Archives for October, 2008

Live Author Chat

…which is better than the alternative, at least from my perspective. I’ll be doing one starting 8 PM ET over at Radley Balko’s site. Stop by.

Posted on Oct 29, 2008 in Asides, Cult of the Presidency | 10 Comments

Divided Government and the Presidential Race

In a symposium on Culture11, I try to imagine what the candidates might say in an alternate universe where the election turned on convincing cynical libertarians with a penchant for gridlock. Here’s McCain:

McCain: My friends, let’s be honest here. It looks like we may be about to rerun the 70s: another era of stagnation and imperial decline. If we’re lucky, we’ll get some good movies out of the deal. You’ve seen what unified government can do in the hands of a nominally small government party. Elect my opponent, and you ain’t seen nothing yet. We’re entering an era of limits, where restraint is necessary. In the postwar era, unified governments have spent more than three times as fast as divided ones. And if you want divided government, I’m the only game in town. I like to compare myself to Teddy Roosevelt. But after eight years of National Greatness Conservatism run rampant, you don’t want — and the country can’t afford — a loudmouthed bellicose crusader who thinks war is a wonderful tonic for whatever ails the national spirit. In this era, the veto pen will be mightier — and more important — than the sword. And whatever glory can come from the office will be found in standing athwart the rising tide of Democratic “reform”, yelling “stop!” So my promise to you is that if elected, I’ll put aside my dreams of presidential greatness and serve a cause greater than my self interest. At one point, I longed to be another TR. But if you elect me, I promise that I’ll be another Gerry Ford.

Hey, it’s a thought experiment. I’m not saying I believe it.

Posted on Oct 15, 2008 in Uncategorized | 44 Comments

Taming Executive Power: No He Can’t

I’m in the Orange County Register today with a piece on why Obama won’t end the Imperial Presidency:

There was always something difficult to swallow in the notion that a man running as the reincarnation of JFK could be relied upon to end the Imperial Presidency. Barack Obama has done more than any candidate in recent memory to raise expectations for the office, expectations that were extraordinarily high to begin with. Over the course of the 20th century, more and more Americans looked to the president to perform miracles, from “managing the economy,” to warding off hurricanes and providing seamless protection from foreign threats. As responsibility flowed to the center, the presidency grew far more powerful than the framers of our Constitution had ever intended it to be. We shouldn’t be surprised then, if, during an Obama administration the Audacity of Hope gives rise to the Arrogance of Power.

Also, I really liked J.D. Tucille’s review of Cult and Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People by Dana D. Nelson. Tucille writes:

What kind of president will the winner of November’s national popularity contest be? If history is any judge, the nation’s next chief executive, whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, will be something of a monster.

Yep.

Posted on Oct 14, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency | 12 Comments

Cult at the Movies

Caleb Brown and Jorge Artega have put together a terrific little video segment on changing views of the president’s role, using an interview with me and clips from the 1933 film Gabriel Over the White House, a Hearst-funded, FDR propaganda vehicle in which the president is literally touched by an angel and imbued with the Holy Spirit of Presidential Activism. (I’m glad Caleb included the clip where the president pledges to suspend mortgage foreclosures).

Update: and it turns out that Gabriel is on Turner Classic Movies on 11/25. Set your Tivo.

Posted on Oct 12, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Cult of the Presidency | 14 Comments

Race and the Presidency

Matt Yglesias had an interesting post the other day, making an argument that I’ve been thinking about for a while, but haven’t yet written up. Matt speculates that an Obama victory might, contrary to the conventional wisdom, lead to a more racially charged (and thus even more unpleasant) politics. I agree, if for slightly different reasons than he offers.

Because we invest impossible expectations in the office of the presidency, the presidency has become an impossible job. And once the honeymoon period inevitably fades, the modern president becomes a lightning rod for discontent, often catching blame for phenomena beyond the control of any one person, however powerful. As Thomas Cronin put it in his classic 1970 essay “Superman: Our Textbook President”:

on both sides of the presidential popularity equation [the president’s] importance is inflated beyond reasonable bounds. On one side, there is a nearly blind faith that the president embodies national virtue and that any detractor must be an effete snob or a nervous Nellie. On the other side, the president becomes the cause of all personal maladies, the originator of poverty and racism, inventor of the establishment, and the party responsible for a choleric national disposition.

Obama has done more than any presidential candidate in a generation to increase expectations for the office, expectations that were insanely high to begin with. If he’s elected, when he fails to bind up the nation’s wounds, fix health care, teach our children well, provide balm for our itchy souls, etc. etc., his hope-addled rhetoric will seem all the more grating, and the public will increasingly come to see him as the source of all American woes. As his popularity dwindles, many of Obama’s defenders will view attacks on him through the prism of race, forgetting or ignoring the fact that nearly every president eventually morphs from superhero to scapegoat in the public mind. Since some of the attacks on Obama will, unfortunately, be racially charged, his supporters will always be able to find reasons to cry racism, and try to discredit the conservative critique of Obama’s presidency. Conservatives will resent being lumped in with bigots and hit back harder, and on and on it will go. Race will take on undue relevance because the presidency is far more powerful and far more important than it ought to be. Until that changes, we shouldn’t expect any president, however well-intentioned, to be “a uniter, not a divider” in American life.

