Johnny and the Executives


Reading Jacob Sullum's important post below about John McCain's flip-flops on executive power to surveil U.S. citizens no matter what the law says is a timely reminder of a common misconception: That the Republican nominee would roll back the executive branch expansions of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. With the exception of his vow to not adorn legislation with the kind of presidential signing statements made famous by his hero Teddy Roosevelt, McCain has a consistent, career-long approach to executive power ? namely, that the president needs more of it.

The candidate's books and speeches, especially those that cover the first 60 years of his life, are almost totally bereft of any interest in political philosophy or principle (an oddity, given his close friendship with Ronald Reagan and close proximity to Barry Goldwater). There is, in my judgment, one exception to this: The principle of presidential authority to wage war, conduct foreign policy, blunt congressional overreach, and act by any achievable means necessary to defend American interests.

So, McCain defends troop deployments that he initially opposed, such as in Lebanon and Bosnia, on the grounds that the Executive has spoken (the experience of watching a Democratic Congress de-fund the Vietnam War can make him angry to this day, just thinking about it). He basically jokes about his father's invasion of the Dominican Republic possibly being illegal. He agitates simultaneously for the line-item veto and a constitutional amendment forcing Congress to balance the budget. He describes Dick Cheney in 2002 as "as capable and sensible a public servant as I've known." And he sings the praises of Teddy Roosevelt thusly:

He invented the modern presidency by liberally interpreting the constitutional authority of the office to redress the imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches.

To McCain's evident delight, Roosevelt, while assistant secretary of the Navy, also engaged in "an extraordinary arrogation of authority" by issuing offensive orders against the Philippines in 1898 over the objection of his immediate boss and the president. Boys will be boys! And in the transition period between McCain's own military and political careers, the soon-to-be Maverick would engage in his own orders-defying stunt. From my book:

[In 1978], President Jimmy Carter, a former submarine officer, decided that land defense capabilities were more important than expanding the Navy's carrier fleet, and so decided not to replace the USS Midway after it had been decommissioned. "For the next two years," [McCain biographer Scott] Timberg wrote, "McCain, assisted by Jim McGovern, quietly but effectively lobbied for the new carrier in secret defiance of Secretary W. Graham Claytor, for whom he worked, and President Carter." Congress approved a $2 billion carrier in 1978, prompting Carter's veto, but with McCain's quiet lobbying passed it again the next year, and the weakened president signed it into law.

That act of insubordination, by the way, was cited by Oliver North during the Iran-Contra hearings as proof that sometimes the military ends justify the technically illegal means.

And speaking of abusing power, what did McCain think about the executive branch nightmare of Watergate? Here's what he told U.S. News & World Report in December 1973:

It has certainly made me sad that this situation should have arisen…. However, I feel that, in the context of history, Watergate will be a very minor item as compared with the other achievements of this Administration, particularly in the area of foreign affairs. I do hope that this country will get over Watergate and get going again on the very serious problems that we're facing today.

You will recall that McCain had volunteered to testify in the federal case against Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers.

So no, I didn't find McCain's answers to Charlie Savage's executive-power quiz more determinative than a lifetime of statements and actions to the contrary. I don't think he'll be hiring John Yoo, or looking actively for new methods to justify torture, but if you think that any John Sidney McCain will let something like the letter of the law, or the constitutional separation of powers, prevent him from acting swiftly to defend America's interests (however he defines it), then you probably haven't been paying close attention.