Signing statements and hypocrisy

We talked yesterday about new efforts from congressional Republicans to limit the powers of President Obama’s office. In particular, the GOP push includes three main tactics: an indefinite suspension of recesses in order to prevent recess appointments, a new measure intended to prevent the president from issuing “signing statements,” and a roadblock in the Senate on confirmation votes, leaving key administration posts empty.

A surprising number of conservatives were outraged by my piece, not because it’s wrong, but because they think they’ve found evidence of hypocrisy. At RedState, for example, Dan McLaughlin had this piece:

Expecting consistency from left-wing political activists is folly, but rarely does one get such a glaring example as the Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen on presidential “signing statements.” Watch, and your head will spin.

McLaughlin then notes a series of posts that I wrote over the course of several years criticizing the Bush administration’s use of signing statements. He then notes yesterday’s post when I wrote: “Also note, the same day as this letter about recesses, House Republicans also began pushing a measure to prevent the president from issuing ‘signing statements’ — another power presidents have been using for generations.”

This proved fascinating to all kinds of conservatives, who saw it as obvious proof that I opposed key presidential powers during the Bush era, only to support them now.

As much as I appreciate the interest, I really wish McLaughlin and others who loved his post had thought this through a little more.

Signing statements are not a new presidential tool, and while usage has varied throughout administrations, the statements are nearly as old as the presidency itself.

I criticized George W. Bush’s use of signing statements, not because he created the instrument of presidential power, but because he abused it in ways unseen in American history. I never argued against the existence of signing statements; I argued against Bush’s misuse of the power. And if President Obama abuses this power in the same way, I’ll criticize him, too.

And therein lies the point. McLaughlin’s take is purely surface-level analysis: Bush issued signing statements; I ran criticism; Obama issues signing statements; I don’t think Congress should take that power away. Ergo, hypocrisy.

What’s needed here is just a little depth of thought. Consider the two presidencies:

Under Bush: The president took an existing power, abused it, and congressional Republicans expressed no concerns at all.

Under Obama: The president has the same power, isn’t abusing it, and congressional Republicans want to take that power away.

Criticizing Bush then, and congressional Republicans now, isn’t hypocrisy. If this makes “your head spin,” maybe it should be screwed on just a little tighter.

* Postscript: If the right wants to go after Obama on his pre-election rhetoric about signing statements, conservatives would be on much firmer ground, but that’s only tangentially relevant here.