Archives for the 'Conservatism' Category

Good News: 9/11 Didn’t “Change Everything”

On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and DC, things are going much better than most of us dared hope in the initial aftermath of that horrible day. We’re still a secure, prosperous, and relatively free country, and the fear-poisoned atmosphere that governed American politics for years after 9/11 has thankfully receded.

Not everyone’s thankful, however. Boisterous cable gabber Glenn Beck laments the return to normalcy. The website for Beck’s “9/12 Project” waxes nostalgic for the day after the worst terrorist attack in American history, a time when “We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.” Beck’s purpose with the Project? “We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.”

My God: why in the world would anyone want that? Yes, 9/12 brought moving displays of patriotism and a comforting sense of national unity, but that hardly made up for the fear, rage and sorrow that dominated the national mood and at times clouded our vision.

But Beck’s not alone in seeing a bright side to national tragedy. Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, David Brooks asked, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago,” Brooks explained, “I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there’s so much to cheer one up.”

One of the things that got Brooks giddy was liberals’ newfound bellicosity. That same week, liberal hawk George Packer wrote:

What I dread now is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines….”The only thing needed,” William James wrote in ”The Moral Equivalent of War,” ”is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” I’ve lived through this state, and I like it.

There’s something perverse, if not obscene, in “dreading” the idea that Americans might someday get back to enjoying their own lives. “Private consumption!” “Restaurant lines!” The horror! The horror!

Like Brooks’s National Greatness Conservatives, a good many progressives thought 9/11’s national crisis brought with it the opportunity for a new politics of meaning, a chance to redirect American life in accordance with “the common good.” Both camps seemed to think American life was purposeless without a warrior president who could bring us together to fulfill our national destiny.

That’s why prominent figures on the Right and the Left condemned George W. Bush’s post-9/11 advice to “Enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” As Jeremy Lott notes, “in his laugh riot of a presidential bid,” Joe Biden repeatedly condemned Bush for telling people to “fly and go to the mall!” A little over a year ago, asked to identify “the greatest moral failure of America” John McCain referenced Bush’s comments when he answered that it was our failure sufficiently to devote ourselves “to causes greater than our self interest.”

True, Bush’s term “destination spots” is a little redundant; but otherwise, for once, he said exactly the right thing. And of all the many things to condemn in his post-9/11 leadership, it’s beyond bizarre to lament Bush’s failure to demand more sacrifices from Americans at home: taxes, national service, perhaps scrap-metal drives and War on Terror bond rallies?

National unity has a dark side. What unity we enjoyed after 9/11 gave rise to unhealthy levels of trust in government, which in turn enabled a radical expansion of executive power and facilitated our entry into a disastrous, unnecessary war.

In his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama condemned those “who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.” “Their memories are short,” he said, “for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

Riffing off of Obama’s remarks, Will Wilkinson wrote:

Can you recall the scale of our recent ambitions? The United States would invade Iraq, refashion it as a democracy and forever transform the Middle East. Remember when President Bush committed the United States to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”? That is ambitious scale.

Not only have some of us forgotten “what this country has already done … when imagination is joined to a common purpose,” it’s as if some of us are trying to erase the memory of our complicity in the last eight years—to forget that in the face of a crisis we did transcend our stale differences and cut the president a blank check that paid for disaster. How can we not question the scale of our leaders’ ambitions? How short would our memories have to be?

Oddly, even Glenn Beck seems to agree, after a fashion. The 9/12 Project credo celebrates the fact that “the day after America was attacked, we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States, or political parties.” And yet Beck has called on “9/12’ers” to participate in tomorrow’s anti-Obama “tea party” in DC.

