Barack Obama and Dick Cheney are squaring off in a grand debate about the character and the content of the American experiment.
Unfortunately, the U.S. news media, and much of the political class, is struggling to keep up. The same Washington elites that could not muster the energy for a serious discussion of holding the Bush-Cheney administration to account during a period of constitutional distress now dwells of personalities and strategems rather than the vital issue that is at hand.
We are told that the squabbling between the president and the former vice president has to do with enhanced interrogation and Guantanamo Bay. But those are footnotes to the real struggle.
This is a dispute about the extent to which a president is bound by his oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, and by the rules and regulations of a land where it has always been supposed that no man was above the law.
As such, it is the too-long delayed first gret constitutional debate of the 21st century.
The United States was founded as a constitutionally-defined republic.
Having broken the grip of a British monarch and his empire, the American revolutionaries set out to create a system of government that guarded against the imperial impulse.
They gave the first powers of government – those of lawmaking and the allocation of resources – to the legislative branch. The idea was that the many representatives of the people, pulling in directions dictated by personality, ideology and region, would reach a proper balance that could not be achieved by the executive branch.
Even this was considered insufficient protection, however. So the framers explicitly restricted the authority of the executive and afforded Congress the authority to impeach those any and all who exceeded that authority.
Neither the president nor the vice president was imagined at the founding of the republic as a policy maker. Both were expected to take their cues from Congress.
Well into the 20th century, the balance was maintained. But it began to be tipped as the executive, beginning with Harry Truman, assumed expansive warmaking powers. As the mid-20th century progressed, successive presidents expanded the reach and presumed authority of the executive branch; operating in secrecy, failing to consult Congress or to respect the rule of law. So evolved what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. characterized as “the imperial presidency.”
No American has been a more rabid exponent of the expansion of executive authority than Dick Cheney, who began imagining a more imperial presidency as an aide to Richard Nixon and has pressed the point ever since. Cheney, as his writings and speeches reveal, believes that in matters of national security – and to only a slightly lesser extent in more mundane matters of domestic policy – the administration that occupies the White House can essentially do as it chooses.