by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

As candidates continue to jockey for position in the upcoming presidential primary, we all seem focused on the horse race aspects of the campaigns.

How much money have they raised? Did you hear what Hillary Clinton said about Barack Obama? Can Fred Thompson save the Republican Party?

Meanwhile, we are overlooking one of the most important aspects of the 2008 election: We won’t be electing a president in 2008 – or at least not a president like the one we learned about in grade school, one whose power and authority are balanced by two separate but equal parts of our government. Instead, we will be electing a “unitary” president in 2008. The unitary presidency is an idea cooked up in conservative Washington, D.C., think-tanks during the 1980s and thoroughly implemented during the Bush-Cheney administration. The unitary president is one who not only has absolute control over all aspects of the executive branch but also wields that power without any oversight by Congress.

President George W. Bush became this country’s first unitary president simply by taking more and more power and declaring that he had the authority to do so while a compliant Congress let him relieve them of their duties. This expansion of executive power has largely been conducted in full view of the Congress and the people, setting an important precedent for all future presidents.

The power of a unitary president extends to any part of the government touched by the executive branch. For example, the unitary president can “unagree” to a treaty that gets in the way of his programs, as Bush did when he withdrew the United States from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 without consulting the Senate. A White House controlled by a unitary president has no compunction about using the Department of Justice for political work, as the Bush administration seems to have done since 2005.

As a unitary executive, Bush has used presidential signing statements – documents often issued by a president at time of signing legislation into law – in new ways. He uses them to alter or invalidate the very laws he is signing. Though the Supreme Court has ruled the line-item veto unconstitutional, the Bush administration has used signing statements as a means of achieving the same end: giving the president the last word on any legislation passed by Congress. When he gets to edit the laws of the land, it makes it a lot easier for the president to “faithfully execute the laws” as he has sworn to do. We can expect all future presidents to use signing statements in the same way. The Supreme Court has not fully addressed the legality of signing statements, but it is doubtful that the court would move to limit executive power even if given the chance.

Consider that it was then-justice department staff attorney Samuel Alito who drafted a 1986 memorandum urging that President Ronald Reagan use signing statements as a tool to “increase the power of the Executive to shape the law.”

Moreover, the unitary president has the ability to assume even more power during a time of war, subverting acts of Congress or international agreements in the name of national security. The “war” on terror is the perfect device to keep a unitary president in control. By declaring war on a method of violence, rather than a specific people or state with which some accord could be reached, the war easily will last as long as the president wishes. As long as the war is on, then wiretapping of U.S. citizens without warrants is permissible, torture of prisoners of war is permissible – and anything else the president wants.

A unitary president was not what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted the Constitution. Instead, they set up a system of checks and balances knowing full well that an ambitious president would try to expand his powers. They counted on an equally ambitious Congress to not give up its powers of oversight. By designing a system based on what they knew of human nature, they hoped to prevent an authoritarian executive from dominating the entire federal government. As we consider our selections for the second unitary president in U.S. history during 2008, we should think about what the candidates would do with this unlimited presidential power. Who would use it responsibly?

Right now, there are only two candidates who are even talking about returning the office of the president to its intended role in government: Republican Ron Paul and Democrat Dennis Kucinich. Unfortunately, both of these candidates have a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected. It is time that we voters start coming to terms with the fact that this is no ordinary president we’ll be electing in 2008.