose how he tore his opponents apart.  It's another thing entirely for his diagnosis to be inflected (or infected) by his own partisan anxiety and rage.

I agree with Garance Franke-Ruta at the American Prospect that this was outrageous, and that he should apologize.  But what's going on underneath his remarks may be more interesting, and important.  How anxious are these conservatives now about this war they started but did not plan well, this insurgency whose raison d'etre is being supplied every day by their arrogance, and an American people whose patience is running thin?

Anxious enough to smear (as Kevin Drum acutely notes) the entire left as intentionally unpatriotic? 

(I agree wholeheartedly, by the way, with Heather's robust, forward-looking analysis of how to move forward and away from Rove's remarks).


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Karl Rove made an overgeneralization that certainly applies to some on the left ( crowd). Personally I don't think neither he nor Durbin should be appologizing to anyone. Too many people in this nation think that their rights include the right to never be offended. How can someone be sorry for saying what they believe?

I'd rather have a politician put forth a straightfoward view that accurately describes their sentiments, then someone who constantly pretends to be someone he isn't out of political expediency (ie. John Kerry). The American people are smart enough to sort out the rhetoric.

I don't get this all this apology business.

I'm a liberal who served in the military. I don't want no stinkin' apology--I want to *make* Rove sorry for that bullshit.

I'm more worried than interested by Rove's remarks -- perhaps because I can imagine the liberal hawks making common cause with Rove on this. If Iraq goes badly, the people who were for this war are going to need a scapegoat, and the powerless liberals make an easy target -- for both the administration and the DLC.

BTW, here's Thucydides quoting an Athenian general on why a Sicilian expedition is a bad idea. His words could just as easily apply to Iraq:

---"In going to Sicily you are leaving many enemies behind you, and you apparently want to make new ones there and have them also on your hands.... [E]ven if we did conquer the Sicilians, there are so many of them and they live so far off that it would be very difficult to govern them. It is senseless to go against people who, even if conquered, could not be controlled, while failure would leave us much worse off than we were before we made the attempt...."--

I'm a liberal who voted for Bush this last year (first time I voted for a Republican in my life - and probably not the last as things stand). The problem for the Democrats and liberals in general is that Rove was right on when it comes to the most visible wing of liberalism. The vast majority of liberals are extremely patriotic and love this country as much as anyone - the problem is the people speaking for them often come off as anything but. As long as Michael Moore is placed in the Presidential box at the Democratic National Convention. As long as Dick Durbin, Ted Kennedy and Howard Dean speak as they do on behalf of the Democratic party. As long as attacks on Gitmo and Abu Ghraib continue to have a tinge of partisanship and are used as a wedge to beat a war time President, Rove will have an easy target and his language will have resonance even if it is off the mark for the vast majority of liberals.

The way for liberals to change this situation is for them to demonstrate that they do believe the war on terror is one that must be fought and fought to win. They must convine people such as myself that they are willing to brandish steel instead of wring their hands about why the rest of the world "hates" us.

Until that occurs, former liberals like me will continue to vote for Republicans or just not vote at all. And the more years that occurs, the easier it becomes and the faster liberalism withers on the vine.

I'm no fan of Secretary Dumsfeld. His imperial staff style got transformation wrong and Iraq wrong (on multiple levels) and he has done more damage to transatlantic relations than De Gaulle.

But one thing I will never fault him for is his style with the Congress. Sure its not smart to talk back as he does -- sucking up to the insufferables on the Hill is an ugly necessity of getting business done. But if ever there was arrogance and lecturing and partisan games it is the way Members of Congress act toward their witnesses, particularly Administration witnesses. Of course Congress has an oversight role and should take it seriously, but the playing for the cameras and haughty arrogance of many members is pathetic. I, for one, love it when someone smart takes a misleading nastygram question and illustrates sharply how dumb the question was.

"...and are used as a wedge to beat a war time President,"

...i find it worth remembering that there is no war in iraq - just a rather large number american troops that first invaded the country and now currently occupy it until we are satisfied with how they rebuild the political infrastructure we destroyed.

congress did not declare war on iraq; it cowardly acquiesced to the current administrations' bullying.

bush is NOT a war president.

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