The No. 1 issue for the presidential race -- in 2016


America is going into a really critical presidential election with two big problems. You may have heard about one of them -- the laggard economy -- and the sort-of good news is that the November election should give voters a real choice between a candidate, Mitt Romney, committed to beating back "envy" and defending the interests of the 1 Percent, and a candidate, President Obama, who at least understands how unfairness and inequality is ripping after the fabric of America.

The very bad news is that there'll be no debate on the other key issue that eats away at our national soul: An ever-expanding national security state that concentrates too much power in the White House while destroying the commitment to basic rights that once fueled a bona fide American exceptionalism. Whoever wins the 2012 election is on board with expanding the government's power to kill American citizens or detain them indefinitely or spy on them in the name of an Orwellian permanent "war on terror."

The legal guru Jonathan Turley has done a remarkable job today of spelling it all out:

Even as we pass judgment on countries we consider unfree, Americans remain confident that any definition of a free nation must include their own — the land of free. Yet, the laws and practices of the land should shake that confidence. In the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, this country has comprehensively reduced civil liberties in the name of an expanded security state. The most recent example of this was the National Defense Authorization Act, signed Dec. 31, which allows for the indefinite detention of citizens. At what point does the reduction of individual rights in our country change how we define ourselves?

While each new national security power Washington has embraced was controversial when enacted, they are often discussed in isolation. But they don’t operate in isolation. They form a mosaic of powers under which our country could be considered, at least in part, authoritarian. Americans often proclaim our nation as a symbol of freedom to the world while dismissing nations such as Cuba and China as categorically unfree. Yet, objectively, we may be only half right. Those countries do lack basic individual rights such as due process, placing them outside any reasonable definition of “free,” but the United States now has much more in common with such regimes than anyone may like to admit.

It's so frustrating, but those of us hoping to restore true American exceptionalism have to be in it for the long haul. That means constant pressure on President Romney or President Obama -- probably in the best Occupy style -- to roust the silent majority on civil rights and, more importantly, working to elect a Congress in 2014 and a president in 2016 who will pledge to repeal the more odious aspects of laws like the National Defense Authorization Act and to close Guantanamo. I truly believe America will reverse these odious trends some day. I'm just less confident that day will come in my lifetime.