Note: This review is for the original 2007 hardcover edition; A paperback version was released last month
Where did it all go wrong with a Republican Party that until two years ago ruled all branches of government and openly talked of enjoying a “permanent" majority in power? How and why did it become so pervasively corrupt, and ignorant of long established rules of law and governmental process?
That is what Nixon-era conservative (and now registered independent) John W. Dean has been diagnosing over the course of an “unplanned” trilogy of New York Times best-selling books during the Bush administration’s two terms: first came the Bush-and-Cheney-bashing Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush (2004). This was followed by Conservatives Without Conscience (2006), an in-depth examination of the party’s ruthless reign of power and how it radicalized the conservative movement he joined in the 1960s in the late Barry Goldwater’s hey-day. His latest, Broken Government (2007 hardcover, 2008 paperback) — named after the late 2006 CNN series of the same name — is an academic and at times angry examination of how hard-right Republicans corrupted all three branches of government.
At the outset, Broken Government is not a rejection of Republican ideals or true conservatism in general, which Dean has said is “cautious but prudent.” It is a rejection of his old party’s lack of respect for co-equal branches and “philosophical disposition toward the processes of government,” which they’ve abused in the name of power. In this respect, the book is different than other Republican books critical of its party’s policies, Kevin Phillips’ 2006 book American Theocracy in particular. It also finds Dean optimistic about our future, that hard-right rule is waning, and that at least one broken branch is currently being repaired. At the same time, Dean flatly states why America needs to punish “authoritarian conservatives” (neocons and social conservatives) who have let the president and vice president have all the unchecked and at times illegal authority they wanted in the name of national security and other areas. His main message? Don’t vote Republican this election cycle.
Before Dean gets knee-deep into the issues, in the book’s preface, he launches a preemptive strike aimed at Republican critics of his, saying that he has not become a “partisan for their enemies [Democrats]” and that he has no interest in either party remaining in power. His only concern is the “well-being of our government.” However, he sort of undermines these statements when writing that because Republicans have placed its own special interests ahead of those of the American people, the only viable alternative to restore our government to its proper functions is the Democrats, whom he says “any objective observer” would conclude puts the needs of the American public first and cares about running the government by its rules and Constitutional mandates. Dean is all but saying vote for a Democratic president and Congress. Thus, he does care who is in power.
Dean writes that although many political pundits and news organizations laugh off or ignore process issues in the federal government, democracy is all about process, people do care about it, and the press should cover it much more than they have over the last several years, the legislative process especially. [We need to know, for example, how major bills did or didn’t get signed into law.] Dean writes that some TV news crews — cable stations — and daily papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post do in fact cover it in great detail, and that bloggers and its ever exploding readership care about it as well. Process “is the mainstay of political reporting.” Right on.
“First Branch (Legislature): Broken But Under Repair”
While John Dean has seen and lived through typical partisanship in Washington, D.C. for over 40 years, he believes that conservative Republicans have taken it to extremes for the last 25 years or so, because it’s the only way they can win elections. He also believes that they fear liberals “operating fairly and equitably” and thus engage in such high partisanship to keep the power they have. Dean also writes that conservatives’ anti-government rhetoric makes it hard to actually govern when in power. Thus, a broken government resulted from its lax and ideological ways. All of this is debatable of course, but Dean makes a convincing argument here in more detail than I can analyze for this review
Dean writes that before Newt Gingrich (R-GA) came to town in the mid-1980s, Congress was the place where Republicans and Democrats would socialize with one another, at times get to know each others’ families, go on bipartisan congressional “fact-finding” trips overseas together, and not shut out opposite party members from high-level negotiations on major legislation for purely political and partisan reasons, which is what the GOP did, especially during Bush’s first six years in office. Gone too was the bipartisan socializing events and international trips that could have, if nothing else led to a more collegial atmosphere in D.C., as was the case in the distant past.
The 2003 Medicare overhaul bill is a prime example of how GOP strong-arm tactics and suspension of regular voting rules brought a bill thought to be dead back to light in the middle of a November night, with the support of the president. Dean writes that before the final vote, House Republican Bill Thomas threatened to cancel negotiations on the bill if Democratic conferees showed up to work out differences in the House and Senates’ bills – conference committees had always been bi-partisan. This is what Dean means about when writing about how “process” has been compromised by mega partisanship by Republicans in Washington.
