Opinion

If Obama's imperial presidency is so awful, why does the GOP let him get away with war?

When it comes to Iraq, Republicans are more than happy to let the president usurp Congress' constitutional powers

Conservatives haven't just decried President Obama's executive overreach. They have accused him of an "imperial presidency."

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas used the phrase in the Wall Street Journal, blasting as "dangerous" the "president's persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat."

So did John Fund at National Review: "Oh my, how liberals have learned to love the imperial presidency they used to so scorn when Richard Nixon or George W. Bush was in office."

The Heritage Foundation even ran a helpful explainer on its website: "How is Obama acting like an imperial president?"

So will conservatives let President Obama take the country back to war in Iraq without congressional approval? Because if they do, all that talk of the imperial presidency could come back to bite them.

Obama was a frequent critic of untrammeled executive power when he was running for president in 2008. Back then, those powers were being wielded by George W. Bush, the man Obama was trying to replace.

As late as November 2013, Obama rebutted an undocumented immigrant protester who claimed the president had the power to stop all deportations. "Actually, I don't," Obama replied. "And that's why we're here."

"We've got this Constitution, we've got this whole thing about separation of powers," he added. "So there is no shortcut to politics, and there's no shortcut to democracy."

But recently, Obama has seemed eager to find such shortcuts. He has repeatedly been stymied by the Republican-controlled House and a large GOP minority in the Senate. He faces the prospect of Democratic minorities in both houses next year.

As a result, Obama has occasionally sounded put upon by Congress. He talks about his pen and phone. He issues executive orders. He says that if Republicans in Congress won't approve his preferred policies, he will act unilaterally where possible.

Some of Obama's executive actions walk right up to the line. Others cross it. He has been rebuked by the Supreme Court for his unorthodox use of recess appointments. He has had to step back from a plan for "deferred action" that would essentially offer amnesty to some five million illegal immigrants without legislation.

But as bad as some of these presidential moves have been — both in terms of legal process and substantive policy grounds — is there anything more imperial than unilaterally committing American troops to war?

It's precisely the opposite of what the framers of the Constitution intended when they gave Congress the power to declare war. And it is a much less ambiguous constitutional violation than some of the alleged power grabs that get the right's imperial presidency juices flowing.

Yet it is also an assertion of presidential power self-described conservatives are most likely to defend. Of the conservative criticisms mentioned at the beginning of this piece, only Fund focuses on Obama considering going to war without congressional approval.

For all his many faults, Bush sought and won congressional authorization for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama has already waged one war without Congress: Libya, an intervention he barely pretended to justify on the grounds of U.S. national interest, with increasingly disastrous results.

Obama was deterred from bombing Syria in 2013 when he finally deigned to go to Congress — and discovered there was vanishingly little support for his position.

To their credit, some Republicans are trying to legitimize Obama's campaign against ISIS with an authorization of force.

Others, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are saying nuts to that. "I think the president has an abundant amount of authority to conduct operations," he has said. "If Congress doesn't like what he's doing, we can always cut the money off."

But how likely is that once forces are already deployed? When Democrats talked about defunding Iraq under Bush, Republicans like Graham made the idea sound almost treasonous.

The case against Obama's imperial presidency descends into partisan nonsense if the president has more power to go to war than he does to fill a vacancy on the National Labor Relations Board.

And future presidents cannot be reined in if Congress continually gives up its own power, all in a bid to protect itself from political risk — as lawmakers have unmistakably done in matters of war and peace.

If the United States is going back into Iraq, let's at least do it the way the last two Republican presidents have: with a congressional vote.

It's the conservative thing to do.

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