I don’t often agree with David Frum, but this time he’s managed to hit the nail squarely on the head:
Since Watergate, American politics has moved into a new era of the criminalization of politics. Special prosecutor begets special prosecutor in a cycle of reprisal that has by now embittered the lives of dozens of former administration officials in the two parties.
Until now, however, this revenge cycle has had one limit: It ends when the administration under attack ends. The Clinton administration did not prosecute Reagan and Bush officials; the Bush administration did not act against Clinton officials.
Now Obama is musing about extending the political reach of the criminal law. If he does so, he will find he has opened a new front of political warfare that will not soon end.
After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush drew a curtain of oblivion against all the errors and mistakes that had led up to the attacks. There was accusation and counter-accusation in the media, but at the official level there was no recrimination against President Clinton’s decision not to kill bin Laden when he had the chance, no action against those who had failed to stop the 9/11 hijackers from entering the country.
If Obama proceeds to take legal action against those who did what they thought was right to defend the country, all that will change. Prosecutions launched by Obama will not stop when Obama declares “game over.” If overzealousness under Bush becomes a crime under Obama, underzealousness under Obama will become a crime under the next Republican president.
Revenge will be exacted for revenge, the costs of government service will escalate, mobilizing cross-party support will become practically impossible for any important action, and the political life of the American republic will take another step toward the play-for-keeps destructiveness of the last days of the Roman republic.
I would say that most of us know how the Roman republic (more commonly known as the Roman Empire) ended, but given the way schools teach history, perhaps that would be wrong. If you’re not familiar with that story, perhaps starting here or here.
Anyway, back to President Obama’s apparent desire to criminalize political disagreement… it certainly smacks of certain unsavory regimes, such as Soviet Russia (and to some extent, modern day Putin’s Russia), North Korea, Iran, and so on. It also sounds a lot like opening Pandora’s box or even a simple can of worms; once it’s open, it will be nearly impossible to return to the way things were before. An argument could be made that Watergate was the first crack in opening that can of worms (to settle on one metaphor), but regardless of when it started or who started it, there’s no excuse for opening it any further just to extract political revenge for a difference of opinion.