One of my biggest problems with the Bush presidency is his style. Once you get beyond the bad policies and the incompetent, politically motivated administration, he has the fundamental belief that the president ought to have the right to interpret the laws for himself; to charge forward with his policies and then to maybe work it out with Congress or the Courts after the fact if they complain too much. The current President hasn’t put himself above the law… just maybe on equal par with the law.
I find this incredibly troubling, in large part because it naturally leads to a dismissal of the law, even the most fundamental and precious laws of the land. Combined with our incredibly polarized political media coverage, I fear that this could be rapidly leading towards a breakdown in respect for the Constitution. After all, no matter what hair-brained theory the President concocts about the “true” meaning or scope of the Fourth Amendment or the right of habeus corpus or the President’s role as Commander-in-Chief, the media will always find a lineup of “conservative” analysts to agree with that interpretation. And the more you say it, the more people will start believing it.
For this reason, one of the most important things our next president should bring to the table is a fundamental respect for the Constitution as it has been interpreted over the last two hundred years, and for the limits of Executive power. This is an election where the measured, compromising approach to politics that the Senate seems to drill into people is a very good thing. And thankfully, most of the candidates seem to understand this need as well. It heartens me to see McCain make strong stands against torture, or Fred Thompson wax on about federalism and limits to Washington’s power. I like hearing Obama thoughtfully wrestle with issues, and I look back on her husband’s record and feel comforted that Clinton would have a profound respect for the Bill of Rights. It was for this reason that I actually liked hearing Romney say that he would consult with attorneys before reacting to a foreign policy crisis–as long as he chooses those attorneys because of their respect for the law and not because of their sycophancy.
In fact, the only candidate who I can tell right now fails to meet this criterion is Mayor Giuliani. He has a strong record of acting first and asking permission later; when he was in New York City, he often clashed with the City Council and even his own police and fire departments over policies that he wanted to implement prematurely. And then, periodically he says things like this:
“There were mistakes made with Bernie Kerik. But what’s the ultimate result for the people of New York City? The ultimate result for the people of New York City was a 74 percent reduction in shootings, a 60 percent reduction in crime, a correction program that went from being one of the worst in the country to one that was on ‘60 Minutes’ as one of the best in the country, 90 percent reduction of violence in the jails.”
In short: who cares if the police chief had mob ties and broke the law, as long as he reduced the crime rate.
That is certainly President Bush’s attitude, but it is also an attitude that is harmful for America. There are a lot of competent, good people in this world; you shouldn’t have to make the choice between an effective criminal or an ineffective innocent when it comes to something like the chief of police for the largest city in the country. And it’s not worth destroying the law to save it.
So find yourself a candidate who will respect the Constitution and the rule of law. There’s lots of them out there; don’t just settle on someone because he’s “electable”.