George W. Bush in 2001 declared war on a tactic (terrorism), and empowered Big Brother to tap phones, launch drones, and indefinitely imprison people without due process.
Barack Obama in 2008 declared those Bush policies an overreach, and pledged to curb drone strikes, protect media freedoms, and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Instead, he escalated drone strikes and spied on the media. Gitmo is still open for its grim business.
These are facts. And yet, they are distorted by extreme and narrow-minded partisans, supporters of both Bush and Obama.
Conservatives contend that Bush single-handedly prevented a major terrorist strike after Sept. 11, 2001. They demagogue efforts to shift the pendulum back toward civil liberties. Last week, when Obama finally proposed a modest reassessment of the Bush doctrine, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., claimed the efforts "will be viewed by terrorists as a victory."
Liberals hypocritically gave Obama a pass for furthering the same policies they condemned in 2008. Criticism from the left was half-hearted and muted, compared with their Bush-era indignation. On Gitmo, left-wingers rightly blamed the GOP for blocking closure but didn't shame Obama into using his executive authority to shutter the pit.
Some progressives even tried to justify the Obama administration's efforts to criminalize the work of a Fox News reporter. Would they be so blase about a White House targeting MSNBC?
As Leonard Downie Jr. wrote in Sunday's Washington Post, "Hardly anything seems immune from constitutionally dangerous politicking in a polarized Washington."
But that's no excuse for missing the big picture, which is this: Bush and Obama shouldn't worry you nearly as much as the next president.
Or the one after that.
Think about it, liberals. What if there is a president in your lifetime who is more conservative than Bush? What if that commander in chief is empowered, as were Bush and Obama, by a national tragedy and a compliant Congress?
Your guy Obama has armed a president-turned-zealot with dangerous powers and precedents.
Think about it, conservatives. It may be maddening to listen to Obama tie himself into knots over the balance between liberty and freedom, but what if the next Democratic president sees no limit on a commander in chief's powers? What if he or she doesn't give a whit about offending the mainstream media?
The IRS targeting conservatives is a scandal, but there is no evidence that it was directed by the White House. What if the next Democratic president publicly declared his or her political opponents a direct threat to national security, and openly deployed federal agents against them?
Before your eyes roll out of your heads, it is not unthinkable that a future president could make Bush and Obama look downright libertarian. We live in an age of rapid connectivity and hyper-celebrity, forces that create, destroy, and often resurrect public figures within the lifespan of a cicada. Does the name Justin Bieber ring a bell?
How about Sarah Palin? Our culture of celebrity coupled with the public's disaffection with Washington, could lead to the election of a true demagogue or reactionary. Put it this way: What if Huey Long had had access to the Internet? Or even Pat Buchanan? Don't be blinded by partisanship.
Left-wingers should be fighting the abuse of executive powers at home and abroad, rather than defending them.
Right-wingers should be demanding that Obama finally carry out the promises of his speech last week, rather than demonizing them.
What about the rest of us? How do we keep the country both safe and free? We don't cede the public square to these extremists.