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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Little Free Advice

Russ Feingold, Dick Cheney
There's no shortage of people willing to give incoming president Barack Obama advice. Even Readers Digest has gotten in on the action with advice ranging from the jaw-droppingly hypocritical (Karl Rove advises him to "encourage debate") to the solid (former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says, "Restate the Case For U.S. Leadership Abroad"). I always say that free advice is often worth only what you paid for it. Luckily, the advisee's under no obligation to take it.

For a great example of worthless advise, we can turn to the reclusive Vice President Dick Cheney. Many believe Dick's the power behind the throne, the real president using Bush as a figurehead. I think it's probably a little more complicated than that, but the portrayal's probably true enough for brevity. George can barely manage the English language, so someone's doing all the mental heavy lifting in the Bush administration. That someone seems to be Dick.

The problem, of course, is that while Cheney's more articulate than Bush, he's not any smarter. He just thinks he is. If Cheney's as hands-on as everyone believes he is, then he shares the blame for what a freakin' disaster George W's two terms have been. For example, Cheney -- like the rest of the neocons gathered around the White House -- thought invading Iraq was the best idea anyone ever had. No matter what you think about the idea that Dick Cheney's the true leader of the Bush White House, everyone agrees that he plays the part of a top adviser, at the very least. So recent history shows that we can put Dick's free advice in the "worth what you paid for it" column.

To get an idea of just how poor Dick's advice can be, we can look at his interview with Rush Limbaugh yesterday, See, the vice president will not sit down with anyone who's likely to ask him difficult questions and no one else is guaranteed to throw softballs the way Rush did.

We get our info from The Hill, because we don't want to send traffic Limbaugh's way unless we have to:

Vice President Cheney predicts that Barack Obama will be grateful for the state of presidency he inherits from President Bush.

And while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other congressional Democrats have repeatedly criticized Bush for grabbing power, Cheney argued that Obama, the Democratic president-elect, will be glad of it.

“My guess is, once they get here and they’re faced with the same problems we deal with every day, that they will appreciate some of the things we put in place,” said Cheney Monday in a telephone interview with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.

"I think the Obama administration is not likely to cede that authority back to the Congress," he said. "I think they’ll find that given a challenge they face they’ll need all the authority they can muster." So, Dick's advice to Obama is to be as contemptuous toward the Constitution as he and George have been. You've got to wonder if he's been paying attention -- didn't Obama run against that sort of thing? There's no shortage of Republicans urging Obama to become more Republican, but Darth Cheney's advocating a complete 180 to the dark side. Somehow, I don't see that happening.

Then again, that was always Cheney's reasoning. It may be that his biggest project as VP was to expand presidential power beyond constitutional limits. Once a future president had those expanded powers, he thought, they wouldn't give them up. It's a lot easier to do things the wrong way, as opposed to the legal way. Convenience would tie future executives' hands.

But the flaw in his reasoning is that it hasn't been easier. Cover-ups are pretty labor-intensive. Once Dick got his expanded powers, he spent most of his time hiding from the law and the congress. In the end, all these handy-dandy executive powers Dick and George made up turned out to be more trouble than they're worth, resulting in bargain-basement approval ratings and a period of scandal, crime, and wide-spread distrust of government. I said before that Dick Cheney's probably not as smart as he thinks he is and the idea that doing things this way is easier than just abiding by the Constitution should prove that.

Better advice on how the president should view the Constitution comes from Sen. Russ Feingold. I've been saying that Barack Obama was my third choice for Democratic nominee, but I now realize he was my fourth -- Russ Feingold was my first choice, until he ruled a presidential run out pretty early. It's Feingold's advice to Obama that reminds me why I thought he'd make a very good president.

While you will face many difficult issues in the comings months and years, I want to raise one that I believe is critical for the presidential transition: restoring the rule of law. The countless abusive policies of the past eight years and the extreme legal theories on which they were based have left our nation weaker and our constitutional framework in a precarious position. In light of this recent history, I believe that one of the most important things that you can do as President is to take concrete steps to restore the rule of law in this country -- that is, to return to the White House respect for an appropriate separation and balance of powers among the branches, for the President's important but not paramount place in our constitutional system of government, for the laws that Congress writes and the importance of its oversight functions, and for the judiciary's crucial role in interpreting the law. I am sure that as a constitutional scholar you can appreciate that we must ensure that the Bush Administration's views of executive supremacy do not become so ingrained in our system of government that they become the "new normal."

I can actually abbreviate that a bit -- everything Dick Cheney believes about the Constitution and executive power is wrong. He's wrong when he says it's legal, he's wrong when he says it's desirable, and he's wrong -- in a simply practical sense -- when he says it works. It doesn't. We've seen the results of putting his theory into practice and it's turned the White House into a barely functioning legal fortress, repelling the attacks of law and reason. If you want to wind up like Bush, with approvals in the toilet and not a single accomplishment to speak of under your belt, you go ahead and take Cheney's advice.

On the other hand, if you want to actually get something done -- other than spend 24 hours a day cooking up creative legal arguments -- you go ahead and listen to Russ. That's my free advice Mr. President-Elect, as unasked for as anyone else's, but worth much more than Dick's.

Listen to Russ.