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Obama vs. Romney III: “I got nuthin’,” But There’s a Reason for That

Lambert Strether, the voice that brings you your weekly Election Countdown, gives you a recap of the third presidential debate in the voices of those who did not get a chance to speak.

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. –Benjamin Franklin

Foreign policy was the subject of the third and final round of debates between the legacy party duopoly candidates, and if I’m asked to review a repeat performance with different players in 2016, I’ll go do something more easy and fun, like having my wisdom teeth removed.

To begin with, I find the foreign policy positions taken by the emergent parties far more congenial than of the legacy parties as expressed in this “debate.”

Jill Stein (Greens):

Protect our personal liberty and freedoms by:

  • repealing the Patriot Act and those parts of the National Defense Authorization Act that violate our civil liberties;
  • prohibiting the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI from conspiring with local police forces to suppress our freedoms of assembly and of speech; and,
  • ending the war on immigrants — including the cruel, so-called “secure communities” program.

Rein in the military-industrial complex by:

  • reducing military spending by 50% and closing U.S. military bases around the world;
  • restoring the National Guard as the centerpiece of our system of national defense; and,
  • creating a new round of nuclear disarmament initiatives.

Gary Johnson (Libertarian):

Bring the Troops Home

AMERICAN MILITARY ACTIVITIES IN AFGHANISTAN SHOULD END, our troops returned home, and the focus of our foreign policy reoriented toward the protection of U.S. citizens and interests.

  • With Osama bin Laden now killed and after 10 years of fighting, U.S. forces should leave Afghanistan’s challenges to the Afghan people.
  • Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, American troops remain scattered throughout Europe. It is time to reevaluate these deployments.
  • The U.S. must make better use of strategic alliances which allow greater sharing of the human and financial burdens at less cost of protecting national interests.
  • AMERICA CAN ACHIEVE OUR FOREIGN POLICY GOALS without sacrificing American values.
  • No criminal or terrorist suspect captured by the U.S. should be subject to physical or psychological torture.
  • Individuals incarcerated unjustly by the U.S. should have the ability to seek compensation through the courts.
  • Individuals detained by the U.S., whether it be at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere, must be given due process via the courts or military tribunals, and must not be held indefinitely without regard to those fundamental processes.

Needless to say, none of these positions were “on the table” in what passed for a debate between the two legacy party candidates. Note that Stein (NDAA) and Johnson (due process) are strong on a restoration of Constitutional governance after the foreign policy-driven aggrandizement of executive power that Bush began and that Obama extended, rationalized, and consolidated. For those concerned — as the Framers were — about tyranny, that strength is an important consideration. James Madison wrote in Federalist #47:

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. … “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or body,” says [Montesquieu], “there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws to execute them in a tyrannical manner. ” Again: “Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with all the violence of an oppressor. ”

And yet such [primitive?] “accumulation of all powers” is exactly what Obama has done with his “Kill List,” about which prominent Democrats — in a classic demonstration of the stupid and/or evil conundrum — profess to know nothing, even though administration figures themselves planted the story on the front page of the New York Times:

[1] Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. … [2] It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die. … [3] The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.

Wading through Izvestia’s sludgy and security-state infested prose power by power, we find: [3] the legislative power writing the law, [2] the judicial power determining who was broken the law, and [1] the executive power imposing the death penalty. All three powers are concentrated in the same hands: The administration’s. That’s tyranny. QED.

But we will hear nothing of this from either legacy party candidate. That’s because for both Romney and Obama, the restoration of Constitutional government is not on the agenda. They are both agreed, going forward, on tyranny. They like it fine. They think it’s swell (as, I may add, must those of their supporters who have done their due diligence). And does anybody serious believe there’s no danger that the “kill list” won’t come home? If so, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. The emergent parties get this right. The legacy parties don’t even get it wrong.

