Jacob Sullum

That is the area where John McCain has most clearly distinguished himself from the Bush administration. Last December, in response to a Boston Globe candidate survey focusing on executive power, the Arizona senator also said the president is not free to violate statutory restrictions on wiretaps, and he rejected the use of signing statements as a way of reserving the right to flout laws. But he took a broader view than the other candidates of the president's authority to detain "enemy combatants," and he declined to identify areas where the Bush administration has overstepped its constitutional authority.

Obama, by contrast, gave half a dozen detailed examples. In general, the Illinois senator's answers to the Globe's questions were direct, thoughtful and complete, apparently reflecting a sincere determination to limit his own power if elected.

After the election, of course, such promises may not be worth much. But on that score I worry more about Hillary Clinton. The New York senator's answers to the Globe survey, though less detailed than Obama's, were similar in substance. I just find it hard to believe them.

Clinton agreed, for example, that the president has to seek congressional authorization before attacking another country, except in response to an "imminent threat." Yet she has bragged about urging her husband to bomb Serbia as part of an unauthorized war that had nothing to do with national defense.

Although Clinton now claims to have a modest view of presidential power, she was singing a different tune a few years ago. "I'm a strong believer in executive authority," she told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News in 2003. "I wish that, when my husband was president, people in Congress had been more willing to recognize presidential authority." With the War on Terror as a rationale, her wish could be her command.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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