Bench Memos

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McCain Maximus!


George Will sometimes writes as though he believes it is Burkean to permit his prejudices to govern his reason.  Today’s column is a fine example, mixing two of Will’s prejudices into a noisome broth.  He doesn’t like John McCain, and he is (currently, anyway) a legislative supremacist where the Constitution is concerned–having been influenced, or at least had his recent indigestion flattered, by Charlie Savage’s tendentious book on presidential power (on which see Andy McCarthy’s excellent review in a recent NR).

And so Will asks John McCain five questions, three of them about the candidate’s understanding of presidential power under the Constitution, all of those asked in a sneering tone implying that Will really knows the answer already–that McCain is one of those dangerous unilateralists when it comes to presidential war powers and foreign policy.

Take Will’s second question.  Noting that bombing sorties to incapacitate Iran’s nuclear weapons program would constitute “serious warfare,” he asks: “Does McCain believe that a president is constitutionally empowered to launch such a protracted preventive war without congressional authorization?”  And clearly believing McCain’s answer would be yes, Will asks his third question: “why would any president not repelling a sudden attack want to enter the pitch-black forest of war unaccompanied by the other political branch of government?”

No responsible president or presidential candidate would answer the former question at all, as Will frames it.  Hypotheticals about what a president might do, and to what lengths he would take military force, under what circumstances, are fitting questions for a seminar room, but not for a presidential campaign or a sitting president’s press conferences. 

But let’s work backward from the latter question.  No president wants to go to war “unaccompanied” by Congress.  And the truth is that none of them ever has.  Even the most “unilateral” of presidential warmakers has known that he must reckon with Congress in order to attain his object.  Events, calculations, maneuvers undertaken by the executive, all can make this reckoning more or less successful, sometimes prospectively, sometimes retrospectively (think of Lincoln’s “unauthorized” blockade of the South). 

So of course a President McCain, like any other president in similar circumstances, would do his utmost to bring Congress along before taking action against any country that threatened our own.  But it is also true that any president would be a fool, and false to his oath of office, if he were to foreswear the use of force altogether in the absence of “authorization,” even in the case of “preventive” war.

Once upon a time, George Will understood presidential power and responsibility better than this.


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