On the anniversary of 9/11 what’s clear is that, despite the cliche, September 11th didn’t “change everything.” In the wake of the attacks, various pundits proclaimed “the end of the age of irony” and the dawning of a new era of national unity in the service of government crusades at home and abroad. Eight years later, Americans go about their lives, waiting on restaurant lines, visiting our “great destination spots,” enjoying themselves free from fear–with our patriotism undiminished for all that. And when we turn to politics, we’re still contentious, fractious, wonderfully irreverent toward politicians, and increasingly skeptical toward their grand plans. In other words, post-9/11 America looks a lot like pre-9/11 America. That’s something to be thankful for on the anniversary of a grim day.

(cross-posted at Cato@Liberty)

Posted on Sep 11, 2009 in Conservatism, Executive Power, Foreign Policy and Defense, Human Nature, Liberalism | 9 Comments

The Pedagogy of Collectivism

200px-Pledge_salue “I don’t want our schools turned over to some socialist movement,” says Brett Curtis, a parent from Pearland, Texas who told the New York Times he’d keep his kids home today during Barack Obama’s speech to schoolchildren nationwide.

Me either! Like I said in the piece linked below, I found the whole ritual pretty cultish and grotesque. But I’m weird. I think the same thing about the Pledge of Allegiance. From a piece I wrote a few years back:

From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as “Jesus the Socialist.” Bellamy was devoted to the ideas of his more-famous cousin Edward Bellamy, author of the 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward. Looking Backward describes the future United States as a regimented worker’s paradise where everyone has equal incomes, and men are drafted into the country’s “industrial army” at the age of 21, serving in the jobs assigned them by the state. Bellamy’s novel was extremely popular, selling more copies than other any 19th century American novel except Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Bellamy’s book inspired a movement of “Nationalist Clubs,” whose members campaigned for a government takeover of the economy. A few years before he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy became a founding member of Boston’s first Nationalist Club.

After leaving the pulpit, Francis Bellamy decided to advance his authoritarian ideas through the public schools. Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine. With the aid of the National Education Association, Bellamy and the editors of Youth’s Companion got the Pledge adopted as part of the National Public School Celebration on Columbus Day 1892.

Bellamy’s recommended ritual for honoring the flag had students all but goosestepping their way through the Pledge: “At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the Flag the military salute–right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it… At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.” After the rise of Nazism, this form of salute was thought to be in poor taste, to say the least, and replaced with today’s hand-on-heart gesture.

How many anti-socialist, tea-partying patriots go the whole nine and oppose the Pledge, I wonder?

Posted on Sep 8, 2009 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency | 7 Comments

Panic on the Streets of Wichita

Here’s yesterday’s Examiner column on terrorism panic, liberal edition:

The liberal overreaction to the crimes of two despicable “lone nuts” demonstrates that the Left is just as susceptible to terrorism panics as the Right. But maybe liberals are right that there’s a “teachable moment” for conservatives here, even if it isn’t the lesson Rich and Kos intend.

It’s worth thinking about how much worse off we’d be in the midst of a burgeoning “militia panic,” had the Bush administration’s radical view of executive power become the law of the land.

After 9/11, George Bush and Dick Cheney argued that the president could do what he deemed necessary to fight terrorism, and any laws to the contrary could be nullified by his Magic Scepter of Inherent Authority. Most conservatives backed the president, insisting that civil liberties at home wouldn’t suffer if we allowed him unlimited power in foreign affairs.

But the Bush team always maintained that those powers could be used on the home front as well. In congressional testimony in 2006, then-attorney general Alberto Gonzales suggested that the president had inherent authority not only to wiretap international calls without a warrant, but also to listen in onAmericans’ domestic communications.

….

Conservative defenders of so-called “enhanced interrogation” are rarely able to identify the “ticking time bomb” scenarios they insist make torture necessary. But last week, Scott Roeder, Dr. Tillman’s murderer, told reporters that “similar events” were being planned even now. Might a little waterboarding loosen his tongue?

