Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 29th, 2007
The spreadsheet below organizes the responses of twelve presidential candidates* to twelve questions about their views on executive power, in light of President Bush’s myriad abuses thereof. The questions were posed by the Boston Globe’s Charlie Savage; the Boston Globe web site with the questions and all the answers is here (“Candidates on executive power: a full spectrum,” Dec. 22).
I developed this so I could play around with grading the responses and see if I could find someone head and shoulders ahead or behind the rest of the pack. Rather than give the full answer to each question, I’ve excerpted the key part or summarized the answer; the full answer can be accessed via the candidate or question links. I graded on a fairly generous 0-4 scale, with answers I saw little or no problem with getting a 4, little problems getting a 3, and so on. I also gave -1′s to “declined to answer” or the like. The last two questions (about who advises the candidates, and whether they think all candidates should answer) struck me as less informative for my purposes, so I gave them lower weights in my results. The weighted average scores — 3.8 for Obama, 3.6 for Clinton in the image above — are the overall score to look at.
The upshot: I see much to welcome about the three top Democratic candidates — or at least expect of them — and little to make me think one or the other is definitely best on this score. Edwards spoke in more of a campaign soundbite format, Obama tended to give long answers. I was mildly surprised that I thought Biden (also prone to some very long answers) did the best overall of the Democrats, but again, the differences were slight. While I’m an Edwards supporter, his answers were sometimes not fully responsive to the question or my concerns for the future; thus, I didn’t reward him merely saying he didn’t “envision” disregarding a congressional statute limiting troop deployments. I’m not sure what happened to Kucinich and Gravel, but they’re missing from this survey, which seems a shame to me.
On the Republican side, I thought Ron Paul was far and away the best of the bunch, though he’d be merely in the middle of the Democratic pack given his answers to congressional limits on troop deployments, and making detainee habeas rights a matter of the specific war involved. McCain was, I thought, noticeably worse than any of the Democratic candidates — yet he’d be a huge improvement on Bush. Romney, on the other hand, distinguished himself by giving one disturbing answer after the other, perhaps most notably his answer to Question 7:
If Congress defines a specific interrogation technique as prohibited under all circumstances, does the president’s authority as commander in chief ever permit him to instruct his subordinates to employ that technique despite the statute?
ROMNEY: A President should decline …to provide an opinion as to whether Congress may validly limit his power as to the use of a particular technique…
… but also Question 10:
Is there any executive power the Bush administration has claimed or exercised that you think is unconstitutional? Anything you think is simply a bad idea?
ROMNEY: The Bush Administration has kept the American people safe since 9/11. The Administration’s strong view on executive power may well have contributed to that fact.
So given a chance to put some daylight, any daylight at all between himself and Bush, Romney chose not to. Elect this man at your peril, America.
But Giuliani, Thompson, and Huckabee, by contrast, distinguished themselves by not answering at all — something I can understand for one or the other question, but not for all of them. To me, the issue of overreaching executive power is one of the most fundamental and important issues of the past 7 years, and of this election; a candidate who refuses to inform the public about any of his positions doesn’t deserve anyone’s vote, and his voters are raising their hands that they’d like to live in a dictatorship.
But why take my word for it when you can download this spreadsheet and come to your own conclusions? I don’t see the stuff above as my final answer, for that matter; I could be convinced I’ve got the scores wrong for one set of questions or another, or for one candidate versus another.
* Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel either weren’t asked or didn’t respond in time — judging by how they’re not listed as “declined to state” for any of the questions.
UPDATE, 1/15: For other reactions to the questionnaire, see the estimable law professors Marty Lederman and Jack Balkin (”Balkinization”), as well as Andrew Sullivan, Arianna Huffington, Glenn Greenwald, and more.