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Paul Tullis Headshot

Candidates Agree: Imperial Presidency Is A-OK

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You hear a lot that folks think "this is the most important election" in x amount of time. Yesterday I heard an anti-abortionist say peg it at 100 years, which seemed extreme. The candidates are supposedly so far apart on the issues that who wins the election will have giant historical consequences.

Well here's one area there isn't likely to be a whiff of difference between President Obama or former Governor Romney: presidential power.

Obama is currently arguing before the Supreme Court, for example, that people in his Department of Justice aren't allowed to learn whether their phones are being tapped without a warrant may not sue over the program -- because they can't prove their phones are being tapped without a warrant.

If Kafka met Orwell, surely they'd dream that one up.

President Obama has also stepped up the CIA's drone strike program, whereby an arm of the executive branch that operates in secrecy goes around the world killing whomever it feels like, essentially. It's been reported that the president personally approves many decisions about whom to target. Sometimes it's an American citizen.

Libya is another example. We can argue about over how well the U.S. operation to remove Gaddafi turned out, but what's clear is that committing warplanes without so much as a nod to Congress violated the War Powers Act and possibly the Constitution. (Not that enough people cared enough to do anything consequential about it.)

When the previous president did this kind of thing, only human rights and civil liberties groups protested. Most liberals were silent, figuring that once Bush-Cheney were gone, a more decent president would abandon their policies.

But that's the thing about the rule of law: If you let it slack, it's replaced by the rule of people.

And while laws are written down and difficult to alter -- and can be enforced -- people act unpredictably. How many Obama supporters in 2008 would have believed he'd expand drone strikes and military tribunals for terrorist suspects, or continue warrantless wiretapping?

People will use every inch of leeway if the law provides it. As is the case with the legislation passed by Congress (and signed by Bush) to retroactively authorize the warrantless wiretapping program that President Obama is now defending.

Which is exactly what we're seeing today: Sending fighter jets to remove leaders we don't like. Listening in on the phone calls of lawyers representing people we're prosecuting. Killing bad guys without a trial (or guys they decide are bad).

Why believe that any currently viable candidate for president between now and 2024 -- Obama, Romney, Ryan, H.R. Clinton -- would act any differently? Romney's foreign policy talk has been full of bluster and the implication that President Obama hasn't acted strongly enough. Ryan is Romney's running mate, and Clinton is in charge of Obama's foreign policy. If she disagreed with drone strikes against Americans overseas, we'd have heard about it by now.

It may be that you agree with these actions. But without appropriate legal constraints, there's nothing to prevent the day from coming when the U.S. removes a leader you do like, or listens in on your phone calls.

Or decides you are the bad guy.