McCain Sides With Bush on Domestic Surveillance
It is no secret that Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign has a delicate relationship with President George W. Bush. On one hand, McCain has often sought to distance himself from the unpopular president and many of his policies in an effort to appeal to independent voters.
Exhibit A: his remarks Tuesday evening in Kenner, La.:
Exhibit B: When the president visited McCain’s home state of Arizona to attend a campaign fund-raiser, the two appeared together in public for only a brief moment on the airport tarmac as Bush boarded Air Force one to leave.
On the other hand, McCain must walk a tightrope with conservative voters, who may feel slighted if the senator disavows the president too much. From a story in this morning’s USA Today:
As for his ties to his onetime rival Bush, McCain stressed that he is not trying to distance himself in the fall to win over independents, who are a key part of the electorate in battlegrounds such as New Hampshire and Oregon.
"I’m not trying to separate myself," he said. "I’m trying to point out my own record and my own plan of action to solve our housing, energy, economic and national security challenges."
Today, The New York Times reported McCain supports one of the Bush administration’s most controversial policies: the warrantless surveillance of the electronic communications of Americans.
In a letter posted online by National Review this week, the adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, said Mr. McCain believed that the Constitution gave Mr. Bush the power to authorize the National Security Agency to monitor Americans’ international phone calls and e-mail without warrants, despite a 1978 federal statute that required court oversight of surveillance.
Mr. McCain believes that “neither the administration nor the telecoms need apologize for actions that most people, except for the A.C.L.U. and trial lawyers, understand were constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin wrote.
And if Mr. McCain is elected president, Mr. Holtz-Eakin added, he would do everything he could to prevent terrorist attacks, “including asking the telecoms for appropriate assistance to collect intelligence against foreign threats to the United States as authorized by Article II of the Constitution.”
However, as the Times article notes, this position represents a shift from some of the senator’s past statements.
In an interview about his views on the limits of executive power with The Boston Globe six months ago, Mr. McCain strongly suggested that if he became the next commander in chief, he would consider himself obligated to obey a statute restricting what he did in national security matters.
Mr. McCain was asked whether he believed that the president had constitutional power to conduct surveillance on American soil for national security purposes without a warrant, regardless of federal statutes.
He replied: “There are some areas where the statutes don’t apply, such as in the surveillance of overseas communications. Where they do apply, however, I think that presidents have the obligation to obey and enforce laws that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no matter what the situation is.”
While his position could play well with national security-conservatives, it may turn away many of the moderates he has been courting so aggressively. It could also scare off libertarians, who are wary of the expansion of presidential power that has taken place under this administration — many of whom vote Republican. Furthermore, the Obama campaign could use this story as ammunition for a new round of "Bush’s third term" attacks on McCain.
Of all the issues he could have chosen to stand firm with the president, McCain has picked one of the riskiest.