It’s generally difficult to say with any confidence whether Karl Rove believes his own rhetoric, but let’s hope he realizes how silly this is.
Karl Rove, a former White House adviser to President George W. Bush, said Sunday that President Obama takes greater liberties with his executive power than his predecessor did.Speaking to “Fox News Sunday,” Rove accused Obama of picking and choosing which laws he will enforce and which ones he won’t.“This is imperial power,” Rove said. “This is George III.”
This is deeply foolish.
For much of American history, there have been institutional tug-of-war competitions between the executive and the legislative, each battling for more authority. The separation of powers, with occasional judicial intervention, has seen periods of fluidity.
But to suggest, as Rove does, that President Obama has gone much further than his former Bush/Cheney team is demonstrably ridiculous. There’s no need to see this as some kind of contest, but if we’re going to rank administrations by their willingness to push the envelope on executive power, Obama is going to have to be far more ambitious if he intends to catch up to his immediate predecessor.
If Rove genuinely doesn’t understand this, he may need a refresher on recent history.
Every president has seen signing statements as a legitimate tool, for example, but Bush/Cheney took this to unprecedented lengths, using signing statements to announce Bush’s intention to ignore several hundred laws he didn’t like. Obama has also issued signing statements, but he’s relied less on the tool and narrowed their scope.
Similarly, Republicans may now believe executive orders are outrageous, but Bush/Cheney issued more of these orders than Obama, both in raw totals and in average per year.
But this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Bush/Cheney decided to ignore the FISA law in its surveillance program, then demanded Congress approve “retroactive immunity” for everyone involved. Bush/Cheney decided to ignore laws against torture. Bush/Cheney quietly embraced the notion of a “Unitary executive.”
This recent report from Adam Serwer comes to mind.
“Cheney and Addington have laid down – they’ve buried a lot of little nuggets all around the federal bureaucracy that give this president and future presidents a tool that they can use to disregard portions of laws that they don’t like, or to interpret those laws so narrowly as to defeat Congress’s intended purpose,” reporter Barton Gellman told NPR in 2008, describing the pair’s approach to signing statements.
At the time, congressional Republicans not only went along with all of this, they celebrated the executive branch’s expansive powers. GOP lawmakers abandoned any sense of institutional pride, choosing instead to applaud George W. Bush as he pushed the envelope further and further.
It’s what makes Rove’s whining – and House Speaker John Boehner’s prospective lawsuit – so obviously ridiculous. If these members had even so much as raised an eyebrow when Bush/Cheney boasted about ignoring laws they found inconvenient, they might have a little more credibility when accusing Obama of being an out-of-control tyrant. But they never said a word.
There’s very little in Obama’s record that’s outside modern norms for executive power. His critics may find that unsatisfying, but it’s true. Indeed, when Boehner published a two-page memo last week about the president’s alleged overreach, it included exactly zero specific examples to bolster its case.
It should have been a not-so-subtle hint about the seriousness of these complaints.
As for Karl Rove, it would appear his understanding of recent history and institutional powers is about as reliable as his understanding of how best to spend $400 million in an election cycle.