Posted on Jun 17, 2009 in Civil Liberties, Conservatism, Executive Power | 1 Comment

Jenkins on Carter

carter-shirtI’ve written before than Jimmy Carter’s pious, sanctimonious, and off-putting public persona may have caused conservatives to miss the fact that he wasn’t that godawful a president. Holman Jenkins has a column in today’s WSJ, “If Obama Had Carter’s Courage,” that provides a point of evidence in Carter’s favor.

In Mr. Carter’s day, bankruptcies were scything through the railroad sector, hurtling toward a rendezvous with nationalization. Conrail, an amalgam of failed Northeastern lines, had already been taken over and analysts foresaw a $300 billion bill (in today’s dollars) in the likely prospect that Washington would soon have to operate the rest of the nation’s freight railroads….

comprehensive federal regulation had only distorted the industry’s pricing, driven away investment, and made competitive adaptation impossible. But the argument had a new ring now that Washington would have to bear the political risk of operating and subsidizing the nation’s rail services.

It still took some doing on Mr. Carter’s part. When the bill stalled, a hundred phone calls went from the White House to congressmen, including 10 by Mr. Carter in a single evening. The bill essentially no longer required railroads to provide services at a loss to please certain constituencies. It meant going up against farmers, labor, utilities, mining interests, and even some railroads — whereas Mr. Obama’s auto bailout tries to appease key lobbies like labor and greens, which is why it can’t work.

I should note also, that in his updated, libertarian ranking of the presidents, Ivan Eland ranks Jimmy as one of the least bad modern presidents.

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Posted on Jun 3, 2009 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy, Libertarianism | 16 Comments

Blame the Voters

That’s the thrust of this week’s column in the DC Examiner:

There’s no end of finger-pointing in our Red-Team/Blue-Team battles over fiscal incontinence. But there’s one group that rarely gets the blame it merits. That’s us. When you look at the positions embraced by the ordinary American voter, you start to suspect that we’re getting the government we deserve.

Sixty percent of Americans say the federal government has too much power and too much money, according to a Rasmussen poll released last month. And they’re right. But what are they willing to do about it?

In 2007, the Harris polling firm looked into that question, and the answer was “not much.” Very few of us are willing to support the spending reductions necessary to get our fiscal house in order. Harris reports that “hardly anyone would cut Medicaid (4%)… Social Security (2%) or Medicare (1%)”–among the biggest chunks of the federal budget.

Of course, due to public choice dynamics, it’s too simplistic to say (and I don’t say) that Americans are getting precisely the size of government they want. But the polls cited show the difficulty of reducing or even slowing the growth of government.

On a related note, I found this post from Chris Bowers (from whom I got the link to the Harris poll) pretty interesting:

The mainstream of the American left-wing (represented by the Congressional Progressive Caucus), and the mainstream of the American right-wing (represented by the Republican White House / Congress trifecta from 2003-2006), are only proposing a difference in social investment spending (health care, pensions, education, transportation, unemployment, and new energy), of 3.21% of gross domestic product. That is, the left and right-wings of the American political mainstream are only arguing over whether to increase social investment spending by, at most, 3.21% of GDP. That is the entire difference. This is a grand ideological argument that isn’t.

If that’s right, then, as Bowers suggests, 3 percent of GDP is a lot of money, but it hardly seems like the difference between freedom and “socialism.”

Posted on Jun 3, 2009 in Conservatism, Domestic Policy, Liberalism | 9 Comments

Sotomayor

The Sotomayor nomination isn’t a week old yet, and I’m already bored with reading about it. I don’t see what people are so exercised about, pro or con. Yeah, I don’t like the comment about “wise Latina woman” making better decisions, and I don’t think it’s defensible (or at least I haven’t read any compelling defenses of it). Otherwise, I can’t see why this particular choice merits all the screeching. (Also, conservatives whose favorite justice is Clarence Thomas shouldn’t be heard to complain about Sotomayor’s lack of qualifications. No doubt her ethnicity was, as with Thomas, a but-for cause of her selection, but she has more experience on the bench and a more distinguished academic record than Thomas did).

