Why is President Obama even bothering to ask Congress for a legally tardy Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS? It's a war he's already fighting — and which he clearly intends to keep fighting, regardless of whether the authorization goes through.
If passed, the AUMF is at most "a thumbs-up from Congress for things that the military has already been doing in the Middle East," as New York's Jaime Fuller puts it. Far from limiting executive power, it gives Obama a blank check for war. But here's the thing: To all appearances, he's perfectly willing to write that check himself if he feels the need, yet doesn't trust others to have that same power.
Consider this little-noted incident from the 2012 campaign season: Faced with the possibility of a Mitt Romney presidency, the Obama White House began to press for an explicit set of rules for drone warfare. "There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands," an anonymous administration official explained to The New York Times, which noted tellingly that "[t]he effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, [would instead] be finished at a more leisurely pace."
Obama trusts himself to wage war without clear legal boundaries. He feels a little squeamish about entrusting that same power to a Republican. And as a result, his decision-making process about whether a particular power should be granted to his office is not so much about ethical and constitutional issues as about who will wield that power.
The drone guidelines have turned out to be nearly as toothless of a limiting factor as the AUMF. But in each case, Obama seems interested in establishing at least some legal framework... in case of Republicans.
A similar dynamic is at work in New York City, where a new municipal ID program for undocumented immigrants was designed by City Council Democrats with a provision to delete ID holders' data in the event of a Republican presidential victory in 2016.
"In case a Tea Party Republican comes into [the White House] and says, 'We want all of the data from all of the municipal ID programs in the country,' we're going to take the data," explained City Councilman Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn). "That allows us to prepare for any new leadership."
The AUMF, the drone rules, and the data delete clause all exemplify Democrats' apparent realization that the authority they want has the potential to be abused — a realization which is coupled with a deluded refusal to admit that they too may be abusers.
There is no partisan monopoly on corruption, no R or D stamp of guarantee to ensure power, once acquired, will not be misused. For every Nixon, there's an FDR; and if House of Cards has taught us anything, it's that most people in Washington will get away with whatever they think they can get away with, regardless of party affiliation.
In a 2008 speech now frequently cited by his critics, President Obama seemed aware of the hazard in amassing power in one branch of government. "I take the Constitution very seriously," he said. "The biggest problems that we're facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all. And that's what I intend to reverse when I'm president of the United States of America."
Six years in, it's clear that there will be no such reversal.
The powers Obama and his fellow Democrats want are dangerous not because they may fall into Republican hands, but because they are inherently dangerous. As Adams wrote to Jefferson, "Power always thinks it has a great soul." It cannot be trusted unchecked to anyone of any party, no matter how great their personal confidence in their own integrity.