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Hillary, Barack & The Role of the Presidency

By Daniel Henninger

Is the nation's future too important to be left to presidential candidates?

Given their druthers, the candidates arrayed before us likely would photo-op their way from here to the acceptance speech. Last weekend, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama competed for inheritor of the civil-rights legacy, circa Selma 1965, while Messrs. Giuliani, Romney, Gingrich and five others skipped stones across the surface of conservative conventional wisdom at the CPAC convention.

OK, this is what politicians do. Or this is what they do when the imperatives of the modern presidential campaign require that one run full-tilt boogie toward the office 11 months before the primaries and some 600 days before the nation chooses a new president. But what does any of it have to do with us, with what's going on in the real world outside the cottage industry of our politics? We and they seem to be operating in separate universes just now: they in the beanbag political world as defined by campaign consultants and we in the world defined by al Qaeda, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il and Vladimir Putin.

The world beyond America's borders isn't dormant; it is a globalized world trembling with problems and troubles that will remain after George Bush leaves office. Iraq's future, Iran's bomb, homicidal Islam, conniving North Korea, unhelpful Russia, rising China, booming India, Venezuela's oil, Mexico's human export. In our system, these matters are the responsibility of a president. But the campaign is devolving into a campaign about nothing. Rudy's kids? Hillary's "apology"? Set against the moment of the office they wish to hold, this is infantile.

Republican candidate policy is unavoidably yoked to the Bush patrimony, more or less. (John McCain is the undisputed master of the art of more or less.) The greater burden of proof falls on the Democratic contenders. The Democratic Party has built opposition to the presidency of George Bush wholly around the war in Iraq. So much so that the Democratic Party's worldview by now resembles a Steinberg New Yorker cartoon--a wavy circle around Iraq, or even just Baghdad, with nothing beyond but vaporous nation shapes. It's no accident that their major foreign-policy effort should be "non-binding."

For the purposes of picking the next president, we should be glad that Democrats have made the presidency itself--its foreign-policy decisions and the use of presidential authority (Guantanamo, wiretapping, the war decision)--the core of their criticism. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are their standard bearers. Logically, one wonders: What do they think a presidency should be? What are their views on the exercise of presidential authority? Let's find out now, before it's too late.

Historically, a U.S. president's tools are two: soft power and hard power. Soft power is diplomacy. Hard power is the military. The question that one wants answered soon is: Have the Democrats become a soft-power-only party? Hillary Clinton especially has berated the Bush presidency for not being willing to "talk" to the likes of Iran and Syria. Reading Democratic foreign-policy intellectuals of late, it is hard to find the conditions under which they would deploy U.S. military resources. The military option may be on the Democrats' table, but it's buried beneath a foot-high pile of talking points. Have the Democrats, in their opposition to the Bush Doctrine, forced anyone seeking their nomination into a soft-power-only corner? Someone should ask them.

This matter links unavoidably to presidential authority.

Presidents and the Congress live in perpetual tension over the uses and limits of presidential authority. Nothing new there. And with George Bush, both Republicans and Democrats have sought to rein in presidential power, notably in their dispute over wiretaps and the FISA statute. But the Democrats have gone further. The current Murtha proposal in the House on troop deployments is a hard challenge to presidential authority. They also have tried to thwart less controversial exercises of presidential authority--refusing votes on judicial nominees and putting holds on executive-branch appointments.

Sen. Clinton, as president, would you assent to these limits on executive power, or would you refuse to abide them? Sen. Edwards, is Carl Levin's reading of the FISA statute on the wiretapping of suspected terrorists your reading of that statute? Sen. Obama, do you support the Murtha proposal on Iraq? Could you all elaborate your understanding of the term, "commander in chief"? Or the War Powers Resolution. Or the pardon power.

Congressional ambivalence toward presidential authority is likely a large part of the fact that no sitting senators other than John F. Kennedy and Warren G. Harding have ascended to the presidency. Rudy Giuliani may be outstripping John McCain because voters see Sen. McCain as a creature, however eminent, of Congress. Bill Clinton established the outer limits of domestic presidential authority. Would Clinton-44 settle for less? Not likely, but someone should ask her.

Even if you argue that Mr. Bush brought this on himself, the fact remains that presidential authority is in a hole. At this rate of erosion, there will be such lack of clarity about the presidential role come January 2009 that any new president will spend an entire term merely reestablishing his or her authority. A Democratic president who hasn't drawn a line in the presidential sand will be in hock to the party's pacifist left. Absent a vigorous debate on these matters, we are likely to elect a weak President, no matter who wins.

There is no bigger campaign issue than the proper role of the presidency. On current course, our winner the morning of Nov. 5, 2008 may be uttering Robert Redford's famous last line in "The Candidate": "What do we do now?" As with the primaries, let's move up the answer to that question from too late to very early.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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