You are herecontent / John Nichols: Does U.S. want change, or more Cheney?
John Nichols: Does U.S. want change, or more Cheney?
By John Nichols, Capital Times
ST. LOUIS -- Last week's vice presidential debate was really a junior presidential debate, in which Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin worked the issues with all the rhetorical passion and ideological positioning that we have seen in the dust-ups between Barack Obama and John McCain.
But there was one point at which Biden and Palin actually discussed what they might DO as vice president.
And Palin's response was sobering.
As a biographer of Dick Cheney and the author of a history of presidential power, I've spent the past few years not just pondering but worrying about the current vice president's determination to expand the authority and reach of his office -- and in so doing to tip the balance of the separation of powers in favor of a supercharged "unitary executive."
Cheney has, since he served in the House in the 1980s, outlined a vision of an executive branch that is the dominant force in federal government. He has rejected the system of checks and balances that the Founding Fathers established as an essential protection against the sort of monarchical abuses that inspired the American Revolution. Former White House counsel John Dean described the abuses of power initiated and zealously defended by Cheney as "worse than Watergate." And he thought that dozens of members of Congress would ultimately embrace the constitutional tool for controlling against executive excess: articles of impeachment targeting the vice president.
The majority of Americans tell pollsters that they favor moves by Congress to constrain Cheney and surveys suggest that he may well be the most feared and unpopular vice president in the history of the republic.
Yet, in her first and only vice presidential debate, Sarah Palin embraced Cheney's vision of an expanded vice presidency and actually proposed expanding on it.
"I'm thankful that the Constitution would allow a bit more authority given to the vice president also, if that vice president so chose to exert it, in working with the Senate -- and making sure that we are supportive of the president's policies and making sure too that our president understands what our strengths are," Palin volunteered toward the end of Thursday night's discourse in St. Louis.
Moderator Gwen Ifill, in one of the few follow-ups of the night, noted, "Governor, you mentioned a moment ago that the Constitution might give the vice president more power than it has in the past. Do you believe, as Vice President Cheney does, that the executive branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency; that is, it is also a member of the legislative branch?"
"Well, our Founding Fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position," began Palin, repeating her dubious contention that the founders intended the job to be a "flexible" vehicle for advancing a president's agenda. The job was established by the founders as a position to be held by the runner-up in the presidential race.
"Yeah, so -- and I -- I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation," Palin continued. "And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as VP with -- with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also."
Palin, as the debate made clear, is no expert on the Constitution.
Biden, as it happens, teaches constitutional law at a university in Delaware and is the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
His response to Palin's power-grabbing instinct was as instructive as it was reassuring.
"Vice President Cheney's been the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history. (He) doesn't realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States -- that's the executive; he works in the executive branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that," Biden began. "And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president to preside over the Senate only in a time when, in fact, there's a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit: The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is to vote only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress. The idea he's part of the legislative branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive, and look where it's gotten us. It has been very dangerous."
Not only does Sarah Palin fail to recognize the danger, she proposes to increase it.
In so doing, she has added an important factor that Americans will need to consider in November when they choose between the Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin tickets:
Do they want change, or more Cheney?
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times.