Draft introduction

Our political parties do not have clear and coherent positions on the nature of executive power. Though Democrats have roundly criticized this Republican administration’s effort to proclaim expansive powers for itself, the same parties took nearly opposite positions in the Clinton years. Many experts consider the expansion of executive power a multigenerational shift towards a stronger presidency that is unlikely to dramatically reverse itself with a new administration. Nonetheless, candidates seem to promise change.

The bipartisanship-or perhaps more accurately, shifting partisanship-of expanding executive power makes candidates’ positions appear contradictory. Democrats deplore Bush’s power grab and identify broader roles for Congress and the courts, but simultaneously endorse the expansive executive in principle. In his first major foreign policy speech last November, Obama spoke of the need for flexibility and strength in the executive: “We face real threats. Any President needs the latitude to confront them swiftly and surely.” In a speech on privacy and civil liberties last June, Clinton said nearly the same thing: “I believe that the president—and I mean any president—must have the ability to pursue terrorists and defend our national security with the best technology at hand.” Though he rejects elements of the Bush/Cheney doctrine, John McCain has a similar view of the need for a strong presidency: On the Senate floor in lead-up to the Iraq resolution, McCain asserted “there is one commander in chief, not 535 of them. Restricting the president’s flexibility to conduct military action against a threat that has been defined and identified makes the United States less capable of responding to that threat.” He sees a far more limited role for both Congress and the courts in executing the War on Terror than the Democrats.

Campaign speeches in which elements of constitutional thought are raised—around issues such as war authorization and funding, government secrecy, wiretapping, and foreign policy—reveal this inconsistency. Candidates may harshly criticize how President Bush has used presidential power, but they are not offering specific steps—nor, for that matter, explicitly asserting the need—for scaling back this power.


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