Situational Constitutionalism on the Right
Sam Tanenhaus has a sidebar in today’s NYT Week in Review section called “When Reining in an Imperial President Was the Conservatives’ Cause.” “Odd though it may seem, ideological conservatives used to be fierce critics of “executive supremacy,” he writes.
Tanenhaus, a longtime student of conservative intellectual history, is absolutely right. In Cult, I have a section entitled “How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imperial Presidency,” that covers the ideological shift in detail. For a taste, click here.
The right-wing intellectuals who coalesced around William F. Buckley’s National Review associated powerful presidents with activist liberalism: the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society. Therre was a time when you could hear conservative heroes like Barry Goldwater say the sort of things that would get Sean Hannity to call for treason trials today. Goldwater wrote in 1964 that:
Some of the current worship of powerful executives may come from those who admire strength and accomplishment of any sort. Others hail the display of Presidential strength … simply because they approve of the result reached by the use of power. This is nothing less than the totalitarian philosophy that the end justifies the means…. If ever there was a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers, it is this one.
Heck, it wasn’t too long ago that you could hear John Yoo complain about “The Imperial President Abroad” in the Clinton years.