There were ethics revelations, lessons and cautionary tales in last night’s final debate before the Iowa Caucuses. The envelopes, please!
The Boy Who Cried Wolf Award
Winner: Rep. Michelle Bachmann
Bachmann twice protested that she was constantly being accused of not having her facts right, when she really did. This is a hard lesson for people like Bachmann, but she might as well learn it now: when you habitually make factual errors and then deny that you made them, people aren’t going to trust you to be responsible with your claims or to be telling the truth. Nobody has spun as many whoppers and jaw-droppers as Bachmann in the last year, and nobody has more consistently tried to deny the truth when her misrepresentations were brought to her attention. Or to put it another way: once a candidate has claimed that 6th President John Quincy Adams, who was all of 8-years-old when the Declaration of Independence was signed, qualifies as “Founding Father,” nobody is going to credit your representation of “facts” whether they are accurate or not.
The Gabby Johnson Award
Winners (tie): Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul
Olson Johnson: [after Gabby Johnson’s incomprehensible speech] Now who can argue with that? I think we’re all indebedt to Gabby Johnson for stating what needed to be said. I am particulary glad that these lovely children are here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed the courage little seen in this day and age! [Blazing Saddles, 1974]
Authentic politician gibberish was the order of the evening, as Gingrich, Romney and Paul all engaged in inspired double-talk to avoid admitting the truth, or at least to muddy the waters and bore listeners so much that they ceased to care about the issues at hand. Gingrich’s Gabby Johnson moment was when he argued/blathered/spun that he wasn’t influence-peddling when he accepted over a million dollars to serve the interests of Freddie Mac. (He was.) Paul’s arrived when he shattered time, space, history and common sense to explain why it wasn’t dangerous to let Iran have nuclear weapons. (Loose translation: “Yes, I’m a pacifist, and I refuse to allow reality to encroach on my principles.”) And who can tell what Romney was trying to say, as he tap-danced about believing that gay Americans deserved to have all of a citizen’s rights, but he didn’t support gay marriage, or at least doesn’t now, since he’s suddenly a conservative? Whatever it was, Olsen Johnson would have said of it, “Now who can argue with that?”
The Bailey’s Retreat Award
Winner: Rep. Ron Paul
The award is named in honor of a great and obscure Bob and Ray skit, in which Bob interviewed Ray as a longshoreman with a junior high education who had published an epic history of the United States. “But your book is riddled with errors!” the interviewer protested. “Like here, on page 436, you say that Abraham Lincoln was born in 1936 in Bailey’s Retreat, Maine!”
During his fevered attempt to explain why the U.S. shouldn’t worry about the Iranians going nuclear, Paul cited the fact that we didn’t have a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War as evidence that our fears are overblown. Leadership, he said, is all that is needed, as when President Kennedy “talked Khrushchev” out of using his missiles against us during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is a fictional version of that close call with Armageddon, as most historians agree. In fact, the decision whether to start a nuclear exchange was out of Kennedy’s control, and only Nikita Khrushchev’s personal and courageous decision that a nuclear war would be too horrible prevented World War III in 1962. If any one of the rivals for Khrushchev’s position had been in power, this would probably not have been the result, and if the zealots running Iran had been confronting Kennedy, the missiles would have been launched. Rep. Paul was either misrepresenting history or is ignorant of it, both unacceptable in a presidential candidate.
Most Irresponsible and Unethical Position of the Debate
Winner (The Grand Prize!): Newt Gingrich
Any doubts about whether all those bad things people are saying about New Gingrich are really true were vaporized by Newt himself, when he doubled down on an earlier assertion that judges should be forced to appear before Congress to defend their decisions, that Congress should impeach judges who displease the legislators and frustrate the majority, and that offending courts should be eliminated. Gingrich claims to be a historian, yet in this exchange he alternately ignored, distorted and misrepresented history (and law) to make what can only be termed an reckless attack on the rule of law in the United States of America.
Gingrich, if he is the historian he claims to be, knows that his claim that the Founding Fathers intended the judicial branch of the federal government to be the weakest of the three is technically accurate but misleading and therefore deceitful. Their original concept of a passive judiciary survived all of 17 years, until Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, himself a Founder as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, handed down the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison, declaring that federal courts were empowered to reject acts by the legislature and the executive that violated the Constitution. [Full disclosure: There is a good chance that John Marshall is my distant relative.]
Newt got more dishonest as his attack on an independent judiciary—truly a bulwark of American freedom—continued. He cited Lincoln’s criticism of the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision of 1857 as support for his position, while simultaneously praising “original intent” as the proper standard for judicial readings of the Constitution. Again, this is either ignorant or dishonest. The Dred Scott decision, declaring that black slaves were not citizens under the Constitution, was a reasonable reading of the Constitution’s “original intent”…it was just morally wrong. The flip side of Gingrich’s argument would be Brown v. Bd. of Education, the high-water mark of a court “making law” against popular will. A more alert set of moderators would have challenged him regarding his attitude toward Brown.
Newt also invoked Franklin Roosevelt in his stated opposition to what Gingrich calls the “dictatorship of the courts,” another example of using redacted history to mislead the ignorant. FDR infamously tried to circumvent Newt’s beloved Constitution so a conservative Supreme Court couldn’t block his unprecedented expansions of presidential power. There is no question that Gingrich would have led the Republican chorus calling for FDR’s impeachment for his attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court, yet he had the gall to cite FDR’s actions approvingly, confident (and probably correct) that few in his audience knew what he was talking about. Busted, Newt!
Most cynical of all was Gingrich’s approving reference to President Thomas Jefferson eliminating courts and judges when he came into office, as if this was anything but pure political maneuvering on Jefferson’s part. The third president was trying to rid himself of the so-called “midnight appointees” of outgoing Federalist President John Adams, so Jefferson could replace them with his own political allies. This was the gambit that led to the establishment of judicial review—Marbury v. Madison—in the first place. Again, Gingrich used a historical reference deceptively, counting on audience ignorance, a favorite trick of Newt’s pal, Bill Clinton.
The collective message of his attack on the judiciary was worse yet, however. Gingrich, a supposed conservative, was advocating unlimited Presidential power, and Constitutional over-reaching by Congress as well, since only an independent judiciary keep their powers in balance. This self-styled historian would be well-advised to review the history of the Third Reich, in which German judges were intimidated into ratifying the worst atrocities of Hitler’s Nazis.
UPDATE: 12/19/2011: Over at Slate, Dahlia Lithwick, not normally one of my favorite commentators, delivers an excellent slap-down of Newt for his anti-judiciary follies here.