01/03/2012 12:04 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2012

The GOP and Presidential Power

The intrepid New York Times reporter Charlie Savage has again provided an indispensable service by turning his reporter's eye to how the Republican presidential candidates view presidential power, replicating his important reporting on the same subject during the last presidential cycle. Savage's interview with then-presidential aspirant Barack Obama has provided a vital yardstick to measure President Obama's exercise of the powers of his office. In some areas, like following the law on counterterrorism and interrogation, and reining in signing statement abuse, Obama was as good as his word. In others, like defending state secrets and attacking another nation without congressional authorization, not so much.

Among the Republican candidates who responded to Savage's query, all, save one, reflected in varying degrees a muscular, activist, assertive vision of the presidency. Whether it is Rick Perry's embrace of "full executive authority," Mitt Romney's invocation of "inherent presidential powers" to justify the use of military force, Jon Huntsman's declaration that the president's commander-in-chief and executive powers "cannot be limited" by Congress, or Newt Gingrich's assertion that the War Powers Resolution is an "unconstitutional infringement" on presidential power, these candidates bear little resemblance to traditional "whiggish" Republican conservative suspicion of executive power.

And Rick Santorum, who didn't respond to Savage's invitation, announced that he'd bomb Iran if it didn't open its nuclear facilities for inspection. The most conservative crop of presidential aspirants in modern times not only stands furthest away from its conservative roots, but now extols a kind of presidential activism that was once the province of liberal Democrats.

The sole exception, libertarian Ron Paul, criticizes the War Powers Resolution for giving presidents too much power. He notes that the commander-in-chief power does not give the president any ability to override law; that the need for executive secrecy is overblown, as are most justifications of warrantless surveillance and harsh interrogation techniques. And an external threat to the country invites the president to ask Congress for a declaration of war, he says, not to act unilaterally.

Paul's constitutional views, painted in sharp relief to those of his opponents, reveal multiple ironies. First, they classify Paul as the only constitutional originalist in the race. On the merits, the Founders created a Congress-centered three-branch system, a far cry from today's executive-centered government. Second, his views are as archaic as they are anomalous. Beginning with the second half of the last century, the American national security state has been driven mostly by activist presidents, not Congress -- and that's largely the way Congress, and the public, want it.

Third, after the post-Watergate rejection of Nixon's imperial presidency, the country resumed its love affair with nearly unbridled executive activism, thanks in part to Ronald Reagan, who united conservatism with activism. In driving a stake through the heart of traditional Republican suspicion of strong executives -- a tradition spanning the likes of William H. Taft, Calvin Coolidge, and Robert A. Taft -- Reagan ended, probably forever, any prospect that the American people will ever again elect a president of any party who embraces any notion of presidential restraint.

Yes, Ron Paul is well positioned in the presidential contest -- if that contest were being held in the 1870s. As we begin the countdown to the November elections, let's at least appreciate how much American governance has become a debate over presidential power -- from health care, to the economy, to foreign policy. This doesn't mean that the public should accept every presidential aspirant's power claims. Even if we really need (and clearly prefer) a muscular presidency in this new century, too much power in two few hands is still a thing to be feared. James Madison's caution still resonates: "ambition must be made to counteract ambition."