Having implicitly agreed that the American form of government going forward should be tyranny, the legacy party candidates explicitly agreed on much else. Indeed, a philosophers viewing the debate might have been reminded of the question of “the identify of indiscernibles”: Are two things that share all the same properties really one thing? … Identity of indiscernibles: “Brent Bozell, an iconic and well-regarded conservative who serves as president of the Media Research Center, messaged forty-five minutes into the debate: ‘Something is wrong with Romney tonight. He’s refusing to challenge Obama’s failed policies. He’s sounding LIKE Obama. This is terrible.‘” … Identity of indiscernibles: “On most issues, from Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq to Iran, what was striking about the Romney positions in the debate was how little they differed from Obama’s: unquestioned support for Israel if attacked; war against Iran if the country comes really close to making nuclear weapons; moral and some material support for Syrian rebels, but no military involvement; cautious but close engagement with nuclear-armed but oh-so-fragile Pakistan; withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Oh, yes, and China should be made to ‘play by the rules.’ There were no real differences, except that Romney said if he’d been president the last four years he’d have done a better job doing what Obama actually did.” …. Identity of indiscernibles: “The two men spent much of their time in broad agreement on a host of issues, including the nation’s deep commitment to Israel, the plan to remove American military troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the policy of sending drones to kill enemies abroad, and sanctions against Iran.” … Identity of indiscernibles: “But the tension masked the fact that on many levels the two men agree on foreign policy — underscoring the ways in which Obama has undercut the typical advantage Republicans have on national security matters. … Identity of indiscernibles: “But Mr Romney mostly refused to take the bait, agreeing with Mr Obama on the handling of Syria and Egypt, endorsing his use of drones and refusing to re-engage on the controversy of the handling of the September attack of the US consulate in Libya.”

And the pundits? They got nuthin’ either. Polls: “There have been some past debates when the instant-reaction polls judged one candidate to be the winner, but the head-to-head polls eventually moved in the opposite direction” (Nate Silver). … “Audience: “I observed the debate with 80 Wake Forest University alumni in Washington, a sedate crowd most any time, their response, fitting to the debate, was at best tepid. Following the debate I queried the gathering for an instance of ‘something new learned from the debate’ roundly greeted by blank stares.” (Alan Louden, Wake Forest) … Snark: ” Obama was overall presidential, helping his case, but scolding Romney that submarines exist had unflattering, mocking quality.” … Meta: ” Completed the trifecta of appearing as the President’s semiotic equal in every debate” (Mark Halperin). … But let’s look on the bright side: The entire Lynn University campus was on lockdown for (I am told) 48 hours before the balloon went up, so several thousand bright young people got a lesson in compliance with the organs of our national security state!

So, I got nuthin’. The main issue wasn’t debated: Tyranny. The issues that were debated, the candidates agreed on. (“Israel: America’s Greatest Ally, or Greatest Ally of Any Nation, Anywhere, Any Time? You have two minutes”) Gotchas and telling vignettes are fun, but I just don’t have the heart this evening. So I’d like to return to another issue on which both legacy candidates agree: The duties of the President. To the transcript:

OBAMA: Well, my first job as commander in chief, Bob, is to keep the American people safe.

OBAMA: Those decisions generally are not poll tested*. But what the American people understand is that I look at what we need to get done to keep the American people safe and to move our interests forward. And I make those decisions [cf.]

ROMNEY: Look, this, in my view, is the highest responsibility of the President of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people.

(In response to Romney, Obama deploys the battleships and bayonets talking point, which becomes a main focus of attention for the political class). Unfortunately, both legacy party candidates — assuming, for the sake of the argument, that we still have a system of Constitutional government — are wrong in their expressed understanding of the duties of a President. Here is the Presidential Oath of Office, which one of them has already taken, and one of them will take in January 2009:

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.

So, if oaths mean anything these days, the “first job” or “highest responsibility” of the President is not the “safety” of the American people — an infantile conception of both governance and citizenship — but to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution.

But as we have seen, neither legacy party candidate has any interest whatever in doing that. Sad.

NOTE * BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!!! See at “Axelrod.”

NOTE I will return with regular campaign coverage — of all sorts and conditions of campaigns — tomorrow.

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