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Posted on Oct 9, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Liberalism | 6 Comments

“Ponytail Guy” and the Presidency

Ah, the town-hall debate format: that wonderful Oprah-style arrangement in which a hand-picked audience of allegedly normal Americans gets to lob questions at the candidates, who perch awkwardly on directors’ chairs, trying to look warm and approachable. What could be phonier?

Well, maybe a town-hall debate with rules like the ones in force tonight (hat tip Matt Yglesias):

–The questions will be culled from a group of 100 to 150 uncommitted likely voters in the audience and another one-third to come via the Internet. Brokaw selects which questions to ask from written queries submitted prior to the debate.

–The Gallup Organization makes sure the questioners reflect the demographic makeup of the nation.

–An audience member isn’t allowed to switch questions and will not be allowed a follow-up either. His or her microphone will be turned off after the question is read and a camera shot will only be shown of the person asking — not reacting.

–The moderator may not ask followups or make comments.

–McCain and Obama will be provided with director’s chairs, but they’re also allowed to stand. They can’t roam past their “designated area” marked on the stage and are not supposed to ask each other direct questions.

Even so, these things occasionally give rise to memorable moments. My favorite, in terms of revealing how far we’ve drifted from the Framers’ modest, limited conception of the president’s role, was the “ponytail guy” incident from a 1992 town-hall-style debate. This chopped-up YouTube clip will give you a little sense of what that was like.

But to really do it justice, you’ll need the transcript (or, better yet, the book):

The demand for presidential salvation hit its rhetorical nadir in the 1992 presidential debates, when a ponytailed social worker named Denton Walthall rose to ask Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and President Bush the following question:

“The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of the children that I work with, by way of their parents, and not the wants of their parents. And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it….”

“You name it,” indeed. Walthall followed up by asking,

“Could we cross our hearts; it sounds silly here, but could we make a commitment? You know, we’re not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the United States to meet our needs, and we have many, and not yours. Again, I have to repeat that, it’s a real need, I think, that we all have.”

Denton Walthall came in for a fair amount of criticism on the op-ed pages and talk radio airwaves. Yet under the hot lights, none of the candidates risked chastising him, however gently, for having an overly capacious view of presidential responsibility. Instead, they accepted his premise. Ross Perot said he’d take Walthall’s pledge, “no hedges, no ifs, ands and buts.” Governor Clinton argued with Perot about who was more authentic and less dependent on “spin doctors,” and noted that as governor, he’d “worked 12 years very hard… on the real problems of real people.” “It depends on how you define it,” President George H.W. Bush stammered his reply to Walthall,

“… I mean I — I think, in general, let’s talk about these — let’s talk about these issues; let’s talk about the programs, but in the Presidency a lot goes into it. Caring is — goes into it; that’s not particularly specific; strength goes into it, that’s not specific; standing up against aggression, that’s not specific in terms of a program. So I, in principle, I’ll take your point and think we ought to discuss child care, or whatever else it is.”

It’s hard to blame H.W.’s stammering on the Bush family’s notorious difficulty with words. Sad as it is to contemplate, the Bush-Walthall colloquy accurately described what by then had long been the dominant conception of the president’s role in modern American life. That role contains multitudes.

It’s “not specific.” It’s “strength” “caring” “housing” “crime” “standing up against aggression,” “child care—or, indeed, “whatever else it is.” It’s a conception that’s fundamentally incompatible with limited, constitutional government.

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Posted on Oct 7, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Executive Power, Human Nature | 5 Comments

Downsizing the Veep

Hey! Gwen Ifill kinda asked my question at Thursday’s veep debate:

IFILL: Governor, you mentioned a moment ago the constitution might give the vice president more power than it has in the past. Do you believe as Vice President Cheney does, that the Executive Branch does not hold complete sway over the office of the vice presidency, that it it is also a member of the Legislative Branch?

PALIN: Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president’s agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we’ll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as V.P. with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House also.

IFILL: Vice President Cheney’s interpretation of the vice presidency?

BIDEN: Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous vice president we’ve had probably in American history. The idea he doesn’t realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States, that’s the Executive Branch. He works in the Executive Branch. He should understand that. Everyone should understand that.

And the primary role of the vice president of the United States of America is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there’s a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit.

The only authority the vice president has from the legislative standpoint is the vote, only when there is a tie vote. He has no authority relative to the Congress. The idea he’s part of the Legislative Branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive and look where it has gotten us. It has been very dangerous.

If I’d have known I could actually get a question into the debate, I’d have asked Joe Biden how many working class guys he meets riding the Acela up to Wilmington or had Sarah Palin name all the post-WWII presidents in order.

