When the New York Times editorial board rebukes Democrats for perverting the criminal justice system in a political attack against a Republican, the shark has well and truly been jumped. This is an editorial board that is not exactly known for its even-handed consistency when it comes to political attacks, and which spends most of its political effort hailing Democrats for doing the same things it laments when Republicans do them. In fact, today’s editorial spends most of its time calling Texas Governor Rick Perry the worst thing since New Coke, while bookending their scolding by reminding Texas Democrats that politics isn’t a crime:
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is one of the least thoughtful and most damaging state leaders in America, having done great harm to immigrants, abortion clinics and people without health insurance during his 14 years in office. But bad political judgment is not necessarily a felony, and the indictment handed up against him on Friday — given the facts so far — appears to be the product of an overzealous prosecution. …
Governors and presidents threaten vetoes and engage in horse-trading all the time to get what they want, but for that kind of political activity to become criminal requires far more evidence than has been revealed in the Perry case so far. Perhaps Mr. McCrum will have some solid proof to show once the case heads to trial. But, for now, Texas voters should be more furious at Mr. Perry for refusing to expand Medicaid, and for all the favors he has done for big donors, than for a budget veto.
One has to read this editorial to appreciate the angst it engendered in the Gray Lady’s panel of handwringers. It’s an expert lesson in the use of weasel words. They are declarative on Perry being “one of the most damaging state leaders in America” despite having won enough confidence from Texans to serve four consecutive terms running their state government. On the other hand, the “ill-advised veto” only “doesn’t seem to rise to the level of a criminal act.” The voters of Texas should be “furious” at Perry for opposing Medicaid expansion, but Rosemary Lehmberg should only “los[e] her credibility as a prosecutor of drunk-driving cases” for threatening to get police officers fired for arresting and booking her for her DWI. And so on.
Unfortunately, the abuse of power on this episode cannot escape even their notice, which is why they waggled their finger at Texas Democrats today. That should serve as a warning, because it’s no secret that Democrats take their cues from the New York Times, and this means that they will be very much on their own. If the Times editorial board won’t run interference for them, they’re not going to have any political cover at all.
By the way, Tom Delay told everyone yesterday, “I told you so.” Delay had been convicted of corruption based on a prosecution from the same public-integrity unit, which eventually got overturned by a higher court — one not in Travis County, Delay points out. Republicans need to push this function into the state Attorney General’s office to prevent future abuses of power, he advises. In fact, Delay believes that this indictment demonstrates a “conspiracy” by Democrats to abuse power and smear Republicans for electoral advantage, and not just in Texas:
DeLay told Fox News on Monday that he wanted Perry to do more to dismantle the agency and that for years he has openly questioned its constitutionality, arguing in part that the district attorney in charge is locally elected but has statewide jurisdiction.
DeLay said Monday he cannot prove that Washington Democrats are trying to knock Perry out of the 2016 race but added the situation reminded him of when House Democrats Nancy Pelosi, of California, and Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, were trying to drum him out of Congress in the mid-1990s.
“Democrats love what’s going on,” he said. “They used the legal system to take me out. It is a conspiracy to use the legal system to criminalize politics.”
DeLay also offered words of advice to Perry.
“You better take this seriously,” he said. “All of the judges are Democrats. And we polled 300 jurors, and the best I got was a Green Peace activist.”
Maybe that’s why the Gray Lady is distancing itself from the debacle.
The Washington Post’s editorial board struck a much more convincing chord:
It’s true that the case revolves around bare-knuckled tactics by Mr. Perry (R). Last year, he threatened to veto $7.5 million in funding for the prosecutorial unit in Austin that investigates public corruption, unless that unit’s boss, an elected Democratic district attorney, resigned. That was bound to be controversial, given that the office was looking into the purported diversion of state cancer research funds to Mr. Perry’s political allies — and that Mr. Perry would appoint a successor. However, the governor acted only after the Travis County district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, was caught on video committing a pretty spectacular drunk driving offense that eventually cost her 45 days in jail. Many people would find it reasonable to pursue the ouster of such a person from such a position. When Ms. Lehmberg refused to go, Mr. Perry carried out his veto.
What everyone should recognize is that this particular kerfuffle fell within the bounds of partisan politics, which, as the saying goes, ain’t beanbag. The grand jury, however, would criminalize Mr. Perry’s conduct by twisting the pertinent statutes into a pair of pretzels. The indictment contends that vetoing funding for Ms. Lehmberg’s unit violated a Texas “abuse of official capacity” law against the knowing “misuse” of government funds with intent to “harm another.” Even more implausibly, the indictment characterizes the mere threat of a veto as “coercion of a public servant,” even though the relevant law pretty clearly wasn’t intended to cover a governor’s exercise of his constitutional powers. By the weird logic of the indictment, Mr. Perry would have been in the clear if he had simply vetoed the funding without threatening to do so first. …
Of course, public servants should be held to a higher standard. But criminal prosecution is not always the appropriate remedy for dubious or despicable behavior by those in power, especially not where the relevant law is not clearly applicable. Political abuses call for political accountability, which is why we have media exposure, elections and impeachment. Mr. Perry is not a candidate for reelection; his term ends in a few months. Perhaps some of those in Texas who back his indictment hope to derail his reported plans for another run at the presidency in 2016. If so, they are going about it the wrong way.
The NYT editorial did manage to work in Lehmberg’s threats to police officers, which the Post’s editorial missed, but otherwise sounds a lot more convincing.
Update (AP): Yikes.