How a ‘Committed Partisan Warrior’ Came to Rethink the Political Wars


Once, after he executed a particularly tough-minded legal attack on Republicans, Bob Bauer remembers, a conservative magazine called him an “evil genius.” He took it as a compliment. “I was very proud of that,” he said. “I thought, That’s cool.”

For decades, Democrats have turned to him as their lawyer to wage battles against the opposition. Reverse a House race they seemingly lost? Accuse the other side of criminal activity? Go to court to cut off Republican money flows? Find a legal justification for an ethically iffy strategy? Mr. Bauer was their man.

But now Mr. Bauer, the personal attorney for President Biden and previously the White House counsel for President Barack Obama, is looking back and rethinking all that. Maybe, he says, that win-at-all-costs approach to politics is not really conducive to a healthy, functioning democracy. Maybe, in taking the “genius” part to heart, he should have been more concerned about the “evil” part.

In a new book, “The Unraveling: Reflections on Politics Without Ethics and Democracy in Crisis,” to be published on Tuesday, Mr. Bauer takes stock of what he sees as the coarsening of American politics and examines the tension between ethical decisions and the “warrior mentality” that dominates the worlds of government and campaigns today. And in the process of thinking about what went wrong, Mr. Bauer, who calls himself a “committed partisan warrior,” has stopped to wrestle with his own role in the wars.

“I tell stories that go from sort of youthful peccadilloes to more significant mistakes I think that I made as I thought about what it meant to win a policy or win an election, about how far you go to do that,” he said on a recent evening at the New-York Historical Society, where he discussed the book.

“How do we make the politics better?” he asked. “How do we uphold our democratic norms by focusing on choices that people in positions of public responsibility have to make? And how do we make them in a way that is respectful of those norms and respectful of those institutions — as opposed to politics as blood sport, whatever it takes?”

This has become an era of blood sport in politics, put on steroids by former President Donald J. Trump, who accuses opponents of treason, suggests executing people he deems disloyal, promises to pardon the violent marauders of Jan. 6, 2021, and vows to make “retribution” the mission of a second term if he wins. Just last week, he sent out a fund-raising email with the subject line “My plan for revenge.”

Mr. Bauer makes the point, though, that while Mr. Trump is the extreme version of what politics has become, past attempts to push the boundaries of propriety made it “easier for the demagogues to come along” and threaten the political system. Long before Mr. Trump’s ascendance, he said in an interview, people in both parties began giving in to the impulse “to treat your adversary as your enemy and to destroy it.”

Mr. Bauer does not really come across as an evil genius. No one would confuse him with Lee Atwater. He is thoughtful and polite, strong but not known for the sort of performative anger that is common in politics today. Bearded and bespectacled, he looks the part of the law school professor that he has become at New York University. People who have worked with him over the years consider him extremely ethical.

He does not remember what he did that got him branded an evil genius. But he does remember the inordinate pleasure he took in the appellation, and that is the point. Winning mattered too much. “Somebody in these conversations has to say, ‘We owe voters better than this,’” he said in the interview. “We don’t have to do this to win.”

Mr. Bauer speaks from experience. As Mr. Biden’s personal counsel, he plays a major role in the current power structure, alongside his wife, Anita Dunn, a senior White House adviser. Mr. Bauer has helped the president navigate some of the most delicate moments of the last few years, most notably the investigation by the special counsel Robert K. Hur into Mr. Biden’s mishandling of classified documents. Mr. Hur brought no criminal charges, but issued a report describing Mr. Biden as a “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

Mr. Bauer has had a role in most of the significant political-legal wars of the last few decades, representing Democratic Party organizations and candidates, advising House and Senate Democratic leaders during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment battle and serving as Mr. Obama’s campaign lawyer and later White House counsel.

In the last few years, though, Mr. Bauer retired from his law firm, Perkins Coie, and increasingly turned his energies to finding ways to fix the system, working with Republicans like Benjamin Ginsberg and Jack L. Goldsmith. Among other projects, he advised lawmakers who revised the Electoral Count Act in 2022 to make clear that no vice president can single-handedly overturn an election, and he guided a bipartisan group that in April recommended changes to the Insurrection Act to limit presidents’ power to deploy troops to American streets.

Mr. Ginsberg, a longtime election lawyer who represented George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, among others, before breaking with the Republican Party over its support for Mr. Trump, said that Mr. Bauer was always “an ethical, principled guy” who managed to zealously represent his clients without crossing lines that should not be crossed.

“We’ve been battling each other for 40 years on stuff, and it’s always important, he knew, to fight fiercely for your candidate,” Mr. Ginsberg said. “But his concept of the rule of law is that the process works best if you have fierce partisans on each side but with an appreciation for the democratic process, institutions and norms.”

Mr. Goldsmith, a former Bush Justice Department official who wrote a book with Mr. Bauer in 2020 called “After Trump,” about ways to reform the presidency, expressed admiration for Mr. Bauer’s willingness to engage in introspection. “What is remarkable is his ability to rise above his past tasks to be candid, self-reflective and penetratingly insightful in diagnosing some of the deepest problems in our politics,” he said.

Mr. Bauer’s new book recounts experiences that look different to him now. There was the time he helped House Democrats overturn Indiana’s certification of a Republican candidate’s victory and put a Democrat in office. Then there was the time he tried to get the Internal Revenue Service to intervene in elections by penalizing campaigns for negative advertising. And there were the times he accused a Republican House leader of racketeering and rival Democrats of criminal campaign violations.

“I’m willing to take ownership of things I have said publicly and things I have urged as courses of action that in retrospect I recognize reflected a hearty commitment to success but would have been ill-advised,” Mr. Bauer said in the interview.

He has come to believe that politics does not have to be this way. “I reject the premise that a tough politics has to be a politics indifferent to these concerns” about ethics and institutions, he said. “That’s preposterous, to think that we have to do whatever it takes. It’s extremely dangerous.”

None of that, he said, means that Democrats — or, for that matter, Republicans — should go soft. Mr. Bauer has not given up the wars. He just plans to wage them more ethically — and engage the other side between battles.

“I continue to remain a Democrat,” he said. “I’m going to play as active a role as I can in the 2024 campaign. But having said that, I am trying to suggest that you can be hard-charging and successful and at the same time be thoughtful about the effect of your choices on the health of democratic life and institutions.”

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