Boosting Democracy, On Purpose or Not

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, December 22, 2005

Democracy in Iraq owes much to the determined efforts of President Bush in 2005. So do democracy and constitutional order in the United States, if in a different way.

Iraq's three successful elections galvanized Bush into showing leadership and, at long last, some modest accountability for his administration's missteps there. His year-ending speeches on Iraq -- capped by Sunday's effective televised address to the nation -- suggest that contrition is good for the soul and perhaps for the polls.

Except for Iraq's two parliamentary elections and its constitutional referendum, all of which he helped keep on track, this has been a lost year for Bush. The president flailed, stumbled or simply disappeared when the going got tough at home.

His vaunted Social Security overhaul went poof when pricked by the thumbtacks of reality. Reform of the tax code was smothered in its crib by a ham-handed House "leadership" -- with no reaction from Bush. Hurricane Katrina reduced the president's domestic agenda to waterlogged wreckage.

The five recent Iraq speeches were intended to start a long-awaited pivot by Bush toward a new domestic agenda that could be unveiled in January's State of the Union address. First he had to stop the erosion of support on Iraq.

But the reasonable guy that Bush and his speechwriters brought forth on Sunday night vanished when the president strode into a White House news conference on Monday. He went back into combat mode to dampen the outcry over the powers of the presidency and domestic intelligence surveillance.

Not even conservatives will rush to endorse the expansive powers that Bush claims to find in the Constitution to enable the National Security Agency to evade existing law and systematically conduct wiretaps against terrorism suspects on U.S. soil without warrants.

Even weaker is the administration's claim that Congress approved such wiretaps in its September 2001 resolution authorizing the use of force against terrorist organizations. Bush's interpretation is a dangerous inflation of congressional intent. It smacks of the way Lyndon Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to bully Congress into supporting him on Vietnam. That is no path to follow.

Bush's initial response was unpersuasive on why he failed to ask Congress to fix defects in the warrant system mandated in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. For four years, Bush simply set aside the provisions of this law, which grew out of the abuses of the Vietnam-Watergate era.

Most Americans are discovering the details if not the existence of this law for the first time in the controversy sparked by a story in the New York Times and Bush's combative response Monday. Inadvertently, Bush is educating his fellow citizens on civil liberties protections that many were unaware they had.

Count that as a contribution to American democracy. Better that Bush had done it deliberately, as part of a national discussion on the security needs of a struggle against global terrorism, as has been repeatedly urged in this corner. Americans, and Congress, clearly agree with Bush's goal of deterring attacks. He owes them a say on the methods to be used.

Similarly, Bush is unintentionally driving together a centrist group of responsible Republican and Democratic critics in Congress to pressure him -- to check and balance him, if you will -- on war policy, civil liberties, torture and other contentious issues.

Facing a veto-proof vote in Congress, Bush was forced to reach out to John McCain on banning torture. The president has begun to echo indirectly in his speeches and in his Iraq policy the thoughts of John Warner and Joe Biden. He has had to take into account, however reluctantly, Richard Lugar's concerns about the arrogance of power and its consequences abroad. None of this has harmed Bush or national security.

The president now must find common ground with Arlen Specter, Jane Harman and others to prevent the domestic surveillance controversy from undermining his attempt to pivot to a new agenda for the remainder of his presidency.

The kind of secrecy and obsessive concern about the powers of the presidency for their own sake that this administration showed even before Sept. 11, 2001, are inconsistent with the workings of American democracy, as well as with the fragmentation of power that marks the nation-state system today.

Bush has acted for five years as if he was not strong enough to compromise with or reach out to critics. But the generally positive response to Sunday's speech suggests that when Bush shows he is listening to them, others can hear him much better.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company