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Would a President Clinton Cede Powers?


Would a veteran of the White House give up some executive powers?. (AP).

The president went to war without congressional approval, kept the workings of a major policy task force secret, seized 1.7 million acres of land with the stroke of a pen and made extravagant claims of executive authority that were later struck down by the courts. His assertions of presidential rights left his critics sputtering with anger. An "unprecedented grab for new powers," one critic wrote.

That was Bill Clinton, of course, who like many presidents tried to push the boundaries of his office to accomplish his goals and counter his adversaries. Yet now his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), thinks the man who succeeded him, George W. Bush, went too far in claiming presidential authority and is promising to give back some of the powers he assumed should she ever sit in the Oval Office.

She made that promise this week at a rally in Denver and in an interview with a British newspaper and, unwittingly no doubt, at times seemed to echo some of the complaints once made against her husband. "I will conduct a very serious review of how the Bush-Cheney administration has grabbed power," she told the rally Tuesday. "Everywhere we look, we see that. They have ignored checks and balances, they have disregarded the separation of powers, they have this theory of the so-called unitary executive and then Vice President Cheney has a whole different theory about how he's a fourth branch of government."

Speaking with Michael Tomasky for Guardian America, the new U.S.-focused web site of the British paper, she went so far as to promise to surrender some of those powers if she becomes president. When he sounded skeptical that any president could ever actually do that, she expressed no hesitation. "Oh, absolutely," she said.

The discussion of executive power, of course, goes to the heart of the Bush presidency. In the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he has made a concerted effort to expand the scope of presidential authority, from arguing that his power as commander in chief trumps laws against warrantless surveillance to setting up military commissions and holding detainees for years without letting them see a lawyer much less the inside of a courtroom. The debate over such unilateral assertions of power has at times divided his own administration, leading to congressional hearings and books replaying the disputes.

But Bush is hardly the first president to generously interpret his own power. Thomas Jefferson, who before office was a powerful advocate of limited central government, more than doubled the size of the country on his own with the purchase of the Louisiana territory and unilaterally sent U.S. forces to fight the Barbary pirates. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and with no act of Congress, much less constitutional amendment, freed slaves in rebel territories through the Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin D. Roosevelt interred more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II and set up his own military commissions to try accused Nazi saboteurs, telling his attorney general that he would refuse to comply if the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over the alleged spies.

And then there was Bill Clinton. For the most part, his assertions of executive power did not reach as far as Bush's, much less Roosevelt's or Lincoln's. But there were plenty of battles over just how far he as president could go. Just as Cheney would later refuse to provide information about his energy task force, Clinton refused to allow scrutiny of Hillary Clinton's health care task force. Clinton sent troops to Bosnia and launched an air war over Kosovo without asking Congress for permission; Bush sought and received congressional resolutions authorizing him to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq. Clinton also angered critics by seizing 1.7 million acres in the West for national parks without congressional involvement in the 1996 election year.

And of course, he constantly battled his nemeses over executive privilege, claiming that a president could not be sued while in office, that Secret Service officers could not be compelled to testify about what they see while guarding a president and that aides could defy subpoenas from prosecutors investigating alleged criminal activity. The courts repeatedly rejected those as overly sweeping assertions of executive power and legal scholars have argued about whether Clinton in effect left the office less powerful by trying to reach too far.

The same argument will be held about Bush. The Supreme Court has now repeatedly scolded him for assuming powers that were not his. And the Clinton camp would argue that his assertions of authority far outstretched anything his predecessor did and with far more pernicious results. In her interview with the Guardian, Hillary Clinton made the case that past presidents who stretched during wartime only did so temporarily. "Other presidents, like Lincoln, have had to take on extraordinary powers but would later go to the Congress for either ratification or rejection," she said. "But when you take the view that they're not extraordinary powers, but they're inherent powers that reside in the office and therefore you have neither obligation to request permission nor to ask for ratification, we're in a new territory here."

Still, Hillary Clinton is an advocate of executive power. She voted for the USA Patriot Act, which expanded the authority of the executive branch to chase terrorists at the expense, in the view of critics, of civil liberties. And she has cited deference to the president in defending her vote for the 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq. "I'm a strong believer in executive authority," she told her husband's former aide, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, in December 2003, in a statement recently recollected by Michael Crowley in The New Republic. "I wish that, when my husband was president, people in Congress had been more willing to recognize presidential authority."

Even today, the Clintons have maintained the right to secrecy reminiscent of the Bushes and other presidents. The former president's library in Little Rock does not plan to make millions of pages of records related to Hillary Clinton's time as first lady public until after the 2008 election and the Clintons have rebuffed entreaties to push that process along. Similarly, the Clintons have refused to make public the names of big-moneyed contributors to the library, even if that might lead to suspicions of potential conflicts of interests.

