Will: Why Voters Should Listen to Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd's modest ambition is to get Democratic primary voters to say: "We want to give the white-haired guy a chance." The color of his hair is the most that most Democrats know about the five-term senator from Connecticut who in 1994 came within one vote of being elected leader of Senate Democrats. The chairman of the banking committee is amusing, experienced and a plausible president. But because of candidate clutter, he is competing for crumbs of time during the endless purgatory of the mis-begotten and misnamed "debates."

Dodd remembers Sen. Eugene McCarthy long ago saying that it would be nice if the Senate were a place to which people of reputation came, rather than a place where people come to make reputations. When Dodd says he wishes presidential contests were like that, he might not have Barack Obama in mind but should be forgiven if he thinks Obama has reversed the proper sequence.

Dodd has raised enough money to spread his message in early contests and be, he says, "structurally ready" if it resonates. But what is it? There was no sign of it in a recent conversation until, in response to a question about what makes him angry, something rare enough to be riveting appeared—unfeigned indignation about the lawlessness, as he sees it, of the Bush-Cheney doctrine of inherent, and inherently illimitable, presidential powers.

Dodd will soon publish a book he considers pertinent, one containing many of the more than 400 letters written in 1945 and 1946 by his father—a future senator from Connecticut—to his wife while he was a prosecutor assisting Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg trials.

Jackson's opening statement, delivered in a city reeking from the decomposition of 30,000 bodies still buried in the rubble, said: "That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason."

Nuremberg, says Dodd, was "the place where America's moral authority in the second half of the 20th century was born." That perishable resource has, he thinks, been squandered by Bush administration decisions inimical to the Constitution and international law. If Dodd makes this his message, he will soon find in bookstores a compendium of examples— "Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy" by Charlie Savage of The Boston Globe.

Contrary to the Constitution's mandate that the president "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed," the current president, much more than any other, has issued "signing statements"—essentially, line-item vetoes, which are unconstitutional—to tell the executive branch that some provisions of bills he signs into law need not be enforced for constitutional or policy reasons. As Savage writes, "If a president has the power to instruct the government not to enforce laws that he alone has declared to be unconstitutional, then he could free himself from the need to obey laws that restrict his own actions."

Contrary to the Supreme Court's rejection of President Truman's 1952 claim of an inherent power as commander in chief to seize steel mills to prevent a wartime strike (Justice Jackson concurring: "No penance would ever expiate the sin against free government of holding that a president can escape control of executive power by law through assuming his military role"), this administration claims not merely inherent but exclusive presidential powers to:

"There is," Dodd says, "a hollowness to this campaign." If, however, Dodd distills his anger into a message about how a swollen presidency threatens the constitutional balance between the two political branches of government, that message might resonate. Certainly prosecuting the case against presidential aggrandizement would give the son of the Nuremberg prosecutor a distinctive theme. It also would give him a seriousness largely lacking in a campaign that is indeed hollow because its pervasive subtext—loathing of this president—is more visceral than intellectual.

With his support measured in little amounts, Dodd has little to lose and a large role to gain. It would be the role of a constitutionalist candidate who promises that, as president, he would prune from his office much of the grandiosity it has acquired from audacious recent assertions of uncircumscribed powers.