As Ezra Klein points out “the Sotomayor fight” is a misnomer:

The last nominee to actually be defeated — Harriett Miers was withdrawn, remember, and withdrawn due to conservative unrest — was Robert Bork. And he was a conservative choice facing a Senate with 55 Democrats. Sotomayor is a Democratic president’s nominee who will come before a Democratic Senate. She won’t be “Borked” because, where Bork began 5 votes down, she begins 10 votes up. If Bork had enjoyed 15 more easy votes, he’d be Justice Bork today.

As such, there are certain safe predictions we can make: Barring imperfect vetting on the part of the majority, the final nominee will be pro-choice. Will be sympathetic to labor. Will be sympathetic to the federal role in regulation. Will be, in sum, the sort of Justice you’d expect from a left-of-center president and a left-of-center Senate.

I don’t like any of that stuff. And Richard Epstein provides reason to believe she may be worse than the average Democratic judicial nominee on property rights. That aside, the numbers in the Senate make it clear that, no matter what, we were always going to end up with a Justice who’d make conservatives and libertarians unhappy.

But there are other areas on which the average Democratic nominee is likely to be better than the average Republican, areas like criminal procedure and executive power. In those areas, from a libertarian perspective, maintaining a 5-4 conservative/liberal balance on the Court, is a good thing. I always thought that “getting more judges like Roberts and Alito” was a lousy reason to pull the lever for the Rs in November, particularly if you care about checks on executive power.

In his terrific book Takeover, Charlie Savage suggests that there was method behind the apparent madness of the Miers nomination:

why did Bush nominate Miers? The conventional wisdom was that the fiasco was simply the result of Bush’s feckless enjoyment of the power his office gave him to reward his friends. But in fact, Miers was a sound pick by the Bush-Cheney administration on an issue about which they cared deeply: executive power. Bush needed to pick a female justice for political reasons, but executive branch experience was almost nonexistent in the resumes of the female conservative appeals court judges and state supreme court judges favored by conservative legal activists. Miers, however, could be counted on to embrace Bush’s expansive view of presidential powers.

So too with Chief Justice Roberts. Savage reviewed an enormous trove of documents prepared by Roberts when he worked in the Reagan Justice Department, and found that Roberts was an even more enthusiastic supporter of executive power than one would naturally expect to find in Reagan’s DOJ. Tasked with analyzing the Presidential Records Act, the post-Nixon reform establishing that presidential documents are the people’s property, and allowing public access to such documents, Roberts “made clear that he loathed [the Presidential Records Act], believing it to be an unconstitutional infringement on the presidency’s power to keep information secret.” Savage writes that Roberts also

pressed to expand the president’s ability to govern in secret, pushing to roll back the Federal Advisory Committee Act… [and] warn[ed] against even appearing to endorse the idea of ‘freedom of information,’ lest it be construed as suggesting that the Freedom of Information Act was a good thing. He opposed issuing any presidential documents in connection with the War Powers Resolution that were worded in such a way as to concede that Congress had a role in deciding when military hostilities could begin or end.

There’s no denying that from a libertarian/constitutionalist perspective, McCain’s prospective nominees would have been better on some issues than either Obama’s or Clinton’s. McCain’s judges would likely have been better on campaign finance reform and the thus-far fruitless effort to restore limits on Congress’s power to regulate using the Commerce Clause. Despite Roberts’s vote in the Oregon Right-to-Die case, they would probably be better on federalism, depending on whose ox is getting gored.

There is little question however, that they would have been far worse than Democratic appointees on questions like, can the president carry out a wiretapping program in defiance of federal law, and forever shield the details of that program behind the State Secrets doctrine?

As Robert Schlesinger points out, the latter issue may well end up before the Supreme Court. We don’t know where Sotomayor stands on that issue, but I’m guessing she won’t be as bad on it as another Roberts or Alito.

