WASHINGTON — Even as they advocate for limited government, many of the Republican presidential candidates hold expansive views about the scope of the executive powers they would wield if elected - including the ability to authorize the targeted killing of U.S. citizens they deem threats and to launch military attacks without congressional permission.
As Republicans prepare to select their party's 2012 presidential nominee, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have provided detailed answers about their views on executive power in response to questions on the topic posed by The New York Times.
The answers show that most of them see the commander in chief as having the authority to lawfully take extraordinary actions if he decides doing so is necessary to protect national security.
Only Paul, the libertarian-leaning congressman from Texas, argued for a more limited view of presidential power.
The views of the other four candidates who responded echoed in many respects expansive legal theories that were advanced by President George W. Bush.
In certain significant ways, they dovetailed as well with the assertive posture taken by President Barack Obama since taking office, like his expanded use of drones to kill terrorism suspects - including a U.S. citizen.
The answers come against the backdrop of a decade of disputes over the scope and limits of presidential authority.
Because executive branch actions are often secret and courts rarely have jurisdiction to review them, the views of the president - and the lawyers he appoints - about the powers the Constitution gives him are far more than an academic discussion.
Instead, in practice, a president's views can influence such momentous matters as whether and how the country commits acts of warfare abroad, the rights of U.S. citizens at home and the ability of government officials to keep information secret from lawmakers, the courts and the public.
Authorizing lethal force
Asked to describe the circumstances under which the Constitution permits a president to order the targeted killing of a citizen who has not been sentenced to death by a court, Gingrich, Huntsman, Perry and Romney all said that a president could order the killing of a citizen who joins an enemy force that is at war with the United States, at least under certain conditions.
"My preference would be to capture, interrogate, and prosecute any U.S. citizen who has engaged in acts of war against the United States," Romney wrote.
"But if necessary to defend the country, I would be willing to authorize the use of lethal force."
The Obama administration embraced similar reasoning as the basis for a drone strike in Yemen this year that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American whom executive branch officials accused of being a terrorist operative.
Paul, by contrast, described the circumstances in which a president could order the extrajudicial killing of a citizen in one word: "None."
Similarly, while Paul said that a president should not order a military attack without congressional permission unless there was an imminent threat, the other four candidates agreed that a president could do so if he decided it was necessary.
An exception to that pattern was the use of signing statements to claim a right to bypass new statutes - often, provisions in bills that limit executive power - a president signs into law.
The three current and former governors among the candidates - Perry, Huntsman and Romney - each described circumstances in which he would use the device to raise constitutional concerns about legislation, with Romney outlining the most assertive version. The two former House colleagues, Gingrich and Paul, said they would not issue such statements. (Gingrich has taken a more assertive view about constitutional disagreements with the judicial branch, saying presidents may lawfully ignore Supreme Court rulings.)
Two other Republican candidates, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, did not answer the questions.
Obama did not either; his re-election campaign said he had "pursued policies that strengthen our security" while "upholding our laws and values" and suggested that he would debate such matters in greater detail after Republicans chose his opponent.
Presidential power has been growing since the early years of the Cold War and ratcheted forward under the Bush administration, which asserted sweeping theories of presidential powers to bypass statutory and treaty constraints, justifying a range of detention, interrogation and surveillance policies.
As a candidate, Obama accused Bush of undermining the Constitution.
After taking office, Obama ordered strict adherence to anti-torture rules; justified his counterterrorism policies as authorized by Congress and consistent with international law, rather than invoking any inherent powers as commander in chief; and sought to handle terrorism cases that arise on domestic soil exclusively through the criminal justice system rather than using the military.
Still, Obama has outraged civil libertarians by keeping in place the outlines of many Bush-era policies, like indefinite detention and military commissions for terrorism suspects.
And in the Libya air war and the targeted killing of Awlaki, he went beyond Bush's executive-power record.