Candidates and the Constitution (4/18/2008)

As the shadows close in on George W. Bush’s administration, the media ought to be asking presidential candidates whether they would respect the constitutional restraints Bush has abused.

One of the ironies of Wednesday’s Democratic Debate in Philadelphia lay in its location. It might have occurred to the sponsor of the debate, ABC News, that the National Constitution Center was the ideal setting to raise constitutional questions about presidential power, a topic that has been virtually ignored in this campaign cycle, even though the assertions of executive power by the Bush administration have laid waste to it.

Americans have every right to wonder about the views of presidential candidates on issues that have grabbed headlines throughout the reign of George W. Bush. Will the candidates, for example, denounce and reject presidential claims of power to authorize extraordinary rendition, engage in domestic surveillance, suspend the Geneva Convention, order acts of torture and initiate preventive war? Those are issues of surpassing importance to the nation, yet reporters are not demanding answers from the remaining White House aspirants.

In this respect, members of the national media are failing the citizenry. The Constitution rarely receives the attention that it deserves, even though it is the supreme law of the land and subordinates elected officials to its principles and provisions. Reporters ought to be asking presidential candidates about their views on presidential power. That’s assuming, of course, that Americans will care about their views. Is that too much to expect? Would voters have been persuaded to re-elect Bush in 2004 if he had leveled with them about his theory of virtually unfettered executive power, the implementation of which has brought shame upon the United States and stained the nation’s reputation at home and abroad?

The relative disinterest of the media in the constitutional views of presidential candidates all but guarantees voter ignorance on some of the most pressing matters of our time. That betrays the fundamental purpose of freedom of the press — to disseminate information to the citizenry so that we can make informed judgments about government policies and actions. Without that information, moreover, we will lack the knowledge necessary to maintain governmental accountability.

The lack of governmental accountability is the great scourge of a republic. Americans in the early years of the 21st century know this all too well. After all, our nation is mired in a war inspired by executive deceit and unparalleled arrogance. The media coddled the Bush administration in the wake of the attack on 9/11, and retreated from serious examination of officials’ rationales and justifications for invading Iraq. We have paid a high price for this ill-conceived and misbegotten war. Let us hope that the media will grasp the value of cross-examining presidential candidates’ views of the power of the office that they seek.

Adler is a political science professor at Idaho State University who has written and lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and presidential power.