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Posted on May 28, 2009 in Civil Liberties, Conservatism, Executive Power, Uncategorized | 16 Comments

The Roots of Mustardgate

greypoupon1Just finished David Mendell’s Obama: From Promise to Power. Mendell was the Chicago Tribune reporter assigned to cover Obama in his ’04 Senate race, so he had good access to BHO at an early point in his career. The book’s a bit of a hagiography, but it has a lot of useful information. In fact, if Sean Hannity had read it, he’d have realized that Obama’s condiment-based elitism started well before his infamous trip to Ray’s Hell Burger. On his first downstate trip as a new state senator, Obama was warned about this by his aide Dan Shomon:

Shomon told him to wear polo shirts and khakis throughout the trip, in order to fit in. Obama also recalled the story of Shomon advising him in a downstate restaurant to eat regular yellow mustard rather than the more pretentious Dijon mustard.

Personally, I think ordering your burger well-done is a much greater offense.

Posted on May 23, 2009 in Asides, Conservatism | 8 Comments

Neoconsensus

Since Rich Lowry, Karl Rove, and Charles Krauthammer have all admitted that Obama’s anti-terror policies are substantially the same as Bush’s, I assume they’ll refrain from arguing that Obama’s making the country less safe, and they’ll hold off on blaming him if and when there’s another terrorist attack.

Posted on May 22, 2009 in Civil Liberties, Conservatism, Foreign Policy and Defense, Uncategorized | 6 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

Fuzzy Math and Verbage

How smart should a president be? William F. Buckley famously said he’d “rather be ruled by the first 500 people in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard University,” and there’s surely something to that, though the worst president in American history was a Princeton man.

Here’s an interesting graph comparing presidential success with presidential IQ. (Explanation here) (Hat tip: Marian Tupy).

It’s a fun conversation piece, but it doesn’t tell you much. First of all, all the conventional rankings dramatically downgrade “do-nothing” presidents, so the version of presidential greatness used is always going to overvalue drama, explosions, and ambitious plans to remake the country and the world. Note that here, once again, Warren G. Harding is the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents, ranked dead last despite his admirable record on separation of powers, size of government, and civil liberties.

Moreover, the IQ data is highly dubious, especially the farther back you go in history, where it appears to be based on presidential biographies and personal papers, rather than standardized tests from college or military service. When I first looked at the graph, I wondered how they’d concluded that JFK, who was basically the Irish mob version of A.J. Soprano, was smarter than John Adams and James Madison. It turns out, according to JFK biographer Thomas Reeves, that “Kennedy was actually given an IQ test before entering Choate. His score was 119,” much lower than what he’s assessed at here.

In any event, given the difficulties of assessing IQ from a distance of generations, and the contentious nature of presidential greatness, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about the relationship between intelligence and presidential “success.”

However, too many conservatives, it seems to me, are too quick to conclude that brains don’t matter much when we’re choosing a constitutional chief executive. The reasoning seems to be: Jimmy Carter was smart, and he was a bad president; Reagan went to Eureka College and the intelligentsia sneered at him, yet he was a good president. Therefore, we should count ourselves lucky if and when we get George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. This sells Reagan short (and Carter too?): Reagan wasn’t an intellectual, but he was interested in ideas, and anyone who’s tried to write opeds and has seen Reagan’s handwritten 1970s radio speeches, for example, knows that he was a sharp guy and a smart writer. His success certainly doesn’t mean that unremarkable intelligence and lack of intellectual curiousity are virtues when it comes to the office of the presidency.

But some come close to concluding that they are virtues. See, for example, Charles Murray in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine:

What do you think of Sarah Palin? I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love.

Why is the McCain clan so eager to advertise its anti-intellectualism? The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government. Probably the smartest president we’ve had in terms of I.Q. in the last 50 years was Jimmy Carter, and I think he is the worst president of the last 50 years.

