Is it still America if the president ignores or deliberately eviscerates the Constitution?
And if the president himself is doing this, who will protect the Constitution?
This is the oath of office: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
On what history will confirm was a very dark day for the nation, George W. Bush took that oath. Within a year, he had launched a methodical effort to undermine the very document he swore he would protect.
He has suspended habeas corpus, tapped the phones and opened the e-mails of Americans without warrants, defied congressional subpoenas, and declared through "signing statements" that the administration can pick and choose which parts of the bills passed by Congress to execute. No president in history has come close to these actions.
We have to get it that this is not a set of departures from business as usual in a working democracy. This is becoming a different game with a different set of rules.
Is it theoretical if America disembowels its own Constitution? Or do those sets of checks and balances protect you and your family -- on the most personal, visceral level? With every violation of the Constitution that the president engineers -- in the face of a craven, compliant Congress -- you and your family face greater risks. The president says he can imprison ANY AMERICAN CITIZEN HE WANTS TO IMPRISON on his say-so alone. Today it is a bona fide `terrorist' -- but let's notice that now environmental activists who targeted property, not people, are being called "terrorists."
History shows that the definition of "terrorist" -- enemies of the state, traitors, and "saboteurs," which has just made its predictable appearance in the arsenal of the White House's more extremist allies -- metastasizes when there is a power grab intended to close down a society or crack down on a democracy movement; eventually such language and the laws that go with it target critics, dissidents, opposition leaders. Now he can seize the assets of those who object to his prosecution of the war in Iraq and has new powers to declare a state of emergency.
History demonstrates unequivocally that these are the things that would-be despots always do when they want to shift the system away from democracy and toward a repressive regime. When a commentator says "tyrant" or "despot" in a democracy, he or she is being rhetorical; we have to get it that these kinds of strategies are literally classical steps in the closing down of democracies and that we have to start to understand such language technically and not rhetorically.
Yes, even here. Yes, even now. As we watch. As we try to figure out what to do.
At this critical time in our nation's history, when the very foundation of our democracy is under attack, we must be certain that the next president will be constrained by the checks and balances of a living Constitution. It is hard to overstate the danger to us if he or she is not. And citizens have to confront what they must do when an acting president assaults the very rule of law he has sworn to defend.
Toward this end, the American Freedom Campaign, a new grassroots and grasstops democracy movement, has asked each of the presidential candidates to sign the American Freedom Pledge. It reads:
"We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal remedy, we do not tap people's phones and emails without a court order, and above all we do not give any President unchecked power.
"I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from assault by any President."
Any candidate unwilling to sign this pledge during the campaign clearly does not deserve -- or cannot be trusted -- to be our next president. A sitting president who will not adhere to this commitment should be confronted.
A couple of days ago, while blogging on Daily Kos, Elizabeth Edwards, in response to a question about whether her husband would end the abuses of executive power undertake by the Bush administration, provided the following response:
"None of the nonsense of avoiding constitutional and legal requirements for executive branch activities by issuing executive orders.
None of these signing statements intended to undermine legislative intent.
None of the refusal to enforce laws that have been passed.
Under John, the constitution returns."
Thank you, Mrs. Edwards, for those heartening words -- but words are easy in a presidential campaign, and leadership is harder. Congress is sitting it out or rolling over when this fight is brought to its doorstep -- leaders are confiding off the record that without a grassroots movement to press them into action, they can't resist these encroachments because they are afraid of being tarred as "soft on terror."
Every period of repression that led to a closed society has used the threat of an external enemy to strip citizens of liberties, and history will judge such leaders harshly. Meanwhile, let me invite Mrs. Edwards to urge her husband to make good on her faith in him -- let me invite him to do it right here on the front page of the Huffington Post.
Mr. Edwards, will you prove your leadership and your fitness to guide this nation by being the first of the candidates to sign the American Freedom Pledge? If so, will you then publicly challenge the other candidates to do so?
If you are the first presidential candidate to take the pledge here on this page, the 10,000 Americans who signed the pledge in its first 10 days -- and all other Americans who honor the Constitution - will applaud you. You will deserve our gratitude.
If not, why not?
I look forward to your response. Within a week. Here. Or your wife's -- on your behalf.
As for the rest of the Huffington Post's readers -- we need your help in leading this charge. "They" -- the political classes, the pundits, Congress -- are not going to redeem the rule of law without you. You have to save your own country now.
The American Freedom Campaign has set up an action page so that you can send a quick e-mail to the presidential candidates, urging them to sign the pledge.
The White House needs to hear that it can't get away with violating our system. That those who commit crimes against the Constitutional must be held accountable by the American people.
Congress needs to hear our contempt for their inaction and our demand that they act boldly in a time of crisis.
We need to hear each other and remember that the first American revolution was begun by a handful of people who saw tyranny, called it by its proper name and took action.