The notion that Hillary Clinton would be the cure to the perceived abuse of executive authority by the Bush team lately has provoked a hot debate on the Internet, even before her most recent comments. "It's difficult to see Hillary Clinton voluntarily handing back all of those extra-constitutional executive powers claimed by President Bush," Radley Balko, senior editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, wrote on Foxnews.com. "Her husband's administration, for example, copiously invoked dubious 'executive privilege' claims to keep from complying with congressional subpoenas and open records requests -- claims the left now (correctly, in my view) regularly criticizes the Bush administration for invoking."

Andrew Sullivan echoed that sentiment last week on his blog on the Atlantic magazine's Web site. "You want a change from the Bush era?" he wrote. "Only pure partisans think a third term for a Clinton co-presidency would do it. Yes, it would give every partisan Democrat a thrill. But if you care about the damage done by this president to the constitutional order, don't believe for a minute that the Clintons would reverse it. They love their power."

That prompted a sharp retort on the Anonymous Liberal web site, which scoffed, saying that "the idea that she's Cheney in a pant-suit is just crazy." The blogger wrote that Sullivan's claim "is nonsense," adding that Bill "Clinton didn't push the envelope nearly as much as his predecessors, and when he did, it was usually for instrumental reasons (such as to thwart partisan investigations of him) rather than ideological reasons. ... There is no reason whatsoever to think that Hillary Clinton will adopt the Cheney/Addington/Yoo approach to executive power if she becomes president."

The debate continues. Stay tuned.

-- Peter Baker

Posted at 9:45 AM ET on Oct 25, 2007  | Category:  Morning Cheat Sheet
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Comments

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You know, Mrs Clinton didn't promise to give up powers.

In her typical way, she promised to review whether to consider if powers should be given up.

In other words, she'll do whatever the polls tell her should she get that far.

Posted by: wontvotehillary | October 29, 2007 8:43 AM

the military industry should not decide
who the next president of the US should be.
hillary's arrogance and mocking laughs evidence
she sees herself already in the white house
despite what the voters want. military Israel
legit connects? and us neocons same old vieux, are
her main supporters.
Pristine youth want something new,
truthful, fresh.
hillary + bill are not representative of this shared wish.

Posted by: tabita | October 26, 2007 12:21 PM

the military industry should not decide
who the next president of the US should be.
hillary's arrogance and mocking laughs evidence
she sees herself already in the white house
despite what the voters want. military Israel
legit connects? and us neocons same old vieux, are
her main supporters.
Pristine youth want somnething new,
truthful, fresh.
hillary + bill are not representative of this shared wish.

Posted by: tabita | October 26, 2007 12:20 PM

"That way we leave it to you to discuss and decide for yourselves. Thanks again for the interest and the feedback. -- Peter Baker"

So, Sen Clinton says she will cede powers. Critics read her mind and, without a scintilla of evidence, say she is lying. Let's discuss that and decide amongst ourselves, shall we? Brilliant political discourse from our major journalists. We are so blessed.

Posted by: zukermand | October 26, 2007 10:39 AM

I wonder, would a President Giuliani cede powers?

Posted by: zukermand | October 26, 2007 10:30 AM

Peter-

Thank you for taking the time to read the comments, thank you for taking them seriously, and thank you for requesting corrective action from your editors.

I recognize that in the newspaper business, things go out under your name not 100% under your control. So don't take anything here personally; it's aimed at the paper, not Peter Baker.

Thank you again for your consideration.

Posted by: howlless | October 26, 2007 8:57 AM

The most Hillary clinton has achieved as a senator is lining her pocket's with lobbyist and special interest's money and having a hand in sending our troops to Iraq. Please remeber that Hillary Clinton has the blood of our troops on her hands. Do not vote for her.

To determine how Mr. Obama is doing in the race, go by actual fact, not polls.

Political polls this year are quite unreliable indicators -- especially in regard to Mr. Obama's success.

The truth is that Mr. Obama is running a record setting campaign. He is making history.

-- He has raised more money to date than any other candidate for President has ever done.

-- He has the most organized and invloved grassroots campaign going.

-- He is drawing more people to his rallys than any other candidate, probably in history.

-- He has the broadest voter support than any other candidate in the race. He has Independents, Republicans, Democrats, and people of all races and ages planning to vote for him in their primaries.

So you can't go by those unreliable national polls being done, you have got to go by the actual facts to see who is actually winning this race. Based on the facts -- Barack Obama is winning.

Obama '08

Posted by: AndreaT1 | October 25, 2007 10:16 PM

Ankleless Annie yield power? Not bloody likely! "HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Hsu loves ya, baby?"

Posted by: sawargos | October 25, 2007 3:56 PM

Good point, rdklingus. The general assumption of the inevitability of Hillary is so strong that we forget to ask what the other candidates think about this issue. Or others. But Peter Baker's historical review of presidential power and its abuse is a great eye-opener.

