Say It Ain’t So, NCC!

Apparently, former President Bill Clinton has been chosen as the next chairman of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. In terms of unintentional irony, that’s right up there with “The Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.”

In the waning days of his presidency, Clinton said of the impeachment struggle that he was, “proud of what we did there, because we saved the Constitution of the United States.” Like his successor, he seemed to see the Constitution in highly personal terms–as a document designed to protect his powers and prerogatives. When it came to others’ rights, eh, not so much.

Here are a few Cato publications you can peruse to get a sense of President Clinton’s fidelity to the Constitution: Tim Lynch’s Dereliction of Duty: The Constitutional Record of President Clinton, my paper on Clinton’s Imperial Presidency , and Roger Pilon’s edited volume The Rule of Law in the Wake of Clinton. Tim Lynch summed it up succinctly:

Although President Clinton has expressed support for an “expansive” view of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, he has actually weakened a number of fundamental guarantees, including those of free speech and the right to trial by jury and that against double jeopardy. He has also supported retroactive taxes, gun control, and warrantless searches and seizures. The president’s legal team is constantly pushing for judicial rulings that will sanction expansions of federal power. The Clinton White House has, for example, supported the federalization of health care, crime fighting, environmental protection, and education. Clinton also claims constitutional authority to order military attacks against other countries whenever he deems it appropriate. President Clinton’s record is, in a word, deplorable. If constitutional report cards were handed out to presidents, he would receive an F.

Of course, if we were to grade on a curve, we’d have to bump Bill up a few notches compared to the man who followed him. One of “Lowi’s Laws”–maxims coined by the political scientist Theodore J. Lowi–was “the Law of Succession: Each president contributes to the upgrading of his predecessors.” And George W. Bush’s constitutional record certainly makes Bill Clinton’s look less awful by comparison. Tim and I examined the Bush constitutional record in this 2006 White Paper.

But we shouldn’t grade on a curve. And an institution like the NCC, which otherwise does fantastic work “increasing public understanding of, and appreciation for, the Constitution, its history, and its contemporary relevance,” shouldn’t have a man who repeatedly violated his oath of office as its chairman. In fact, choosing any modern president as NCC chair (Clinton succeeds George H.W. Bush as chairman) is utterly wrongheaded. The modern presidency is an office that has burst its constitutional bonds, so virtually any living ex-president has already violated the document the NCC exists to promote.