by Chris Edelson, assistant professor of government, American University School of Public Affairs. Chris is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.
Presidential candidates may find it easy to score political points by talking tough, especially when there are lots of things for Americans to be afraid of in the context of national security. Governor Scott Walker, a candidate for the Republican nomination, is showing his ability to play this game. However, while this approach may score Walker points with voters, the governor is playing a dangerous game when it comes to presidential power under the Constitution. This is a scenario that has become all too familiar since 9/11.
While campaigning in New Hampshire last weekend, Walker told voters that “I'm not eager to go into open-ended engagements, but I'm not afraid to lay down the law when we have to.” He declared that “I just want people to know that while I'm ready to be firm, my first intention, my first instinct, isn't to send in military forces. But I'm certainly not going to rule it out.” He further explained that “In Iraq, people ask me, 'Would you put boots on the ground?’ I don't rule anything out. The last thing you want to do is send a message to your adversaries, how far you're willing to go, how long you want to be there. That's a foolhardy military strategy that sets up failure. So I wouldn't rule it out. But I wouldn't lead with it.”
Walker’s rhetoric may remind some of dialogue from a John Wayne movie or Tom Clancy novel, but what’s more important is his assumption that it would be up to him, as president, to make these decisions unilaterally. In this vein, Walker argued that “We need a commander-in-chief who understands going forward that radical Islamic terrorism is a threat to us all and will act to do something about it. . . . I'd rather take the fight to them instead of waiting until they bring the fight to us." Note the first person references. Walker’s model for decisions about the use of military force doesn’t seem to include much of a role for Congress. Instead, he envisions a decision-making process dominated by the president. Walker imagines himself making unilateral decisions as to when, whether, and how to use military force.