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Mccain Repudiates Bush On Signing Statements

Michael Abramowitz reports in today's Washington Post that this past week John McCain ruled out the possibility of using presidential signing statements, as the Bush administration has, to advance his administration's interpretive views on legislation. McCain was surprisingly blunt: "Never, never, never, never. If I disagree with a law that passed, I'll veto it."

It's difficult to know what to make of this. On the one hand, McCain's served in Congress for the past 25 years, and it does appear that on some level he has a genuine fondness for legislative power (see, for instance, his response to a survey from the Boston Globe on the matter). Indeed, it's interesting to note that for the past 31 years, we've been governed by presidents who ascended to the presidency from other executive-branch positions, at either the state or federal level. With two sitting members of Congress competing against each other for the presidency for the first time in American history, it's a reasonable bet that the next president will bring to the Oval Office more respect for the prerogatives of Congress than we've seen in recent years (though that's admittedly a pretty low bar to meet).

On the other hand, it seems highly unlikely McCain really means what he's saying here. As Abramowitz points out, this would constitute a pretty radical departure from recent practice. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have taken the position that signing statements, while abused by Bush, are sometimes necessary. And the Republican legal establishment has been the driving force behind the dramatic expansion of signing statements, first during the Reagan administration and again during the current one. I'd venture to say the more likely explanation for McCain's striking position is that, in keeping with his general disdain for the quotidian ins and outs of governing, he simply hasn't thought through the issue very carefully. So, when asked, he responded, in typical McCain fashion, by taking--forcefully and with the utmost moral gravity--the first position that came to his mind. McCain certainly has more experience serving in government than either of his prospective Democratic rivals, but it's an open question whether he's used that time to develop a coherent vision of the president's constitutional role.

--Josh Patashnik