John McCain talks a big game, but does he have the chops to be commander in chief?
On his website, John McCain claims that "the most sacred responsibility vested in a president - the commander in chief - is to ‘preserve and protect’ American citizens." In other words, McCain gets it wrong from the very start. The most sacred responsibility of the President is to preserve and protect the Constitution:
Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
--Article II, Section 1, Clause 8
Why is the President’s job to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution (and not, strictly speaking, the country)? Because it is our Constitution and the rights it guarantees that make our country special and give it the moral grounds to exist. It is also the mechanism by which internal disputes are resolved without bloodshed, allowing us to act as one and defend ourselves in the face of foreign attacks. Without that, we are nothing but a hodgepodge of various peoples, all with competing interests, easily divided and conquered. In effect, the Constitution protects us from dissolving into anarchy, fighting amongst ourselves, and becoming ripe for takeover by a foreign power. Without putting the Constitution first, we can’t protect American citizens from their enemies—foreign or domestic.
If you get it wrong about who we are and what is the most important thing to defend, how can you be expected to have the judgment to be President?
This is no trivial matter. It goes to the core of what kind of experience we will have should McCain win. We will have bought into the idea that physical security is more important than what we are securing. With McCain we will see the U.S. take actions that provide the appearance of physical security while the rich skim off the profits and the poor pay for military interventions on borrowed money. This scam will continue, as it has with the Bush Administration, until there is literally no more value in American assets; and then we will see that there is no security and no liberty, only the slavery of paying off debt as a resource colony for rich masters.
This has been the central issue of presidential races since Reagan won the White House. The American people have reached higher and higher levels of creature comforts, so much so that maintaining our comfort levels has become more important to the typical voter than what the country stands for or what will be in our long-term interests. In every election we are offered various flavors of who will most "‘preserve and protect’ American citizens" while failing at the most sacred responsibility of the President: to preserve and protect the Constitution.
The President must think about and act on the long-term interests of the country. Being "commander in chief" is only a part of that. It is a vital part, to be sure, because the Constitution won’t last if the country is taken over by barbarians. More subtly, it won’t last if the country loses its economic independence, something we are seeing in the current financial crises. So, what does it really mean to be "commander in chief"?
First and foremost, it means what the Constitution says:
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States...
--Article II, Section 2, Clause 1
While McCain (and Republicans generally) seek to expand the meaning of "commander in chief" to make it sound like the Constitution gives the President authority to command the country, the Constitution is very specific and limited in what it says. It says that the President is commander in chief of the Army and the Navy and of the militias when called into actual service of the United States. Commanding the militias is a power that kicks in when there is a war or an actual attack from a foreign power. The power of commander in chief was designed specifically to give the President the automatic power to wield the military might of the country if Britain or France tried to invade us. Its main intent was to give civilian oversight to the military by putting someone who was a civilian elected official in overall charge of the military in those times and in those areas where the civilian government was not able to function.
We should notice that right now this gives the President no power outside of controlling the military. There is no war, so the President doesn’t have the legitimate power to command the militias. It doesn’t give the President any power to order search outside of normal court procedures, it doesn’t give his administration the power to torture people or hold them without trial, and it doesn’t give them power to seize assets at the border or anywhere else.
The power of commander in chief does not give the President power to preserve or protect American citizens. Instead, this is the duty of the U.S. government as a whole.
And for that there are adequate powers granted by the Constitution, powers that do not require violation of law or subverting the letter of the Constitution—never mind its meaning. Sweeping powers are granted, but they are part of a package. They are to be used by the system as a whole, not independently by a President gone amuck.
We’ve seen what happens when a President uses his "judgment" in a vacuum, deciding on his own what’s good for the country and ignoring, overriding or bamboozling Congress and the courts into going along. McCain is headed down the same path. He’s embraced George Bush and all he has wrought. When asked what we should do about evil, he said, "Defeat it." This is not the cry of someone who will take anyone else’s opinion into account, because he doesn’t have the common sense to realize that his view of what is evil could be flawed, or that his idea about how to defeat it might be flat out wrong.
And here he is on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, telling us that he wants to drill for more oil. Nothing could be a clearer indication of someone who doesn’t have the judgment to be President. Putting all facts aside, he’s wants to add to the long-term problem, global warming, a problem that will cost Americans far more "at the pump" than they’ve ever seen register on its face. He knows, as all of us who’ve looked at the numbers more than passingly, that this is not a realistic solution to our problem, and yet he panders to the voters because he thinks it will get him elected.
With all due respect to Obama, I’m calling McCain out on this. It shows a character flaw. It shows that he isn’t prepared to be President. The President must take the interests of the country to heart and act for the good of the whole country. Increasing our dependence on oil at the cost of building means of energy production that don’t contribute to global warming is anathema to the defense of the country. Investment in renewable domestic sources is critical from the economic perspective of keeping our dollar strong and it is critical from the perspective of physically protecting the country from the ravages of severe climate change. What we critically need on this issue is a real maverick, someone who can talk strait and who will tell it like it is to the American people, letting them know that drilling won’t provide any short-term relief in prices and will undermine long-term energy strategy.
There’s nothing that shows how little McCain is prepared to be President than his "drill now" initiative. It’s disingenuous. (Letting leases in environmentally sensitive areas won’t result in any drilling now; it will just allow oil companies to drill later when they feel the price is high enough for them to make a profit). It’s greedy. (It doesn’t mean the U.S. consumers will get a break. Oil is totally fungible, and any extra oil will go on the world market, where it will primarily go to helping China and other countries expand their economies—at the expense of ours.) It favors the rich over the poor. (How many of McCain’s expected voters own any stock in Exxon-Mobile?)
