Sunday, February 19, 2006

Democratic Reconstitutionalization

Every year a junior Senator is told off to read George Washington’s Farewell Address on President’s Day. The Senate chamber is customarily empty for the exercise. This year, the words rang with a certain heavy relevance.

It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.

Wow! What fighting populist rhetoric from a stiff-necked American aristo!

Them ol’ Constitutional-type goats was pretty skeered of another King. But they didn't like legislative supremacy either. They'd seen Britain and the Colonies live through both imbalances in the hundred years previous to our revolution, what with Charlie the Once getting beheaded and then the Cromwealth afterwards. So they thought about this separation of powers stuff a lot more than our generation does.

Now the Dems have a chance to do unto the Republicans what the Rethugs have long done to them: solemnly admonish them, saying piously, "We only want to return to the way the American people have been used to being governed. We're not radicals, not even reformers, we just need to go back to the regular way after all the weird, deranged, sick innovations with which you Rethugs tried to justify your lying, spying, torture and corruption." (Sad wagging of head, a la the faux-folksy style of Reagan the Great Prevaricator.)

And absolutely every Dem running for House or Senate in 2006 ought to be practicing that stance in front of a mirror.

The sharp-edged Meteor Blades brings up Eisenhower's farewell address, wishing a Senator would read it aloud on the floor once a week. Noble thought.

Eisenhower's speech was written by Norman Sherman, a Minnesotan. Here's what another Minnesotan, the late Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, had to say about Presidential Farewell Addresses on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1996.

I've looked at farewell addresses. There's only two that get much attention. They haven't really had much impact.

One was George Washington's. He warned us against factions, and the development of political parties. And he was supported by John Adams, who said that the worst thing we could have under our constitution was to have two strong political parties controlling our politics. And two hundred years later, in '74-'75, why, we formalized what Adams said was the worst thing we could have, by legalizing the Republican party and the Democratic party in the federal election law.

The second farewell address to receive attention was Eisenhower's. That was when he warned us of the existence of the military-industrial complex. He didn't tell us that it was developed while he was president. If he'd have given it in his Inaugural Address - if he'd quoted deTocqueville and said, "What we've got to look out for is the development of a military-industrial complex," it would have been a great speech. But to come on when he was leaving and to say, "I just want you to know what we've left you, and you'd better beware of it ..."

And we are aware of it, but it's almost too late do anything about it. We'd cut the defense budget to fifteen billion dollars in 1950-51, before the Korean War. During the war it went up to forty [billion] and it never came down. Fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, a hundred, two hundred, three hundred billion dollars a year, and it was built into the system in the roughly eight years of the Eisenhower presidency. So, no farewell address, just to remind you of how inappropriate they are.

The full text of McCarthy's remarks is at the Progressive Populist's site.

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