The Unitary Executive

In tonight’s debate, Palin said that she would like to expand the powers of the VP beyond what Cheney has done. (Lord help us all!) This theory is known as the unitary executive theory. Under this theory, the president’s authority when acting as commander-in-chief or when making foreign policy cannot be reviewed by the judiciary or checked by Congress.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have drawn heavily on this idea during their time in office to abandon the rule of law. Bush frequently and continually stresses his role as commander-in-chief in the war on terror. When added to the idea that we have entered a perpetual state of war (as a war on terror is so vague that it could, foreseeably, last forever), the implications of this theory stretch as far into the future as we can imagine.

Bush and Cheney have co-opted the judicial branch by appointing judges (Alito and Roberts) who are largely deferential to the executive branch’s exercise of power and by their support of assaults on the independence of the third branch.

Bush has emasculated the legislative branch by issuing over 1000 “signing statements” (signed during the signing of a bill into law) that basically say he will not uphold or abide by certain parts of the law that he finds unacceptable. Signing statements have served primarily a ceremonial function throughout US history. They often extol the virtues of the legislation and thank those figures responsible for the enactment. Sometimes they include passages in which the president raises constitutional concerns with some provisions of the new law. What presidents have always avoided is delineating those provisions that the president simply disagrees with and announcing the president will not comply with them. Obviously, such a device would be unconstitutional on its face.

But this is exactly what Bush has done. He has signed over 1000 signing statements during his time in office – more than any other president combined. Bill Clinton only signed 140 signing statements, and he was working with an adversarial, Republican controlled Congress for the majority of his presidency. Bush worked with a docile and supportive Congress for his first six years in office.

An example of Bush’s disdain for the rule of law: After the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, several Republican senators sponsored a bill that outlawed torture. It passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. Bush could’ve vetoed the law, but Congress almost certainly would’ve overridden the veto. Instead, he signed it into law but announced that he did not, and would not, have to abide by it. No wonder he has only vetoed one bill during his time in office. Why bother when you can just pick and choose which parts of the law you’ll abide by and those you won’t?

These disturbing actions by the current administration pose serious threats to our democracy and the rule of law. In the debate tonight, we heard Joe Biden describe Cheney’s expansion of the VP’s powers as exerting the authority of a unitary executive. He described this expansion as extremely dangerous and said that it would stop (and, implicity, that the rule of law would be restored) in an Obama-Biden administration. Palin, on the other hand, said she applauded the way Cheney has expanded the role of the VP and would work to further expand the role of the VP in a McCain-Palin administration. This is completely blasphemous to everything our founders worked for when writing our constitution and forming our government, and it cannot be allowed to continue.

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Reactions to the VP Debate

Preface: These are my initial reactions and thus may not be as organized or as cohesive as my other posts.

If all I was looking for was a VP who can put a complete sentence together (with a subject, verb, and object), then Palin would pass…but so would Biden.

Of course, I was looking further. I will admit that Palin exceeded my exceedingly low expectations. But I have higher expectations for a VP than the low expectations I had for Palin tonight. And Palin did not meet those expectations.

Palin continued to show a complete lack of understanding of the complexity of foreign and domestic policy. She came prepared with a hefty stack of notecards, and she never strayed from them…even if she was asked a question that her notecards couldn’t answer. (In those instances, she would give a two-word answer and then launch into something that was on one of her notecards.) She showed herself unable to think critically through the questions she was asked. And in at least one instance, she completely misunderstood the question and tried to answer it anyway. Both she and Biden were asked what they thought their biggest achilles’ heel was. A middle schooler could tell you that Ifill was asking them what their greatest weakness is. Instead of answering that question, Palin launched into a long-winded explanation of how her two years as governor has given her plenty of experience to be VP. (Incidentally, Joe Biden said that his greatest achilles’ heel is his deep passion. Now, you could argue that he was trying to mention a “weakness” that most people would see as a strentgh, but at least he understood the question.)

Biden, on the other hand, answered the questions that were asked of him coherently and showed himself to be capable of thinking critically through the questions he was asked. Ifill asked both candidates whether they or their campaigns would not be able to meet some of the promises they’ve made so far due to the financial crisis. Biden answered thoughtfully and completely that, yes, there were some things that would have to be put on the back burner (foreign assistance, for example). He also listed the so-called “non-negotiables” that would not be cut (education, for example). Palin completely avoided the question by saying that she’s only been on the job for five weeks and thus hasn’t promised anything. She then used that justification to say that she wouldn’t cut anything. But the question was not a personal one. Ifill specifically asked about the candidates’ “campaigns.” The McCain campaign has clearly been around for much longer than the past five weeks and has made promises to the American people that a McCain administration would surely not be able to implement due to the financial crisis. But Palin refused to acknowledge or address this.

In sum, Biden showed himself to be knowledgeable, articulate, and a critical thinker about the issues of the day. Palin showed herself to be someone who has been tutored by Bush administration strategists for the past five weeks on issues she had never previously thought about. Biden is better prepared to be VP.