Yes, some presidents can be too smart for their own good (though I seriously doubt that was Carter’s problem). But that doesn’t mean that when selecting potential presidents we ought to seek out people who aren’t particularly bright. God, I never thought I’d say this, but maybe Charles Murray isn’t enough of an intellectual elitist.

Posted on Sep 23, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Libertarianism | 13 Comments

Contra Palinmania

Comment of the day on this Hit and Run thread:

Doug | September 16, 2008, 11:42am | #

A guy walks into a bar and orders a drink. Then another. Then another. Eight drinks later he hits on the hot chick sporting the moose rifle and hockey skates and succeeds in taking her home for the night. Next morning he wakes up next to McCain.

Here’s the Wall Street Journal today with the story of how Great Libertarian Hope Sarah Palin fought to preserve a state-owned creamery (!) and installed one of her buddies as its head.

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Posted on Sep 16, 2008 in Conservatism, Domestic Policy, Libertarianism | 7 Comments

Cult Reviewed in National Review

Claremont Institute fellow Michael M. Uhlmann has a dismissive review of The Cult of the Presidency in the current issue of National Review: “It’s Not Just the Executive,” September 15, 2008. (Here it is if you get NR Digital, otherwise it’s available in the print edition). It seems to me that the review largely consists of inaccurate characterizations, unsupported assertions, and non sequiturs. But I’m understandably biased, so check it out and judge for yourself.

Uhlmann writes that “The bulk of Healy’s book is devoted to various sins, offenses and negligences of the Bush administration.” That’s a bizarre statement, given that the book has nine chapters and an introduction, and only three of those chapters cover GWB’s tenure. In fact, the “bulk of the book” is devoted to demonstrating that, as I write in Chapter Two, “the problems of the modern presidency did not begin when George W. Bush emerged victorious from 2000’s seemingly interminable Battle of the Chads” and that–despite what some on the Left seem to believe–those problems will not vanish in January 2009 when he heads back to the ranch to cut brush.

The book is a history of the presidency’s transformation from the important, but constitutionally limited office the Framers designed to an extraconstitutional monstrosity charged with moving the masses and saving the world. But by beginning his review with a discussion of “unhinged” Bush critics, and mischaracterizing the book’s contents, Uhlmann has undoubtedly left NR readers with the impression that The Cult of the Presidency is yet another partisan screed against the current administration. Move along, nothing to see here.

That’s a shame, because conservatives could surely benefit from reexamining their decades-long affinity for strong presidencies. There’s nothing particularly conservative about investing vast unchecked power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top in a modern presidential contest. As Russell Kirk put it, “Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.” And if principled reasons aren’t good enough, the fact that Republicans, let alone conservative Republicans, are unlikely to dominate the electoral college in the coming decades ought–like the prospect of a hanging–to concentrate the mind somewhat.

Uhlmann is willing to concede that the Bush administration’s claims of uncheckable authority over the detention and treatment of terrorist suspects “entail arguable legal propositions.” Which is gracious of him. But he provides very little argument for his view that the Framers envisioned a president with anything like the powers the current president–or others before him–have claimed. What arguments he provides often consist of offering innocuous and uncontroversial historical claims about 18th-century Americans’ views of executive power–as if those claims establish that the modern presidency is the constitutional presidency. In each case, he falls a few premises short of a syllogism.

Yes, the Federalist suggests, as Uhlmann notes, that “legislative excess is the danger chiefly to be guarded against in a republic.” But that was so, as Madison explains in No. 48, because the government the Constitution envisioned would be fundamentally different from one in which “numerous and extensive prerogatives are placed in the hands of a hereditary monarch.” Legislative power was more to be feared precisely because under the American Constitution “the executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and the duration of its power.”

Yes, the Framers sought to avoid some of the mistakes made in some of “the state constitutions adopted between 1776 and 1787″ and to create a relatively vigorous and independent executive. But there’s quite a distance between that fact and the current administration’s claims that Congress cannot restrain the president from ordering torture and that the president has the power to permanently imprison American citizens without charges or legal process. (Uhlmann treats these issues at greater length in an extensive essay on presidential powers in a recent edition of the Claremont Review, in which, it seems to me, the verbiage-to-evidence ratio is also fairly high.)