Biden made more of an attempt to answer the question Ifill asked, but his answer doesn’t make much sense. Uh, Joe, Article I covers the legislative branch. And the veep’s only power is legislative, presiding over the Senate and breaking tie votes. The Constitution doesn’t grant him any executive power.

And yet here’s Dick Cheney, co-president from at least 9/11/01 on, giving orders to shoot down planes, running large swathes of the War on Terror, and even exercising formally delegated executive powers over the control of information.

As Reynolds suggests, it’s constitutionally suspect for the president to delegate executive power to officials he can’t remove from office. He also notes that

there may be practical reasons to limit vice presidential involvement in day-to-day executive business regardless of whether we accept the characterization of the Vice Presidency as a legislative office or not. Whether or not the Vice President is seen as a legislative officer, the office of Vice President is something special. The Vice President is, after all, primarily meant to serve as a sort of spare President, and—as with spare tires or backup servers—it may be safest not to put the spare into ordinary service before it’s needed. Presidents are lost in three ways: death, resignation, and impeachment. Vice presidential involvement in policy has the po-tential to put the “spare” role at risk in at least two of these contexts. When Presidents resign or are impeached, it is often over matters of policy.

Although the risk that a Vice President will be involved in the precipitating events is hard to estimate, it is certainly higher for an activist Vice President than it will be for a Vice President playing a traditionally quiescent role. Though talk of impeaching the current occupants of either office is unlikely to come to anything, it illustrates the risks…. Had Carter been impeached or forced to resign as a result of the Iran debacle, Mondale’s public distance would have been important in preserving his ability to govern.

Whatever one thinks of the Bush impeachment talk of the last few years, two and a half impeachments over our entire constitutional history is probably fewer than we ought to have had. And impeachment becomes more difficult when the president’s replacement is deeply implicated in the activities considered grounds for impeachment.

And there are other problems with a Cheney-style vice presidency as well, problems that ought to be of particular concern to unitary executive fans. One of the more convincing arguments offered by Hamilton against the idea of a plural executive is that “it tends to conceal faults, and destroy responsibility.” He continues,

The circumstances which may have led to any national miscarriage or misfortune are sometimes so complicated that, where there are a number of actors who may have had different degrees and kinds of agency, though we may clearly see upon the whole that there has been mismanagement, yet it may be impracticable to pronounce to whose account the evil which may have been incurred is truly chargeable.

That’s certainly been the case over the last seven years. As Barton Gellman has recently shown, information about the so called Terrorist Surveillance Program was so tightly held among Vice President Cheney, David Addington, and their administration allies, that President Bush was unaware until the very last moment that the top echelon of his Justice Department was ready to resign over the illegality of the original program. When an activist vice president deliberately keeps the president in the dark, it can be difficult to discern where the buck really stops.

At the constitutional convention, when Elbridge Gerry objected to the veep’s legislative role, Roger Sherman made the salient point that “If the vice-President were not to be President of the Senate, he would be without employment.” Our early vice presidents didn’t play an important role in the executive branch. Washington kept John Adams at arm’s length from policymaking, and Adams was also frustrated in his attempts to actively manage the Senate as presiding officer. The best view of the vice-president’s constitutional role is that the veep really is supposed to be a bucket of warm [fluid] unless and until he or she is called upon to assume office. And there’s good reason for that. Here’s hoping that Vice President Biden or Vice President Palin will spend less time making policy and more time attending funerals.

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Posted on Oct 5, 2008 in Executive Power | 11 Comments

Cult of the Vice Presidency

Look ma, I’m in the New York Times, with a question for the aspiring veeps:

The claim by Dick Cheney that he was exempt from certain disclosure requirements because the vice president was a “legislative officer” has been greeted with outrage. But the main power the Constitution grants the vice president is a legislative one — breaking a tie vote in the Senate.

So, Governor Palin, Senator Biden, doesn’t Mr. Cheney have a point?

But, then, if the vice president is a legislative officer, how can he wield the vast executive powers that Mr. Cheney has exercised, including orchestrating and supervising a warrantless wiretapping program?

Can the vice president shift between branches at his convenience? If not, what, in your view, is the constitutional status of the vice presidency?

— GENE HEALY, the author of “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power”

Giving credit where it’s due, I should mention this smart, short law review article by Glenn Reynolds, “Is Dick Cheney Unconstitutional?”

Friend and Blogfather Radley Balko has a good one for Joe Biden:

Senator Biden, you’ve been one of the Senate’s most ardent drug warriors. You helped create the office of “drug czar”; backed our failed eradication efforts in South America; encouraged the government to seize the assets of people merely suspected of drug crimes; pushed for the expanded use of racketeering and conspiracy laws against drug offenders; advocated the use of the military to fight the drug war; and sponsored a bill that holds venue owners and promoters criminally liable for drug use by people attending concerts and events.

Today, illicit drugs are as cheap and abundant as they were decades ago. Would you agree that the anti-drug policies you’ve championed have failed? If not, how have they succeeded?

— RADLEY BALKO, a senior editor at Reason magazine

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Posted on Oct 2, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy, Executive Power | 5 Comments

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