I don't think Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus was unjustified. The round-up of the many pro-slavery traitors, both in the North and the South, was a clear military necessity.

Baker should have cited another Clinton abuse, his unpardonable pardon of the bail-jumping tax cheat Marc Rich, ex-hubby of a big Clinton backer. Compared to Ford's pardon of Nixon, this may not seem all that outrageous, and it was not, strictly speaking, unconstitutional. But by implicitly recognizing Israel's right to grant sanctuary to fugitives from American justice, Clinton may have exceeded presidential power. Maybe not unconstitutional but certainly corrupt.

Posted by: ndpwp | October 25, 2007 3:42 PM

Thanks for the comments. Just to be clear, reporters don't actually write headlines. As it happens, I agree the original one on this piece was more conclusionary than what I actually wrote and so asked that it be changed to something that poses the question rather than attempts to answer it. That way we leave it to you to discuss and decide for yourselves. Thanks again for the interest and the feedback. -- Peter Baker

Posted by: bakermoscow | October 25, 2007 3:01 PM

I had understood there had not been a Congressional declaration of war since WWII. I am pretty sure there have been actions that have been considered war since then. So why the implication that this was some sort of power-grab by Bill Clinton?

I take the point that the Clintons like power, and they do have a reputation for being distrustful of the media. I take the point that we must all be vigilant about the balance of powers and not assume that a Democrat is going to be any better than a Republican. But Bill Clinton declassified a heck of a lot of documents; Bush classified more, for no apparent reason. I could go on and on, but trying to make a Clinton out as a bogeyman on this compared to Bush is not gonna fly.

Posted by: Jenn2 | October 25, 2007 1:05 PM

"How on god's green earth does this merit the headline, "Don't Bet on a President Clinton Ceding Powers"?"

Amen. A far more accurate (although longish) headline would be "Don't Bet Against a President Guiliani Going After Even Greater Powers Than Bush." What have RG's statements on the matter been, Mr. "Fair and Balanced" Baker? I already know the answer: squat. But the past is prologue and Rudy's past is sitting right there for Mr. Baker to examine. Why does he choose to limit his examination to Clinton?

Posted by: judgeccrater | October 25, 2007 12:44 PM

So, to recap: two conservative pundits think Clinton wouldn't cede the sweeping executive powers claimed by Bush.

How on god's green earth does this merit the headline, "Don't Bet on a President Clinton Ceding Powers"?

"Partisan Hacks Bash Clinton (Again)". THAT headline I can understand. THAT would be pretty much what's happening here.

To instead take their ramblings at more than face value, and portray them as predictive? That's unprofessional. That's doing your readers a severe disservice.

Posted by: howlless | October 25, 2007 11:23 AM

Obama and Edwards are both on record on this. Both have castigated the Bush Administration for its power grab, both have highlighted the threat to our democracy of leaving it unchecked and both have promised to roll it back. Unlike Hillary, nither, apparently, feels the need to commission a study to determine whether the Bush-Cheney Ring of Power should be destroyed.

But God forbid that a Washington Post reporter in this day and age actually spend fifteen minutes on Google to find this out. Thirty five years ago, Woodward and Bernstein spent weeks pounding the pavement, worked the phones for days on end and exploited every personal contact they had just to find out who was working for Nixon's reelection committee. Nowadays, though, facts are so easy to come by that reporters apparently no longer value them.

Posted by: srobinson2 | October 25, 2007 11:12 AM

I am constantly amazed that people keep quoting Andrew Sullivan as if anyone really cares what he says.

He is a very pompous person-who while bright-wrote years ago in a New York Times magazine article that the AIDS crisis was over because he was now on medication that worked for him. He then proceeded to get into a public debate for advertising for sexual partners online for unsafe sex-

He has also been a consistant critic of the Clintons with little to back up his criticisms except personal bias.

I would think by now that people would recognize that his views are really suspect, not particularly valuable, and would stop quoting him.

Posted by: peterdc | October 25, 2007 11:11 AM

In my mind, this is the biggest issue of the election -- bigger than Iraq. I agree that we should hear more from all the candidates on *exactly* which executive powers have been overused and how they plan on returning them.

I would agree with the idea that Senator Clinton is unlikely to cede these powers, though. It's hard to decide on an issue like this, however, when it hasn't really been discussed as an issue on the trail yet.

Posted by: rpy1 | October 25, 2007 10:39 AM

Mr. Baker would be doing the readers a service if he would report how all the other candidates in both parties perceive their their administration's position on executive power, rather than solely focus on Clinton. To her credit, she has raised the issue and has gone on the record with her views. Time for the others to do the same.

Posted by: rdklingus | October 25, 2007 10:22 AM

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