Don’t think for a minute that Bush would be unwilling to ask his shiny new ultra-conservative Supreme Court to rewrite the power of the presidency, or that some sense of caution or principle would prevent the five-person conservative majority from granting his wish.

If Bush’s interpretation of executive privilege stands, the executive branch of our government will become effectively immune from oversight. Congress will have no meaningful ability to determine what is actually happening inside any office or agency. Presidents, cabinet secretaries, and staff throughout the government will have no incentive to obey laws, comply with directives, or provide truthful information of any kind.

It’s a horrifying prospect. Yet, in contrast with the national reaction to Nixon’s rejection of subpoenas, Bush’s imperial defiance has been greeted with a national shrug. Certainly there has been no suggestion that Bush’s actions constitute an impeachable offense — as Congress believed Nixon’s to be 23 years ago.

Perhaps we as a nation have become so accustomed to this administration’s lies and secrecy that it’s hard to muster a sense of outrage anymore. We’re just waiting for the White House door to hit Bush on the ass on his way out in January 2009. But by then, we may have lost our right to know what’s going on behind it.

Democrats must not back down. They should call for a vote to find Bush in contempt and use every tool in their power to force the issue, including the threat to withhold funds, shut down government operations, and even hold impeachment hearings.

They must also call on presidential candidates — of every party — to denounce Bush’s view of presidential power, and to pledge to honor congressional subpoenas if elected. The candidates have been disturbingly mute on this showdown, and they, along with Congress, should not be allowed to get away with it.

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