Caracas on the Potomac – or is it Washington on the Guaire?

(…a cesspool or a sewer?)

Quico says: This editorial in The New Republic brings me around to a theme you’ve seen here before: the eerie parallels between George W. Bush’s and Hugo Chávez’s style of governance. The wide ideological gulf between these two has clouded the clear parallels in the way they conceive power, ignore long-established norms, prize loyalty over competence, disdain specialist knowledge and undermine civil and political rights.

The major difference, as far as I can see, is one of context: the US has a far more stable, settled system of state institutions than we do. For Bush it’s impossible to slash and burn his way through his constitutional architecture like Chávez has. Not, one suspects, that he wouldn’t like to. In fact, reading TNR’s editorial, you see the echoes in almost every paragraph:

The Bush administration has exacted such damage because it has poisoned a fragile ecosystem. It turns out that, for generations, presidential power has been checked by an unwritten set of customs and norms as much as by laws and rules. Take the Justice Department. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. But, until now, presidents almost never fired prosecutors they appointed in the middle of their terms–perhaps only two of the 486 appointed in the last 25 years have been canned in this fashion. Heads of StateThis is in part because presidents from both parties have implicitly conceded that these attorneys have a higher loyalty to the law than to political patrons–an understanding never enshrined in the U.S. Code but deeply ingrained in the culture of Washington.

Cut “US attorney”, paste “Constitutional Chamber magistrates” and you’re not too far off track. Illegal, technically? No. Disastrous for the administration of justice? Definitely.

Then along came Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales, Harriet Miers, and the reductio ad absurdum of unthinking Bush loyalism, Kyle Sampson. In their memos, they conflate the competence of prosecutors with fealty to the Republican Party. Thus, they judge David Iglesias to be underperforming for his failure to prosecute New Mexico Democrats on tenuous charges on the eve of the 2006 election, and they concoct post-hoc rationales for displeasure with Carol Lam, who indicted the corrupt GOP representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham and began scouring the dealings of his seemingly venal colleagues and their co-conspirators in the Defense Department. And, in a flash, by purging these attorneys, the Bushies have subverted a set of norms that had long ensured federal prosecutors would deploy the law without partisan favor.

True enough, but jeepers: these guys would get the vapors if they took a stroll around the Fiscalía!

The thing that really jumps out at me is that, while the mechanisms are similar – how many chavistas could you nail with that lovely turn of phrase, “ the reductio ad absurdum of unthinking loyalism” – institutional degradation in Caracas just happens on an entirely different scale. What the Bushies have done to the Justice Department – after all, a government ministry – chavistas are doing to the Supreme Court!

It’s not the only norm that this administration has shredded. There’s arguably nothing in the law to suggest that presidential aides like Rove should be compelled to testify under oath in public about their roles in bureaucratic hijinks–although the Supreme Court could change that. Yet generations of presidents have largely deferred to Congress and subjected their underlings to the humiliating spectacle of raising their hands and then answering (or not) showboating congressmen.

Nor is there any specific statute mandating that presidents pay heed to government scientists, intelligence analysts, and other in-house wonks. But, before the Bush administration, presidents generally yielded to disinterested expertise. That’s to say nothing of Bush’s unprecedented mania for secrecy and rampant classification of documents or his exploitation of government agencies to disseminate pro-administration agitprop.

And again, in Caracas we see the same, only on an entirely crasser scale. Secrecy? We got Fonden – most of our budget is secret! Pro-administration agitprop? Oh brother, where to even start…

Congress has been the stage for the brashest stunts. Bush’s allies have rewritten legislation from whole cloth in closed-door conference committees, reversing decades of democratic procedure and rendering vast swaths of the legislative process a charade. They have held votes open for hours, bucking time-honored codes of conduct in order to aggressively lobby (or, in one case, allegedly bribe) Republicans who intended to vote against the president. With the notable exception of the alleged bribe, the Republicans weren’t breaking any laws. They were simply ignoring a long-standing bipartisan consensus that had developed over time to ensure transparency and fairness.

How many times did the chavista Assembly leaders change the rules of order to deny minority procedural guarantees before 2005? Seven? Eight?

One can’t help feeling a sense of helplessness in the face of this partisan subversion of process. If a president breaks the law, then he stands to incur the retributive justice laid out in the Constitution–Sam Ervin’s gavel landing hard. Breaking a norm, on the other hand, isn’t a punishable offense–except with shame and name-calling. And denouncing a president as a “norm-breaker” is, let’s face it, not the most devastating retort.

Worst of all, once a president destroys an old norm, it isn’t very easy to restore it. The next presidents, even high-minded ones, will have difficulty denying themselves the political advantages accrued by Bush. The history of reform, not to mention the annals of cultural anthropology, is filled with cautionary tales about the near-impossibility of restoring old standards. For example, every time a candidate or political party discovers a new loophole in the campaign finance laws–soft money, 527s–every other candidate quickly embraces the very same reform-skirting device.

If they set aside partisan interests, Bush’s supporters would understand the toll of his presidency. Conservatives, at least those in the Burkean tradition, have eloquently extolled the wisdom embedded in norms and the futility of restoring them after they fall. Nixon’s ghost is surely hearing Bush’s footsteps.

Heavy sigh. Mutatis mutandi, you could publish this in El Nacional. There you have it, folks: I am opposed to Chávez and to Bush, for the exact same reasons.