It has been a favorite trope of the Bush-bashers: The 43d president's power-lust is so insatiable, his disdain for constitutional checks and balances so complete, that he has fashioned himself into a dictator. Crackpots can always be counted on to say such things, of course, but even non-loonies have played fast and loose with the D-word.
"In terms of the power he now claims without significant challenge," Michael Kinsley asserted in 2003, "George W. Bush is now the closest thing in a long time to dictator of the world." When it emerged that the National Security Agency was sifting telephone records for possible counterterrorism leads, CNN's Jack Cafferty fumed that the administration intended to establish "a full-blown dictatorship in this country." In a recent piece for the Times of London, Andrew Sullivan informs us that "in war and economic crisis, Bush has insisted that there is no alternative to dictatorial rule."
Well, overwrought cries of "Dictator!" are an old story in American politics. Presidents great and not-so-great have been slammed as "tyrant" and "dictator," not to mention "autocrat," "Caesar," and "slavemaster." Somehow the Republic survived their administrations. Chances are, it will survive the Bush years too.
Bush as a ruthless autocrat? It would be easier to take the idea seriously if it weren't for the omnipresent clamor of voices denouncing the man. Tyrants have a way of squelching public dissent and intimidating their critics. Whatever else may be said about the Bush administration, it has never cowed its opponents into silence. If anything, the past eight years have set new records in vilifying a sitting president: "Bush = Hitler" signs at protest rallies; Crude "Buck Fush" bumper stickers; a 2006 movie depicting Bush's assassination; The New Republic's cover story on "The Case for Bush Hatred." The denunciation has been unending and often unhinged, yet Bush has never tried to censor it.
Will we be able to say the same of his successor?
If opinion polls are right, Barack Obama is cruising to victory. As president, would he show the same forbearance as Bush in allowing his opponents to have their say, unmolested? Or would he attempt to suppress the free speech of those whose views he detested? It is disturbing to contemplate some of the Obama campaign's recent efforts to stifle criticism.
When the National Rifle Association produced a radio ad last month about Obama's shifting position on gun control, the campaign's lawyers sent letters to radio stations in Ohio and Pennsylvania, urging them not to run it - and warning of trouble with the Federal Communications Commission if they did. "This advertisement knowingly misleads your viewing audience," Obama's general counsel Bob Bauer wrote. "For the sake of both FCC licensing requirements and the public interest, your station should refuse to continue to air this advertisement."
Similar lawyer letters went out in August when the American Issues Project produced a TV spot exploring Obama's strong ties to former Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers. Station managers were warned that running the anti-Obama ad would be a violation of their legal obligation to serve the "public interest." And in case that wasn't menacing enough, the Obama campaign also urged the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation.
In Missouri, an Obama "truth squad" of prosecutors and other law-enforcement officials vowed to take action against anyone making "character attacks" on the Democratic candidate - a threat, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt later remarked, that had about it the "stench of police state tactics."
Perhaps these efforts to smother political speech are simply the overly aggressive tactics of a campaign in its adrenaline-fueled sprint to the finish. But what if they are the first warning signs of how an Obama administration would deal with its adversaries?
Michael Barone, the esteemed and judicious author of "The Almanac of American Politics," fears the worst. "In this campaign," he writes, "we have seen the coming of the Obama thugocracy . . . We may see its flourishing in the four or eight years ahead."
Pray that Barone is wrong. The nation's political life is toxic enough when the president is falsely labeled a dictator. It would be infinitely more poisonous if the label were true.