Cheney’s Unlimited Power Doctrine

Matt Corley observes Dick Cheney outlining his view of presidential power:

On Fox News Sunday today, host Chris Wallace asked Vice President Cheney, “if the President, during war, decides to do something to protect the country, is it legal?” “I think as a general proposition, I’d say yes,” replied Cheney.

Obviously, everyone would like the president to take action to protect the country during war. Indeed, protecting the country is good even during time of peace. But Cheney’s view of this matter is inimical to the idea of liberal democracy. Suppose President Obama feels that John Boehner’s neo-Hooverite opposition to economic stimulus is endangering the economy and playing into al-Qaeda’s hands, so he decides to lock him up in Gitmo? That would be extreme, of course. But every President feels, completely sincerely, that his policies are necessary for the security of the nation. And thus, every President feels that his opponents are endangering the country. And in the past executive branch officials have repeatedly been tempted to abuse their authority in order to persecute political enemies. Woodrow Wilson did it, Richard Nixon did it, and to some extent so did all the presidents between them.

And it’s important to recall that Cheney doesn’t think that there needs to be a declared war or anything to bring these wartime powers online. The mere risk of terrorist attack — something that it’s hard to image ever entirely going away — is sufficient.

Underlying all of this is an odd conservative lack of faith in democracy. Cheney’s implicit theory is that the democracies prevailed in the Cold War — surely a time of greater external threat — despite our liberal political systems. In fact, the openness of liberal democracy was a major strength. Robust political competition, a free press, transparency in government, etc. helped ensure that policy errors would actually be corrected and that corrupt practices would be curbed. Cheney-style autocracy works fine as long as nobody is ever incompetent or corrupt, but that’s never. And it certainly doesn’t describe the Bush-Cheney administration.