But it isn’t all doom-and-gloom for Dean, as he saw how the Democrats, who won total control of the First Branch in the 2006 midterm elections, restored due process and checks-and-balances/oversight of executive power in the 110th Congress. He saw the House freeze billions of dollars worth of earmarks (which skyrocketed under Republican control over the years), require more transparency on them and clean up much of the fiscal mess the Republican-led House left behind. Restoring regular voting time limits to prevent last-second arm-twisting for votes (ex. Medicare bill) and a “pay-as-you-go” fiscal policy in the House was a welcome move, though Democrats have not stuck with it as time as gone on. Congress also went from having a criminally scant amount of oversight in previous Congresses to having boatloads of hearings and investigations, especially on the politicization of the Justice Department, the Iraq War and Afghanistan/War On Terror.
“Second (Executive) Branch: Broken And In Need Of Repair”
[Presidents set the tone for a whole party, and in that respect wish Dean put the following facts in this, the “Executive” section instead of the “Legislative” chapter of the book.]
Other valuable insights on how Washington became so partisan and divisive in recent years can be found in a study by Bush’s own 2000 campaign pollster Matt Dowd, who said that the “center of the electorate has collapsed.” It was given to Karl Rove when Bush was still president-elect and promising to “unite” the country. But Rove, using this study, convinced Bush to lead the way for partisans like former Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay (R-TX) divide the country for as long as they were in power. The strategy of using “wedge issues” to divide the electorate, originally coined by fellow Nixon-era conservative Pat Buchanan — for President Nixon and his “Southern strategy” of turning blue-collar Democrats into GOP voters — was again prominent in all the elections that followed: abortion, gay rights, religion and other culture issues were all or in part used by Republicans to win in the 2002 midterms, 2004 re-election of Bush and even the 2006 midterms (which backfired somewhat for the first time in recent memory).
“Third (Judicial) Branch: Toward The Breaking Point”
In brief, Dean makes compelling and explosive cases of how the late Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist and current member Clarence Thomas lied under oath multiple times during Senate confirmation hearings to get their jobs and is critical of how poorly both political parties have managed these hearings over the years. He also takes issue with not just the hard-right push of the federal judiciary since the Reagan and now Bush II years, but Republican use of it to achieve at the judicial level what they cannot in Congress – progress on social/cultural issues. Indeed, Bush has appointed over one-third of its members in his two terms, mainly social conservatives and also Federalist Society fans (ex. Samuel Alito). Dean fears a radical “fundamentalist” bloc of judges (a la Antonin Scalia) will use an outdated view of the Constitution to go easy on executive power and weaken free speech. He believes they (as opposed to liberal-minded judges) are the real judicial activists. But so far, judicial experts like Cass Sunstein have convinced Dean that the Supreme Court hasn’t gone too radical as of yet and hopes that a step-by-step conservative philosophy of power known as “minimalism” is what is guiding the High Court’s big decisions (ex. lifting of D.C. handgun ban).
Overall, Broken Government is an extremely well-researched book (200 pages of analysis, 332 pages total) and its over 60 pages of notes, ranging from government documents to political science studies to archived articles by every mainstream conservative, liberal and non-partisan source you can think of demonstrates this. The invaluable Appendix sections (A, B, C) reads as both a mini-history on how the Founding Fathers put together the three branches and as a structural criticism of how radical Bush lawyers like John Yoo’s views of the Constitution are wrong. The index is twenty-five pages long as well, which helps readers locate certain names and important themes of the book a little easier (i.e. “unitary executive theory,” “judicial fundamentalism”).
After reading this book front to back, you will be both more educated about, and likely less of a fan of the current Republican Party — like Dean himself — than you were before, whether you are in fact a conservative Republican, liberal or neither. And no doubt, John W. Dean’s hope is that enough people will be disgusted by Republican behavior that they vote them out of office. And if the McCain/Palin ticket does indeed get defeated come November 4th, he might well say, “Mission Accomplished.” But with Broken Government, you will understand better how our governmental processes work and the history behind them. Above all other reasons, that basic fact is why it deserves a permanent place in your book collection.