On the day of his booking on conspiracy and money laundering charges five years ago, disgraced House Majority Leader Tom Delay proclaimed, "Let people see Christ through me." Now a convicted felon, Delay isn't turning the other cheek but instead decrying "the criminalization of politics."
If that sounds familiar, it should. For over a generation, Republicans and their conservative amen corner have routinely brushed off charges of their own corruption and lawlessness by accusing their opponents of "criminalizing politics." From Iran-Contra, Plamegate and Tom Delay to the U.S. attorneys purge and the Bush regime of detainee torture, Republicans survived their endless scandals by instead successfully politicizing crime.
As the New York Times reported, Delay responded to his conviction by an Austin jury by deploying the "criminalization of politics" defense:
A few minutes later, Mr. DeLay said outside the courtroom that he would appeal the decision. He called the prosecution a political vendetta by Democrats in the local district attorney's office, and revenge for his role in orchestrating the 2003 redrawing of Congressional districts to elect more Republicans.
"This is an abuse of power," he said. "It's a miscarriage of justice. I still maintain my innocence. The criminalization of politics undermines our very system."
As it turns out, he's been saying the same thing for years.
As early as April 2005, a furious Delay declared of the ethic charges swirling around him, "Democrats have made clear that their only agenda is the politics of personal destruction and the criminalization of politics." Amazingly, that comment came before Delay's own October 2005 indictment in Texas for money laundering in association with his Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC).
Unsurprisingly, the conservative echo chamber rushed to Delay's defense and magnified his talking point. Days after Delay's indictment by District Attorney Ronnie Earle, Robert Novak penned a column titled "Criminalizing Politics", concluding:
'Democrats are ecstatic. The criminalization of politics may work, even if the case against DeLay is as threadbare as it looks."
No discussion of Robert Novak and the Republican redefinition of GOP crime as everyday political disagreements could be complete without a look the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. While neither Karl Rove nor others were ever charged with the technical and narrowly defined offense of revealing the identity of Valerie Plame to Robert Novak and others, Cheney chief-of-staff Scooter Libby was convicted by jury on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice. But for the familiar goose-steppers of the conservative ascendancy, Libby the felon too was a victim of the criminalization of politics.
The usual cavalcade of apologists for Republican law-breaking swarmed to Libby's defense. With his looming indictment in the fall of 2005, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison compared Libby to Martha Stewart, and offered a new variant of the Delay sound bite, the "perjury technicality." Hutchison said she hoped that:
"That if there is going to be an indictment that says something happened, that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn't indict on the crime and so they go to something just to show that their two years of investigation was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars."
Hutchison, of course, had plenty of company in offering the criminalization of politics canard in the CIA leak case. On October 14, 2005, Bill Kristol complained, "I am worried about what happens to the administration if Rove is indicted," adding, "I think it's the criminalization of politics that's really gotten totally out of hand." In succeeding days, Kristol's Fox News colleagues Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Stuart Varney and Chris Wallace joined the chorus singing from the RNC's criminalization of politics hymnal. On October 24th, Kristol took to the pages of the Weekly Standard to denounce a supposed Democratic strategy of "criminalizing conservatives." When Libby was later convicted, the Wall Street Journal editorial page called for a pardon. The WSJ cited grave dangers if the Libby verdict were to stand: "perhaps the worst precedent would be normalizing the criminalization of policy differences."
But with the inauguration of President Obama, the Wall Street Journal, Powerline and other stars in the right-wing constellation took the gambit one step further. Investigating potential war crimes by the Bush White House, they argue, is "criminalizing conservatism."
During his confirmation hearings in January 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder reassured Republican torture enthusiasts in the Senate when he declared "we don't want to criminalize policy differences that might exist" with the outgoing Bush White House. But with prosecution of the Bush torture team still a possibility after the release of the OLC memos and reports from the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, the Republican echo chamber quickly circled the wagons in defense of the indefensible.
In a scathing April 2009 editorial titled, "Presidential Poison," the Wall Street Journal went on the attack using the GOP's tried and untrue criminalizing politics canard:
Mark down the date. Tuesday, April 21, 2009, is the moment that any chance of a new era of bipartisan respect in Washington ended. By inviting the prosecution of Bush officials for their antiterror legal advice, President Obama has injected a poison into our politics that he and the country will live to regret...
Above all, the exercise will only embitter Republicans, including the moderates and national-security hawks Mr. Obama may need in the next four years. As patriotic officials who acted in good faith are indicted, smeared, impeached from judgeships or stripped of their academic tenure, the partisan anger and backlash will grow...
Mr. Obama is more popular than his policies, due in part to his personal charm and his seeming goodwill. By indulging his party's desire to criminalize policy advice, he has unleashed furies that will haunt his Presidency.
Of course, those furies were unleashed long before Barack Obama took the oath of office. But just in case Americans needed a reminder, former "blog of the year" Power Line similarly lashed out in a piece called "Criminalizing Conservatism." Rather than advising conservatives to try the novel approach to governing which excludes committing crimes, John Hinderaker warned that his persecuted right-wing partisans are rapidly becoming an endangered species:
"Many liberals don't just want to defeat conservatives at the polls, they want to send them to jail. Toward that end, they have sometimes tried to criminalize what are essentially policy differences...
President Obama and his party may achieve another objective by publicly making this kind of threat: deterring Republicans from serving in public life. For many Republicans considering whether to accept an appointment to government office, the prospect that they may be subjected to criminal prosecution if the next administration is Democratic could well tip the balance in favor of remaining in private life."
Columnist and Fox News regular Fred Barnes has been making that same bogus case for years. Whether the scandal involved Plamegate, federal prosecutors or even public broadcasting, Barnes played the same "criminalizing politics" card. And with the prospect of torture prosecutions, he's sounding like a broken record:
"Pat Leahy, the senator from Vermont, is one of the most partisan people in the history of politics, and certainly in Congress today. And what he wants is to criminalize policy differences...I think that's exactly the wrong thing to do."
Sadly for the cause of justice and the rule of law, President Obama seems to agree, giving the Bush torture team the equivalent of a get-out-of-jail free card:
"In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution...
This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."
Of course, if this conservative chorus sounds like it's singing from the same old hymnal, that's because it is. As it turns out, almost every episode of Bush administration wrong-doing has been rationalized using the same mantra.
Ironically, it was President Bush's father who introduced the criminalization of politics defense into the Republican strategic lexicon. In justifying his Iran-Contra pardons, President George H.W. Bush used the talking point that would come to define the discourse of his son's 21st century amen corner. Much like his son's defenders, Bush 41 sought to recast rampant Republican White House criminality as mere political disagreement:
Mr. Bush said today that the Walsh prosecution reflected "a profoundly troubling development in the political and legal climate of our country: the criminalization of policy differences."
The "criminalizing politics" canard has been part of the Republican scandal survival kit ever since.
Even for a conservative miscreant who, like Tom Delay, compares himself to Jesus Christ.
(Meanwhile in Washington, the new Republican majority in Congress led by inquisitor Darrell Issa is promising a perpetual witch hunt of the Obama administration. As Michele Bachmann put it, "I think that all we should do is issue subpoenas and have one hearing after another, and expose all the nonsense that has gone on." So much for decrying the criminalization of politics.)