Republicans & Democrats Applauded When Their Guy (Bush and Obama) Grabbed for More Presidential Power; Now, They Are Terrified to Give it to Trump

I had this argument the other day with my mother-in-law -- you can't allow a President more power just because he is "your guy" and you trust him.  No matter how well you think that person will use the power (and I trust no one), you are setting a precedent for the next guy whom you may very well not like.   I wrote this way back in 2005:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

For years I have asked liberals -- who have cheered President Obama's power grabs as righteous on the basis that "Congress won't don anything, so Obama has to" -- how comfortable they will we with a President Lindsey Graham using the same powers.

I was frequently dismissed, but not any more -- as folks on the Left begin to wake up and imagine President Trump using the same powers wielded by Obama.  To this end, the New York Times has a good article on Obama's drone war and the precedent set for the next President:

President Bush started the drone wars, but Mr. Obama vastly expanded them. Almost entirely on his watch, United States strikes have killed as many as 5,000 people, possibly 1,000 of them civilians. The president approved strikes in places far from combat zones. He authorized the C.I.A. to carry out “signature strikes” aimed at people whose identities the agency did not know but whose activities supposedly suggested militancy. He approved the deliberate killing of an American, Anwar al-Awlaki.

The president also oversaw an aggressive effort to control the public narrative about drone strikes. Even as senior officials selectively disclosed information to the news media, his administration resisted Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, arguing that national security would be harmed if the government confirmed drone strikes were taking place.

The administration also argued in court that federal judges lacked the authority to say whether drone strikes were lawful. It refused to release the evidence that it claimed made Mr. Awlaki a lawful target. In lieu of information, the administration offered assurances that the president and his aides were deeply moral people who agonized over authorizing lethal force.

That last line is perhaps the most dangerous single argument in all of democracy, that it is somehow OK to give an individual enormous extra-Constitutional powers because you trust that individual.  Only now, at the end, do they understand:

But as this election season has underscored, powers this far-reaching should not rest solely on the character of the president and his advisers. In a democracy, the ability to use lethal force must be subject to clear and narrow limits, and the public must be able to evaluate whether those limits are being respected.

When discussing Trump, I see a lot of writers referring to 20th century precedents of populist autocrats.  But if you want to be worried about American democracy, a better example is perhaps the Roman Republic.  The Republic was not killed by one man, even Julius Caesar.    The Republic fell through the slow accretion of autocratic precedents over nearly a hundred years, many of which were set by folks like Gracchus (who seems to have been a well-intentioned reformer) and Sula (who was a hero in Rome).


  1. me:

    Amen. It is a bit tragic that we had the two worst presidents the US has ever had - Bush and Obama in a row, from different sides of the spectrum, so that there was at best lukewarm pushback on the idiotic policies put into action during their respective tenures, only to be followed by candidates who scare the pants off of me given their apparent character and the aggregate potential for abuse.

  2. beautox:

    I can see Hilary (and maybe the whole Clinton Clan) taken out by a series of drone strikes.

  3. mesocyclone:

    There seems to be a "moral panic" about drones. Hey, they are just another weapon of war and tool for intelligence. Citing drone wars as overreach is a misdiagnosis. The issue is which drone strikes are properly authorized by Congress. Bush got a lot of authorization and tried to stay within it.

  4. jhertzli:

    The traditional restraint on the chief executive has been the power of the purse. What if a tyrannical program is financed by civil forfeiture?

  5. Noumenon72:

    Don't be ridiculous. That's like arguing that Obama is likely to be pulled over and shot by a cop. It's people with few friends in power -- your foreigners, your militias -- who can be attacked without repercussions.

  6. beautox:

    Treating humorous comments like they were serious is strictly not allowed on the internet.

  7. Noumenon72:

    I did consider that you might be joking, but I thought you would have said "I'd like to see" or "Can we see?" instead of "I can see". Thanks for explaining how you meant it.

  8. Matthew Slyfield:

    Expecting people to understand that your comment on the internet was humorous is highly delusional.

  9. Thomas Reid:

    Good call on the Gracchi brothers and Sulla. The faint echoes of the late Roman Republic are worrisome.

  10. David in Michigan:

    "the two worst presidents" ..... I don't know. We've had a few others who were pretty bad. The competition might be tighter than you think. Fortunately the country has survived. Call me an optimist but I believe it will survive in the future as well, regardless of who the next president is.

  11. Daublin:

    I've brought up the drone bombings several times in last few years, and the reaction I always get is one of mysticism. They first of all wonder if I'm correct, because they haven't heard anything about it. They second wonder if I'm not just one of THEM and therefore complaining about everything Obama does.

    The part of it that really gets me is the children being bombed. Bombing American citizens is pretty bad, but is surpassed in my mind by the children who are killed by these drones. Did our president not know about the children that got bombed, or did he do it anyway out of a concern for national security?

    It seems an awful lot like he's eating caviar in D.C. and not worrying himself too much about people far around the word. If it weren't for 8-year term limits, it would have kept going on. Maybe with President Trump, at least the drone bombings would stop. I don't think Bernie Sanders would stop them.

  12. kidmugsy:

    Trump reminds me of the brothers Gracchus. Study their fate.

  13. kidmugsy:

    By omission you are too kind to Clinton. You've had three duds in a row. With every chance of making that four.

  14. kidmugsy:

    The clue was in the deliberate misspelling of Hellary.

  15. Rick Caird:

    It should be obvious that if you give power to one President, it will be assumed by later Presidents who may be quite hostile to your way of thinking. The only control we have is to withhold additional power from all Presidents.

  16. Matthew Slyfield:

    1. I know plenty of people who deliberately misspell her name as a simple insult. Same for Obama and Bush.

    2. No matter how clearly you mark something as a joke in an on-line comment, someone will miss it.

  17. Jeffrey Deutsch:

    Uh, kidmugsy, "Hilary" is a common misspelling -- and an easy typo -- of "Hillary".

    If only we had some way of showing humor on the Internet. ;)

  18. Baelzar:

    We'll survive....we might look and feel like Brundlefly in his late human stage, or more likely Brundleflyteleporter in his final moments....but we'll "survive."

  19. Bill Drissel:

    The only thing I got from Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man" was the weakness of strong states. That weakness is that strong states lose moral legitimacy. (Our independence is the prime example.)
    Bill Drissel
    Frisco, TX