At the heart of the American political system is the separation of powers. Congress legislates, the President administers and the Supreme Court adjudicates. These checks and balances have prevented the rise of an authoritarian leader or similar usurpation of power by a small group.
The limits on the power of Congress and the Supreme Court makes any attempt to steamroll through the other branches of government unlikely. Congress can pass laws favored by a majority of its members, but the President and Supreme Court can impede their enforcement or even negate them. The Supreme Court, which only gets involved into issues acted upon by Congress or the President, has no real avenue to dominate the other two branches. It can only halt laws or actions until another one is initiated by either of the other two branches.
The Presidency is different. The President administers laws that Congress passes. In that function, the President has a wide range of actions through executive orders. While executive orders are supposed to implement laws, Congress has a tendency to write ambiguity into its laws. This allows a broad range of interpretations by the President. Sometimes, as in the case of the Obama administration’s attempt to halt deportations on five million undocumented aliens. Obama’s implementation of the law generated controversy. The courts were divided in response, leading up to a deadlocked Supreme Court decision that upheld the next highest court ruling which called Obama’s actions unconstitutional. This is not a rare action. Most Presidents get their hands slapped by the courts. This is how the system of checks and balances is supposed to operate.
However, there is one part in the array of Presidential powers that rarely gets checked. That is the President’s power as commander-in-chief. President’s have used these powers in far-ranging actions that go beyond the movement of troops, supplies and equipment. It involves far-reaching social policy. Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order on the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII came from his powers as commander-in-chief. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was another war-time executive social change. While it is possible that Congress and the Supreme Court can come back at a later date and reverse the President’s actions, there is one act as commander-in-chief that is completely irrevocable. That is the use of nuclear weapons.
Back in the 1950s, the U.S. government tried to pacify tensions of nuclear war in the population by suggesting that a massive nuclear attack would not be just survivable for a handful of people, but for the entire country. Duck and cover drills eventually lost their legitimacy. Somewhere in the process, hardly anyone even considers nuclear war during a presidential campaign. That wasn’t always the case.
In the 1964 election, the threat of nuclear war was at the centerpiece of Lyndon Johnson’s campaign against Barry Goldwater. Goldwater’s motto was “In your heart, you know he is right.” Goldwater’s plea was over morality, and the upheavals of the tumultuous 60s. Goldwater was also a hawk and spoke of using nuclear weapons to defoliate Vietnam’s forests. Although he tried to backtrack on that statement, it stuck to him. That led Johnson to respond with a counter to Goldwater’s motto: “In your heart, you know he might.”
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Americans lived with the threat of nuclear war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, that slowly changed. Now more countries have nuclear weapons and more have the capability to make them, but Americans are blase about the possibility of nuclear war
The United States and Russia still have approximately 7,000 nuclear weapons each. The other remaining seven nuclear powers have combined stockpiles in excess of 1,000. While that is far less than the height of the Cold War, it is still enough to send civilization back to the dark ages. Even though hardly anyone gives it a thought anymore, Russian and American missiles remain on a hair-trigger with targets pre-locked and missiles ready to fire. We are only a crisis, miscalculation or technological error from destruction.
Of all the issues in a Presidential campaign, nuclear war should be paramount. A President can foul an economy, poison social relations, disrupt trade relations and violate the Constitution, but all those are repairable. A President can also order the firing of nuclear weapons. Once done, that cannot be changed.
In case of an attack, the President has minutes to respond. However, a President faced with a decision to respond will be given those options only after the Strategic Command is confirmed that a launch has occurred. Americans would like to think that is the only option in which nuclear weapons could be fired. In fact, the President can fire them at any moment.
The President needs only to take aside the military aide holding the “football” or nuclear launch codes. That gives the President the nuclear strike options and authentication codes needed to launch. The one restraint on the President is that he must confer with the Secretary of Defense. Of course, like Richard Nixon’s Saturday night massacre during the Watergate era, the President could fire the Secretary of Defense and work down the chain of command until he found a Secretary of Defense willing to agree with the launch. From there, the order goes to the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and the missiles will be launched in minutes. The only two people standing in the way of the President using nuclear weapons are two of his appointees, the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they would have to disobey orders, face court-martial, and believe that they know enough to overrule the President.
The only Constitutional tug on the President is if the Vice-President and Cabinet vote that the President is incapacitated. Of course, that takes time. When missiles are being launched, more time is only possible by disobeying orders and hoping that a subordinate will not follow them. In other words, it is not a viable option.
The threat of nuclear war did not die with the Soviet Union. It is very much alive today. It is simply not discussed. Yet, every voter should weigh the temperament of a Presidential candidate in the face of a potential nuclear war. In a President, there needs to be an odd mix of restraint and decisiveness. In this Presidential election year, temperament is more important than ever.
The President is not just the President when it comes to nuclear weapons but a nuclear monarch. That is a power rarely discussed, but one that every voter should consider as if one’s life depended on it. Because it does.