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Before they head out to pasture, GOP veterans owe us this

• Mar 5, 2019 at 3:00 PM

The president who took an oath to protect the U.S. Constitution has taken a blowtorch to it.

Donald Trump's initiative to divert taxpayer money appropriated by the U.S. Congress to address an emergency he himself admits is discretionary takes square aim at one of the bedrock principles — no, the bedrock principle — of our constitutional government.

It's right there in Article I, Section 1: "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States."

A president who tries to spend taxpayer money over the objections of Congress isn't flexing his muscles; he's usurping authority reserved to a different branch of government. And he's threatening to obliterate the separation of powers that distinguishes our form of government from the authoritarian regimes that rule Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.

Can Republican lawmakers who support Donald Trump and Democratic lawmakers who oppose him at least agree that he was elected to preside over only one branch of government? Can they find common cause in defending their own separate and co-equal branch of government from presidential encroachment?

Apparently not. The House and Senate plan to vote on a resolution disapproving the emergency resolution, but are unlikely to garner the support necessary to override Trump's promised veto.

Which is why the retired elders of Michigan's battered Republican Party need to put on their country-before-party pants and stand up — not in opposition to the president or his immigration policy, but in defense of constitutional government.

I'm looking at you, former attorneys general Bill Schuette and Mike Cox. And you, former governors Rick Snyder and John Engler. And you, former U.S. representatives Candice Miller and Peter Hoekstra. And you, former chief justices Robert Young Jr. and Maura Corrigan.

Together, the eight of you have served in state or federal office for more than 160 years. You shaped and personified the values of Michigan's Republican Party for decades before an upstart named Donald Trump co-opted the GOP brand.

Seven of you are in your 60s. And all but former Congresswoman Miller, who currently serves as Macomb County's public works commissioner, have likely closed out your careers in public service.

In short, you have very little to lose by defending the constitutional principles each of you has sworn, on more Bibles than anyone can count, to defend. Those principles require your defense now.

Why GOP veterans' voices matter

I know: You think this is a phony appeal — a cynical effort to embarrass you for maintaining a discreet silence while the courts sort out the dispute between your party's president and a divided Congress. It isn't.

You think the last thing any liberal really wants is for your party to reassert the conservative principles it stood for when you held elective office. You're wrong.

You think that even if you privately agree that the president's emergency order is a flagrant usurpation, the courts will say so soon enough, and that it's neither necessary nor useful for ex-officeholders like yourselves to weigh in. But you're wrong about that, too.

I appreciate the not-my-job argument. It's the same cynical calculation incumbent Republican lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and South Dakota Sen. John Thune made when they agreed not to challenge Trump publicly over his emergency declaration. Both men know the president's initiative can't pass constitutional muster, but they've decided to let justices deliver the bad news. I hope their confidence in the courts is well-placed, and that life-tenured justices will defend Congress' turf more valiantly than the GOP lawmakers whose constitutional authority is under frontal assault have.

The legal challenge filed by attorneys general in Michigan and 15 other states is designed to appeal to the Supreme Court's five most conservative justices, including the two appointed by President Trump.

Although the president has explicitly acknowledged that his border emergency is contrived and self-serving, the court's conservative majority has demonstrated a willingness to disregard his extemporaneous pronouncements, even when they contradict his legal claims. So the states challenging Trump's declaration have down-played arguments about the president's motives in favor of a straightforward assertion that Trump simply lacks the legal authority to contravene Congress's express instructions about border security, whatever his rationale.

A call to norms

But even a 9-0 ruling striking down the emergency declaration would do less to restore Washington's equilibrium than a bipartisan acknowledgment that the president's unprecedented circumvention of Congress is an affront to constitutional norms.

That's where former elected officials like yourselves, who understand what's at risk when those norms are tossed aside, can usefully assert your leadership.

No one expects you to repudiate the president's immigration policy, or to embrace the Democratic argument that his emergency declaration is a sham. Nor are you required to call out Republican incumbents, such as the seven GOP members of Michigan's congressional delegation, for their reluctance to publicly embarrass their party's putative leader.

(Michigan Republicans are understandably scratching their heads over the conundrum exposed last year, when scores of GOP candidates learned they could neither win a Republicans primary without cozying up to Trump nor survive the burden of that affiliation in a general election. Nothing about the experience of Bill Schuette or John James provides a clear roadmap for incumbents hoping to remain standing after 2020.)

All that is needed is for the party's elders to say aloud what most Republican elected officials readily acknowledge in private — that the president's arrogation of spending powers reserved to Congress is a constitutional bridge too far.

Defending democracy

Former Attorney General Mike Cox modeled such an assertion of principle during last year's lame duck session, when he helped put down a Republican initiative to hamstring the newly elected Democratic AG, Dana Nessel. Cox argued persuasively that such a short-sighted stunt would do lasting damage to an office Michigan Republicans hope to recapture.

Imagine the sobering effect of Cox and Schuette endorsing their Democratic successor's sound conclusion (articulated, until recently, by McConnell and other Republican conservatives) that Trump's emergency declaration exceeded his legal authority.

Such a display of leadership would be a rebuke to lapsed Republicans like former Congressman Joe Scarborough and former House Speaker John Boehner, who like to tell TV audiences that their former party has abandoned its commitment to conservative principles like limited government. It would demonstrate that even Republicans who embrace the president's policy objectives can respectfully object when he tramples the constitutional norms Americans in both parties cherish.

I understand that retired generals incur resentment when they second-guess the judgment and tactics of officers on the front lines. It's easier to embrace one's emeritus status, and to avoid public confrontations that imperil friendships and loyalties cultivated over a lifetime.

But I keep thinking about a biography of Adolf Hitler I plowed through a couple of years ago, in which German historian Volker Ullrich scrutinizes the ascent of the demagogue who brought Germany to ruin. and western democracies to the brink. At 900-odd pages, "Hitler: Ascent (1889-1939)" is a heavy lift, but here's the Cliff Notes version:

Hitler, as he emerges in Ullrich's book, is a disappointingly tedious fellow. Once the biographer establishes his subject's bona fides as a delusional psychopath, the Fuhrer is not much more interesting than the fellow who plops down next to you on the train and introduces himself as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

What's striking, in Ullrich's chronicle of Hitler's career, is the parade of ordinary German politicians who manage to sublimate their apprehensions about Hitler's governing style — his demonization of immigrants, for instance, or his habit of invoking emergency powers to circumvent established legal processes — in the hope that Hitler's political success will somehow facilitate their own. (Spoiler alert: Their optimism soon proves unwarranted.)

I'm not equating Hitler's genocidal megalomania with Trump's autocratic ambitions. Still, contested declarations of emergency rule and unprecedented assertions of executive authority have more to do with the fascist tradition of government than with our constitutional one.

The future of our democracy depends on leaders who are willing to recognize the distinction, and to reinforce the guard rails that help keep presidents and members of congress in their own lanes, regardless of party. And we are in deep trouble if Republicans with the most experience and the least to lose no longer stand up for those conservative principles their party once defended reflexively.

Brian Dickerson is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press.

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