As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Obama Nails The Big Question

There was a good long interview with Barack Obama in today's Situation Room, and in it he addressed what I feel is the most crucial question facing the new President, Democratic or Republican, in 2008.

Over the past six years we have seen the fundamental destruction of American democracy in favor of an ideological theory of unitary executive power. This has essentially been the one organizing principle from which all the other scandals and incompetence and failed policies have spread. A unitary executive doesn't have to answer to Congress; doesn't have to answer to American allies; doesn't feel any need for accountability for the multitudes of bad hires and cronyism, doesn't need to consult with anyone else in the government over policy, and further is willing and able to use government offices for partisan purposes of aggrandizing the power of the executive. So really, the only question I have for the current crop of Presidential candidates is, "How do you understand the theory of the unitary executive, and will you follow the standard of executive power as set by the Bush Administration, or the standard set forth by the framers of the Constitution 230 years ago?"

Obama nailed this.

Here is the context: the discussion turned to the US Attorney scandal, and the White House's decision to use to the Justice Department to reward political allies and silence political enemies. Obama had no problem cutting to the core of the scandal in that way (maybe he's been reading ePluribus Media, and the Shields-Cragan study showing that local Democrats have been investigated by the DoJ five times as much as Republicans). Here's the relevant quote:

OBAMA: That is a fundamental breach of rule of law, and it's one of the reasons, by the way, that I voted against Alberto Gonzales, because I feel very strongly that he is someone who sees himself as the President's attorney and not the people's attorney.

Then Wolf Blitzer asked the question that I sought, albeit in the worst way possible, essentially asking if cracking down on official mal-administration and lying would affect his ability to mal-administrate and lie:

BLITZER: Are you worried that any steps you might take now would tie your hands if you were to become President?

OBAMA: I think that the issue of executive power and executive privilege is one that is subject to abuse, and in an Obama Presidency, what you will see will be a sufficient respect for law and the co-equal branches of government, that I hope we don't find ourselves in a situation in which we would be having aides being subpoenaed for what I think everybody acknowledges is some troublesome information out there.

Now, this is an obvious answer. And once you get into the Oval Office and you actually have all that power, it becomes a lot easier to compromise on these principles. But I would say that I have a great deal more belief in Obama's position on this than, say, Hillary Clinton, for example, who has a much cozier relationship with executive power by virtue of her past statements (I know it's the New Republican, but this is a fantastic article, with some great reporting):

In her October 2002 speech explaining her vote for President Bush's war resolution, Hillary was clearly conflicted. She listed several reasons why war might be necessary, including the Iraqi chemical and biological arsenal--which she called "undisputed"--and her purported special perspective, as a New Yorker after September 11, on the "risks of action versus inaction." She also offered several counterarguments, including her fear that Bush might make a dangerous precedent of "preemption."

But, in concluding that she would support Bush, Clinton offered another rationale of a very different sort. She argued that she was inherently predisposed to grant the benefit of the doubt to a president asking Congress for support in matters of war. In the '90s, Clinton had watched congressional Republicans undermine her husband's foreign policy for political gain. They mocked his interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo--Tom DeLay called it "Clinton's war"--and they cried "wag the dog" when he launched a cruise-missile attack on Iraq in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. "[P]erhaps," Hillary mused in her floor speech, "my decision is influenced by my eight years of experience on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the White House, watching my husband deal with serious challenges to our nation. I want this president, or any future president, to be in the strongest possible position to lead our country in the United Nations or in war."

In short, Clinton was arguing that Congress should have an innate deference to presidential authority in matters of diplomacy and war. As she explained to ABC's George Stephanopoulos in December 2003, "I'm a strong believer in executive authority. I wish that, when my husband was president, people in Congress had been more willing to recognize presidential authority." To this day, when Clinton refuses to apologize for her war vote, she explains that she doesn't regret deferring to Bush's authority, but rather "the way he used that authority."

That is a view of executive power that does not much differ from the unitary executive of Bush; it can be said that the Bush and neocon theories are the logical outcome of what Clinton is asserting here. And I truly believe that the kind of deference to the executive demanded by these past Presidents is a slippery slope that leads us to where we are today.

So when the presumed chief challenger to Sen. Clinton makes such a forceful statement about how executive power must be tempered and how the rule of law must be respected, it makes for a stark contrast. I have not seen all of the candidates' views on this subject: here is Sen. Dodd's mention of the unitary executive theory, found during a Blue America live chat.

"President Bush and his lawyers adopted an expansive interpretation in their view of executive power, particularly in relation to the War on Terror and the conflict in Iraq. In fact, President Bush has cited the 'unitary executive' theory in several recent instances to override congressional provisions he finds objectionable. I am disturbed that the President has claimed, for himself, the authority to overrule the will of the Congress in passing its antitorture legislation--legislation which received the overwhelming support of congressional Members. This undermines the separation of powers and democratic principles."

That's a mild rebuke without connection to how Sen. Dodd would handle those theories, and even while Obama's answer is solid, I would like to see it fleshed out and role-played. In my view, the next President needs to completely rebuke this insane theory of government, and if they don't, our democracy will limp to an early grave. There is no greater threat to this republic than the notion of President-as-king. Good for Obama to come out so strongly.

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