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When the aggrandizement of the executive branch began during the Bush administration I expected conservatives to be supportive because it was consistent with their history. On spending, for example, Ronald Reagan had no problem with profligate boondoggles as long as they were in his preferred area – even famously dismissed the entire concept of fiscal probity by quipping that the deficit was "big enough to take care of itself." This, remember, is the president the GOP most fondly remembers and reveres of at least the last fifty years, maybe since Lincoln. If its standard bearer couldn’t be bothered what does that say about the rest of the party?
So I expected the same expedient attitude towards principle once George Bush began to claim that he had nearly limitless (in practice) authority to do what he wanted as long as it was to protect the country. When a Republican is in the White House the president is the principle, and all prior rhetoric must be retrofitted to the new executive’s actions. It was no less outrageous for being anticipated but it still lived down to my expectations.
I did make one huge error in judgment, though: I assumed those claims would be mothballed as soon as a Democrat won the presidency. When Barack Obama won I couldn’t wait to see the right try to walk back all that "Commander In Chief is a law unto himself" nonsense it has been so enthusiastic about. That is not what has happened, though. As Obama has embraced key parts of the Bush national security policies the right has largely applauded him. I expected kicking and screaming. I feel a little better about failing to see it because I’m not alone; as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, "During the Bush years, it was common for Democrats to try to convince conservatives to oppose Bush’s executive power expansions by asking them: ‘Do you really want these powers to be exercised by Hillary Clinton or some liberal President?’" As it turns out, the answer is an emphatic "yes!"
Why are conservatives fine with this? Publius suggested it was simple political posturing and Steve Benen added that it was a tactic "predicated on Republican hopes that public fear will outweigh public reason." It isn’t that they have they been painted into a corner by their previous support; rather, they see it as one of the few issues where they could have an advantage that pays substantial dividends. The more worrisome possibility they mention is that advocates of authoritarian measures were so traumatized by 9/11 that they are still driven by a primal fear. Perhaps many on the right believe these measures are necessary for a president – even a Democratic one – to have because the threat we face is so dire. It seems much of the country has in the succeeding years tried to come to rational grips with the magnitude and nature of the threat we face from terrorism, but a significant part of it feels the violence of that day almost as immediately as it did in the initial aftermath.
Obama’s embrace of these policies, the people who champion them and the philosophy that underlies them is in direct conflict with what he has repeatedly said he believed. Greenwald has been dogged in tracking these changes, both from what Obama claimed when running for president as well as from his brief tenure. There is no obvious way to reconcile the two. Andrew Sullivan has tried to by claiming Obama is playing a long game, meaning that the issues he is giving ground on will inevitably be taken back by a combination of court rulings, changing public opinion and a reinvigorated Congress (and that he is saving his political capital to spend on the highest profile issues like health care).
That may be true, but as a strategy it is also too clever by half. Courts have generally struck down Bush’s most expansive claims but there is no guarantee they will continue to do so. Public opinion can be diverted with a determined enough effort or a fabulous enough sideshow. And I for one would not count too heavily on aggressive action from any body that counts Harry Reid among its leadership. The risk, that part or all of the Bush vision of counterterrorism will be enshrined across party lines and presidential administrations, is extraordinarily severe. If that really is what he is thinking he must be very confident of his ability to foresee how it all will unfold – and also must believe he has a very long spoon.