Plenty of evidence suggests that democratic norms are eroding and faith in democracy itself is decline. However, let’s not overlook some very healthy signs — not the least of which is a record turnout in the midterm elections.
First, votes are being counted in Florida, regardless of President Trump’s hugely inappropriate tweets trying to undermine that process. Both sides have access from the courts. There will be a final vote. Likewise, a final election result was determined in Arizona, and both sides — despite irresponsible comments from the National Republican Senatorial Committee — accepted the legitimacy of the vote count. We’re about to see a peaceful transfer of power in the House of Representatives. Even as some races are still being counted, both parties have accepted the results, even in very close races.
Second, we are seeing pushback from the right against the president’s lawless conduct. Fox News signed on to CNN’s lawsuit against the president over the revocation of Jim Acosta’s press pass. “Fox News supports CNN in its legal effort to regain its White House reporter’s press credential,” Fox News President Jay Wallace said. “We intend to file an amicus brief with the U.S. District Court.” Wallace continued, “While we don’t condone the growing antagonistic tone by both the president and the press at recent media avails, we do support a free press, access and open exchanges for the American people.” (The Post also joined about a dozen outlets in support of the suit and in vowing to submit amicus briefs.)
Likewise, in the legal arena, a new conservative legal group is picking up the slack in light of the Federalist Society’s near-total subservience to the White House, apparently in exchange for an outsized role in picking judges.
The New York Times reports that a group of conservative lawyers led by George T. Conway III have organized themselves to — gasp! — defend conservative legal principles that the president routinely shreds:
“Conservative lawyers are not doing enough to protect constitutional principles that are being undermined by the statements and actions of this president,” said John B. Bellinger III, a top State Department and White House lawyer under President George W. Bush.
The group, called Checks and Balances, was organized by George T. Conway III, a conservative lawyer and the husband of President Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway. In recent opinion articles, Mr. Conway has criticized Mr. Trump’s statements on birthright citizenship and argued that his appointment of Matthew G. Whitaker to serve as acting attorney general violated the Constitution.
In a simple statement of its principles, Checks and Balances declares: “We believe in the rule of law, the power of truth, the independence of the criminal justice system, the imperative of individual rights, and the necessity of civil discourse.” In a Trumpized GOP, those are fighting words. Maybe they’ll even embarrass the Federalist Society, in which these lawyers participate, into adhering to its legal philosophy rather than, by its silence, becoming enablers of a raft of attacks on the rule of law.
And finally, a bipartisan group has put out a meaningful list of proposals to reform and bolster democracy.
The National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy, led by such figures as former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, former Republican New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman and former Delaware senator Mike Castle (also a Republican), has put out a batch of ideas ranging from disclosure of presidents’ and vice presidents’ tax returns to legislative enforcement of the emoluments clause to reform of the Office of Government Ethics (giving it power to investigate and punish ethics violations). The task force also recommends extending certain ethics requirements to the president and vice president, empowering inspectors general, protecting special counsels and declaring self-pardons to be illegitimate.
Among its most important recommendations are new guidelines to restrict White House political appointees from politicizing the Justice Department: “… legislation should require each administration to identify specific officials, in both the White House and the relevant enforcement agencies, who are authorized to communicate about individual law enforcement matters. This will send a strong message that Congress believes limitations on White House influence are critical to impartial law enforcement. . . . Require law enforcement agencies to maintain a log of contacts with the White House pertaining to specific civil or criminal enforcement matters undertaken by the Justice Department or other federal agencies with enforcement authority.”
We would hope that Republicans and Democrats — maybe Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in the Senate (the latter of whom worked on the Honest Ads Act with the late Republican senator John McCain) — would take up these recommendations and pursue them in a bipartisan fashion.
Democracy is being stressed tested but has not buckled, at least not yet. We should welcome apolitical vote-counting, new interest by the right in enforcement of constitutional norms, and bipartisan efforts to shore up our democracy. Let’s hope others see the merit in and positive attention of such efforts.