Candidate Views on Presidential Power

The media spends far too much time on the horse race as opposed to issues, and when it does look at issues they tend to concentrate on superficial articles about the issues chosen by the candidates to concentrate on. The Boston Globe has an excellent article where they researched the views of the candidates on an important issue which has received far too little attention–the views of limits on presidential power. Republicans support a much greater degree of power for the president with the exceptions of John McCain and Ron Paul. The Democrats show far more respect for the Constitution than the other Republicans but Clinton and Edwards do indicate less respect for limiting presidential powers than the other Democrats.

John McCain, despite my many disagreements with him on issues from the Iraq war to social issues, is increasingly looking like the sanest of the Republican candidates. In addition to being only one of two to show any respect for the Constitutional limitations on the power of the president, he has opposed torture, does not deny the scientific consensus on climate change, and he has tangled with the religious right in the past. Three Republicans, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee refused to answer at all but Giuliani did provide this statement:

The President must be free to defend the nation. While the Congress has an essential constitutional role in our national defense, the Supreme Court has also recognized that the president has certain core constitutional responsibilities to ensure that our nation can defend itself and our fundamental liberties in times of emergency. Controversies on this question are as old as our Constitution, and have been faced by many of our most respected presidents, and they will not disappear even after we have succeeded in the war that terrorists have declared on our citizens and homeland. Our aim must be to strike a balance between order and liberty that addresses the challenges we face within the bounds of the Constitution.

Giuliani’s failure to respond to specific questions on the limits of executive power will only contribute to the view of him as an authoritarian, which is even shared by many conservatives who are concerned about civil liberties, as is seen in the cover graphic above.

Mitt Romney at least agreed to answer but he took positions quite similar to those of the Bush administration. His support for Bush’s misuse of executive power is seen when he responds to one question by writing, “The Bush Administration has kept the American people safe since 9/11. The Administration’s strong view on executive power may well have contributed to that fact.”

Among the Democratic candidates, Clinton and Edwards came out as the weakest. The Globe notes that “Among the Democrats, only former North Carolina senator John Edwards refused to say that he would be bound to obey a law limiting troop deployments.” On Clinton they note, “Clinton, a veteran of congressional investigations of her husband’s administration during the 1990’s, embraced a stronger view of a president’s power to use executive privilege to keep information secret from Congress than some rivals.”

Barack Obama’s experience as a professor of Constitutional law is reflected in the thoughtfulness of his answers, showing that there are factors beyond experience in government which matter. While most of the Democratic candidates would outright eliminate presidential signing statements, Obama best understood the issue as he responded:

Signing statements have been used by presidents of both parties, dating back to Andrew Jackson. While it is legitimate for a president to issue a signing statement to clarify his understanding of ambiguous provisions of statutes and to explain his view of how he intends to faithfully execute the law, it is a clear abuse of power to use such statements as a license to evade laws that the president does not like or as an end-run around provisions designed to foster accountability.

I will not use signing statements to nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law. The problem with this administration is that it has attached signing statements to legislation in an effort to change the meaning of the legislation, to avoid enforcing certain provisions of the legislation that the President does not like, and to raise implausible or dubious constitutional objections to the legislation. The fact that President Bush has issued signing statements to challenge over 1100 laws – more than any president in history – is a clear abuse of this prerogative. No one doubts that it is appropriate to use signing statements to protect a president’s constitutional prerogatives; unfortunately, the Bush Administration has gone much further than that.

In contrast to many such thoughtful statements by Obama, Edwards’ answers center around attacking George Bush as opposed to demonstrating real understanding of the issues or a real commitment to limiting executive power, as might be expected from one of the authors of the Patriot Act. Curiously Edwards did not even answer the question as to why it is important for presidential candidates to answer questions regarding the power of the presidency.

This question would seem to play to Ron Paul’s strengths, but in reading his answers compared to the answers of Obama and others we see that Paul is not an especially deep thinker. When he takes the default position on all issues that the federal government and virtually all of its actions are wrong he is bound to frequently be right. I’ve noted in previous posts that, despite his reputation for being a defender of the Constitution, he defends a version of the Constitution which is far different from what the founding fathers envisioned and he misinterprets it in a manner to support his personal views. Paul’s misconceptions about the Constitution, as well as many of his bizarre economic views, are more understandable in his response to the question to identify the campaign’s advisers for legal issues. Paul responded, “I don’t have specific advisers, whether it’s economic or foreign policy, we don’t assign advisers, nor have we hired anybody.” That certainly is apparent in many of his views.

Paul also had difficulty with another question:

Well, but the Constitution only has force on US soil, right, so the question is what happens when he is operating overseas? Do these other instruments bind him if the Senate has ratified them?

If he’s overseas and the treaty is in effect and would protect human rights — see I keep thinking well we shouldn’t be over there. So if we’re there — and I can’t see myself being over there – well, okay, the answer would be that he would have to obey the treaty.

While I agree with Paul with regards to Iraq, this is another case of Paul only being right because he opposes all foreign military action. Even most opponents of the Iraq war recognize that there are times when military action is justified, such as in World War II and in response to al Qaeda in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attack. Surprisingly Paul also differs from the Democratic candidates in disagreeing with the authority of Congress to place limits by statute on the president’s actions saying, “I do not like to vote for, and have voted against, micromanaging troop movements.”

After reading through this article and the answers submitted by the candidates I was definitely most impressed by Barack Obama, the second tier Democratic candidates who once again show they deserve more consideration than they are receiving, by John McCain for at least distinguishing himself from the other major Republican candidates, and especially by The Boston Globe for addressing this important issue.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    Vicki Hampton says:

    The issues are exactly what Giuliani’s problem is.The $400,000.00 worth of security problems and personal problems have finally outshined the “supposed” security experience of 9/11.When it comes to comparing McCain and Giuliani there is a big difference between cleaning up after a 9/11 and preventing a 9/11.There is just so far Giuliani can ride that 9/11 train.

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