But the worst part is that it fails the "commander in chief" test. Because the broader implications of being commander in chief—looking out for the safety of the country—imply that the President would use his normal powers and his leadership position to make sure that the government does not do anything that would undermine our independence. Increasing the use of oil undermines the security of the country by taking money that would be spent on alternative energy R&D and spending it on what amounts to a giveaway to one of our richest industries. Those industries, by the way, are not owned by American citizens. They are multinational corporations, whose profits go to rich people everywhere. It’s not as if those profits are going to stay in the U.S., working for our economy.
Strictly on the question of patriotism, we have to doubt that any patriot would want to increase oil supplies. The chief beneficiary of this policy would be the Chinese. I have nothing against their country getting what it fully deserves, which is democratic institutions, protection of individual rights, and a modern economy and lifestyle. I just don’t want to see it happen any more at our expense. A good commander in chief, one who was looking out for our security interests, would be especially cognizant of our tenuous position on the world stage. We no longer have control of our energy sources (most of them are overseas), we no longer do our own manufacturing for our primary needs (we buy almost all consumer goods from other countries), we no longer have control of our finances (we’ve borrowed heavily from overseas to finance Republican spending and our wealth-generating jobs have been largely outsourced), and we don’t have control of our military (we are totally reactive, allowing our military to be drawn into conflicts whether that’s good for us or not). Where’s the independence? Who’s going to fight for our independence in any of these areas?
In ten years or so, regardless of whether we drill on the OCS or in ANWR, we are going to run out of domestic oil. The next eight years are critical to moving this country off oil as its main source of energy and replacing that with something that is environmentally neutral and chiefly produced domestically. Solar, wind and geothermal fit the bill. Any energy policy that is not highly focused on those sources is not in the best interests of the country. Any candidate who isn’t totally focused on providing that is risking the independence of the United States.
Because I guarantee you that if we are not independent of oil within fifteen years, we will not be independent politically or militarily. We will be at the mercy of our suppliers. The foreign policy of the United States will be whatever China, Saudi Arabia and Russia want it to be. We have one chance to get it right, and that chance is now.
What would a President with solid judgment do to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States?
- Abide by the rule of law and work with Congress and the courts according to the procedures laid out in the Constitution.
- Tell the American people the truth about the strategic situation and why the U.S. must focus entirely on domestic, renewable energy in order to maintain its functional independence as a nation.
- Set policy goals that are in the nation’s best interests and promote them in Congress and to the American people.
Those policy goals need to include:
- Withdrawing our military from engagements that are not strictly necessary for the security of the country or the world, using all due care.
- Re-engaging in diplomatic relations with the rest of the world and working in the multi-lateral system to achieve our foreign policy goals.
- Eliminating outsourcing of government services where possible and using the retained profits to provide government services at lower costs.
- Setting up guaranteed healthcare with a core of nationally provided healthcare that is competitive with healthcare delivery in other advanced countries.
- Establishing international standards for wages, working conditions and environmental protections that put U.S. industry on an equal playing field with the rest of the world and then infusing international trade agreements we are part of with those standards—thus carefully and deliberately moving industrial capacity back to the United States.
- Adjusting the tax load so that lower and middle-class families have enough disposable income to revitalize the economy.
- Funding and promoting basic research that increases our technology base, especially research that cuts energy costs and provides domestic, renewable sources of energy.
Is there any of these goals that McCain favors? Strictly by looking at what is in the best interests of the country and what he has proposed, it’s clear that he doesn’t have the judgment to be President. This isn’t a personal attack. It’s simply a matter of comparing what we need with what he says he will do.
I’m sure that McCain cares deeply about the country. He signed up for military duty in a time when it was clear that he was going to be risking his life in doing so. The problem is that his core beliefs seem to lead him to the wrong answers. By taking on the rigid and largely pro-elite philosophy of radical right-wing ideology, he has laid out a set of policies that are at odds with the good of the country. No matter how sincerely he might believe that what he would do is for the good of that country, it’s clear that it will be an unmitigated disaster if allowed to pass. Execution of these radical conservative policies by the Bush Administration created a sequence of disasters and missed opportunities that have all but squandered the leadership in the world we had achieved by the twenty-first century. Our meager goal now is that of not losing our position as one of the super players, rather than using that position for the good of the world. This is the enduring legacy of right-wing ideology, something that should doom it to the sidelines forever.
Our country stands at the threshold of a very challenging time where the face of the world is being remade by the vast and irrepressible forces of billions of humans divvying up scarcer and scarcer vital resources—food, energy, fresh water, the very oxygen we breathe. We must take a bigger view. We cannot let the cowboy mentality that Ronald Reagan sold as the American birthright become the dominant ideology of the world. To do so will wreck the planet, alienating us from everyone else, and dooming future generations to cleaning up our mess—should they survive.
The President must be a leader, not a commander. That person must be on target with their vision of the future. They must be willing to stand in recognition of the facts about our situation and prepared to show the right path through the morass, even when it isn’t popular to do so. They must be capable of educating our citizens, as well as all citizens of the world, on the critical issues of our time and convincing them through legitimate means of what must be done. There is no longer any slack in the system for people to waste money on wars or for money grubbing at the international level. Just keeping everyone fed and clothed over the next few decades is going to be a challenge. We cannot afford a President who is far off the mark on the critical issues of our times.