Hillary Clinton rarely surrenders a juicy quote without a struggle, as any journalist who has tried to interview her can attest. Yet her familiar preference for caution over candor is gradually changing with each step that she takes toward her party’s presidential nomination.

Back during her first campaign for the Senate in 2000, she would sometimes tell a reporter to turn off the tape recorder — and then talk with the salty frankness that endeared a politician like John McCain to the press corps. Everything interesting would be off the record, making editors sigh over the bland tedium of her authorized remarks.

Running for president, however, she is obliged to speak forthrightly on issues of war, terror and constitutional authority, especially if she hopes to present herself as a fresh alternative to a failed regime. For a senator who went along with too many of that regime’s excesses, articulating a credible critique of the current presidency is essential.

In an interview with Michael Tomasky, editor of the new Guardian America website, she comments on those excesses and suggests she will undo much of what her predecessors have wrought. Not only does Clinton accuse George W. Bush and Dick Cheney of overweening conduct, but she charges them with venturing far beyond their historically accepted authority.

Asked what presidential powers she might relinquish or renegotiate with Congress, she avoids specifics and promises only to “review” those issues if elected. But the tenor of her response leaves little doubt.

“Well, I think it is clear that the power grab undertaken by the Bush-Cheney administration has gone much further than any other president, and has been sustained for longer,” she said. “Other presidents, like Lincoln, have had to take on extraordinary powers but would later go to the Congress for either ratification or rejection. But when you take the view that they’re not extraordinary powers, but they’re inherent powers that reside in the office and therefore you have neither obligation to request permission nor to ask for ratification, we’re in a new territory here.”

She goes on to say that Bush and Cheney took “a lot of actions … that were clearly beyond any power the Congress would have granted or that in my view [were] inherent in the Constitution.” She accuses the administration of deliberately snubbing congressional authorization for executive actions such as the expansion of surveillance.

Later in the same interview, she draws a sharp distinction between her own constitutional outlook and the views expressed by Michael Mukasey, the president’s nominee for attorney general, during his Senate confirmation hearings last week. Warning that Mukasey’s testimony “raised issues for me,” she said, “Obviously, I do not believe in as expansive a definition of executive power [as he does], and some of the questions on the second day about presidential authority with respect to interrogation also concern me.”

There the senator surely referred to Mukasey’s discussion of “waterboarding,” which simulates the drowning of the suspect between questions. He insisted most unconvincingly that he doesn’t know whether that technique is a form of torture. (Perhaps he should ask the CIA to test it out on him, so that he can form a stronger opinion.)

At another point, Tomasky asked Clinton whether “a president, once in the White House, actually [could] give up some of this power in the name of constitutional principle?”

“Oh, absolutely, Michael,” she replied, then quickly recovered her circumspection. “I mean, that has to be part of the review that I undertake when I get to the White House, and I intend to do that.”

What that vague promise means is something we will only learn if she enters the Oval Office. That she disdains the Bush-Cheney doctrine of absolute executive authority is reassuring — as is her reflection that she has been “on the receiving end” of that doctrine in the Senate.

Meanwhile, commencing a presidential debate on constitutional issues is long overdue. Clinton’s blunt remarks should encourage further discussion among both her Democratic opponents and the Republican presidential candidates — some of whom, such as Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney, seem eager to endorse the worst of the Bush years and to go further.

Curbing the imperial presidency is not a partisan issue, however. The same Republicans who have tolerated the Bush-Cheney power grab should ponder how they would feel if those same powers are wielded by someone named Clinton. Should that day arrive, let’s hope they join the rest of us in urging restoration of constitutional order.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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