To Halt Executive Power, We Need Another Watergate.

On Twitter, after Julian Sanchez floated the possibility of GOP opposition to the Obama administration's push for Internet wiretaps, Matthew Yglesias made a funny -- but correct -- prediction about the likely path for civil liberties and executive power:

My prediction: Continued erosion of civil liberties --> massive Nixon-style political abuse scandal --> restoration of civil liberties.

The RNC's mild criticism of the Obama administration notwithstanding, there isn't much of a political coalition for civil liberties, and as I wrote yesterday, that's likely to be true for the foreseeable future. But as Yglesias points out, this could change if some president decides to use his power for political gain; as long as the state directs its surveillance powers at "bad guys," most Americans don't really care about the precedent it sets or the damage it does to the Constitution. As we saw with Nixon, though, the system will react -- strongly -- if those powers are used for political advantage. After all, it's not as if Nixon pioneered government surveillance; it was operative throughout the 1950s and 1960s. But Nixon's abuses -- through Watergate and its cover-up -- created the space for political opposition, which sparked a successful move to put strict limits on the government's ability to exercise its surveillance powers.

Politicians are intensely self-interested creatures, and eventually, someone will use the executive's powers in an attempt to sabotage his opponents. And when the story leaks, the subsequent backlash will almost certainly push Congress to restore lost civil liberties and build new ways to restrict executive authority.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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