Then there’s Uhlmann’s painfully obvious argument that “It’s Not Just the Executive” that’s a problem in our modern welfare-warfare state. Well, yes. It’s not clear who Uhlmann’s arguing with when he points out “the size and arbitrariness of government in general” are intertwined with concerns about a powerful presidency, and that the growth of presidential power would not have been possible without the collaboration of Congress and the judiciary. I make the same points repeatedly and at length throughout the book.

But the book focuses on the presidency because the president has become the focal point of Americans’ dangerously unrealistic expectations about what government can deliver, at home and abroad. As the political scientist Theodore Lowi explained (and as I discuss in the book), the post-New Deal state pledged itself to the constant delivery of goods and benefits, with the public looking most of all to the president to meet the key test of the new regime’s legitimacy: “service delivery.” The emerging “Second Republic of the United States” was one in which, as Lowi sums up, “the system of government had become an inverted pyramid, with everything coming to rest on a presidential pinpoint.”

So the presidency is important. It merits special attention, perhaps especially from conservatives, given their longstanding myopia about the dangers of presidential power. For too long the Right has been wedded to the odd proposition that next to the “Imperial Congress” and the “Imperial Judiciary”, the executive branch–the branch with guns–is the least dangerous branch. I’m glad that NR reviewed the book, and I didn’t expect an uncritical embrace of my perspective. But I would have preferred a serious discussion of the issues the book raises.

Posted on Sep 6, 2008 in Civil Liberties, Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Domestic Policy, Executive Power, Foreign Policy and Defense | 9 Comments

Maybe This Time It Will Work

Okay, okay, I grudgingly like Sarah Palin. She’s not as good as the pick McCain offered in an offhand wisecrack the week before the announcement: “Mr. McCain, who had settled on his selection, was less than forthcoming here Thursday night when reporters shouted questions about his pick. ‘Wilford Brimley,’ he responded.” But she’s interesting, with some loveably cranky political affiliations in her past.

But I don’t vote based on likeability. Even for Wilford Brimley. And Palin’s appealling image changes nothing fundamental about what the modern GOP offers. A truth-in-advertising-style slogan might be: “Mindless bellicosity, gratuitous fearmongering, and phony promises to shrink government–now with extra spunkiness!” Yay: USA. USA. USA. I can’t believe that some otherwise sensible libertarians seem to be warming up to the ticket on reasons that privilege style over substance.

I have no intention of voting for anyone who could possibly win. But this seems to me a lot like the 1992 election, when most limited-government types were rightfully unconvinced that GHWB was the lesser of two evils. I don’t find Obama any more horrifying than Clinton from a limited-government perspective, and McCain is far worse than Bush the Elder. He’s a known quantity: a National Greatness Conservative who differs from GWB only in the intensity of his conviction that America must always be a crusader state loudly tromping about the world and breaking things. An alleged fiscal conservative who rabidly supports a $700 billion Bridge to Nowhere. A man who puts the First Amendment in scare quotes and has a long and detailed record of betraying limited-government conservatives. He’s your last, best hope? Auughhh, indeed.

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Posted on Sep 5, 2008 in Conservatism, Domestic Policy, Foreign Policy and Defense, Libertarianism | 8 Comments

Neocon Career Advice

First two sentences of a book review by David “End to Evil” Frum in yesterday’s NYT:

In most lines of work, a person does his credibility real damage by denying the obvious and asserting the manifestly untrue. Yet in the book world, there can be very large rewards for a writer who boldly turns reality on its head.

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Posted on Jun 30, 2008 in Arts and Culture, Asides, Conservatism | 3 Comments

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.

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Posted on Jun 22, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Executive Power | 2 Comments