The Democratic debate on Saturday proved one thing: powerful interests that transcend the political parties have an agenda. That's the only explanation for the talking point mindlessly repeated by virtually all of the presidential candidates in both parties: "It is the first job of the president to keep Americans safe."
Maybe it's a slogan that's been thrown around in Council on Foreign Relations meetings or some other gathering of the wonderful people who make all the decisions for us rubes. But wherever it came from, it was certainly no coincidence Americans heard it from virtually every candidate, Democrat or Republican, during the past two debates. It would have been only slightly spookier if they heaped effusive praise on Raymond Shaw.
More important than it being creepy and patronizing is that it's completely wrong. The first job of the president is not to keep Americans safe. It is to defend their liberty.
The oath the president takes wasn't something Madison thought up off the cuff. The question of who should be required to take oaths and what they should swear to or affirm was extensively debated during the convention. The final wording of the oath is:
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
The president doesn't swear to keep Americans safe. He swears he will defend the Constitution, first and foremost, with all other duties subordinate. The president isn't alone. Anyone connected with federal or state governments is required to swear to essentially the same:
"The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
I suspect most Americans don't really understand what "defend the Constitution" or even what the word "constitutional" means anymore. Yes, the oaths refer to the written federal constitution, the first of its kind in human history.
But "constitution" was a term used in political contexts long before 1789. Thomas Paine referred to "the British constitution" even though it was not written down. Aristotle talked about "the constitutions" of various societies in his Politics.
"Constitution" has a specific meaning in a political context that has nothing to do with written documents. It describes the delegation and distribution of political power within a given society. In the liberal tradition, it is recognized as the power the people have consented to grant the government and the way they have decided that power is to be organized and limited.
Constitution does not necessarily mean democratic or republican. In the British constitution of 1789, the executive power was vested in a monarch. He or she inherited that power from the previous monarch. The United States Constitution vested that power in a president, who obtained his office by democratic election. Both represented parts of the constitutions of the respective nations, even though one was written and republican and the other unwritten and monarchical.
So what the president and every legislator, judge and officer of the federal and state governments are swearing to defend is the limits on power delegated to the government and the specific organization of that power, as consented to by the people. The reason for the oath is recognition of the tendency for governments to accumulate power they haven't been granted.
The motivation doesn't necessarily have to be sinister. Most people who work in law enforcement and security have good intentions. That doesn't make them less dangerous to liberty. They often resent that Constitutional protections like the Fourth and Fifth Amendments make their jobs a lot harder. They don't like to see guilty people go free or tragedies like San Bernardino not prevented. Those understandable emotions are the stuff of chains.
It's no accident that immediately after replacing "defending the Constitution" with "keeping Americans safe," politicians from both parties enthusiastically proposed fundamentally violating the Constitution. Both the Republican and Democratic frontrunners have denigrated free speech in the past few weeks. They propose to usurp not only power they haven't been granted, but which is specifically prohibited by the Constitution they'll swear to defend. That their intentions are good doesn't change what this represents: tyranny, by definition.
Every four years, we're told the current presidential election is the most crucial in history. The future of America supposedly rests upon which head bureaucrat is chosen to lead the $4 trillion monster on the Potomac. These claims have no basis in reality. Policies rarely change significantly when new presidents take office.
The real danger to America isn't posed by any one politician, but by the steady erosion of the ideals of this republic in the minds of the American people themselves. That's where the Constitution really lives, if it means anything at all.