Archives for the 'Domestic Policy' Category
Raging against “czars” seems all but obligatory these days for movement conservatives. The proliferation of Obama administration czars means “a giant expansion of presidential power,” warns Karl Rove, former domestic policy czar for the Bush administration–which I suppose proves once again that the capacity for embarassment is a career liability in this town.
Conservatives ought to be concerned about the growth of executive power. But as I argue in my Washington Examiner column this week, “czars” are pretty far down any serious list of executive-power concerns:
conservatives’ current bout of czar mania elevates symbolism over substance. All the focus on a scary moniker for certain executive officials misses the real problem: Unconstitutional delegation of power to the executive branch. Whether those illegitimate powers are exercised by unconfirmed presidential advisers or the president himself is quite beside the point….
Often, czars are mere figureheads, appointed to signal concern over the latest hot-button issue. As one presidential scholar puts it, “when in doubt, create a czar.”
True, it’s problematic that some of these appointees aren’t vetted by the Senate, and that presidents claim czars don’t have to answer to Congress — as when the Bush administration asserted in 2002 that executive privilege shielded then-homeland security czar Tom Ridge from testifying on the Hill.
But as the Washington Independent’s Dave Weigel has pointed out, many of the “czars” who appear on the conservative target list already have to be confirmed by the Senate. Others don’t, but when Obama is hell-bent on taking over the health care sector — one-sixth of the U.S. economy — it’s bizarre to agonize over the allegedly unchecked power exercised by the likes of the AIDS and urban affairs czars.
Similarly, while it’s great to see a nutter like Van Jones denied a federal salary, few of those cheering Jones’ defenestration can coherently explain what the green jobs czar actually does, or the threat he was supposed to represent.
What, was Jones going to give 9/11 “Truthers” and black nationalists jobs weatherizing homes? Will we stop wasting money on such projects now that he’s gone?
I’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.
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.”
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
Dieter: “Ve are Nihilists, Lebowski. Ve believe in nothing! Nothing!”
–Joel and Ethan Coen, “The Big Lebowski”
“And let us recognize above all the 228 who voted no — the authors of this revolt of the nihilists. They showed the world how much they detest their own leaders and the collected expertise of the Treasury and Fed.”
–David Brooks, “The Revolt of the Nihilists,” September 29, 2008
That’s David Brooks tearing his hair out yesterday over the failure of the bailout bill. It’s interesting that Brooks characterizes people who resist the idea of privatized profits and socialized loss as “nihilists.” If you’re not willing to let Brooks’ “new establishment” play with up to $700 billion in tax dollars, if you don’t offer up your wallet the moment an expert cries “crisis!”–why then, you must believe in nothing! Nothing at all!
Interesting, but maybe not all that surprising. Brooks is, after all, the architect of National Greatness Conservatism, the philosophy that says “American purpose can only find its voice in Washington.” Inside Washington: purpose, meaning, fulfillment–glory. Outside Washington: a vast and pitiless void. “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” as a prominent theorist of national greatness once put it.
This week, the Washington Post ran two excerpts from Barton Gellman’s new book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, which describes the fight over warrantless wiretapping in greater detail than we’ve had before. We still don’t know the precise reach of the original (pre-2004) program, nor do we have the classified legal analysis prepared by John Yoo. But Gellman’s account makes you wonder just how far the program and the legal theory went, given that it horrified men like Attorney General John Ashcroft, Deputy A.G. James Comey, and Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith–all staunch conservatives who were perfectly comfortable with ambitious theories of executive power, all of whom (along with FBI Director Robert Mueller and sundry other top Justice officials) were ready to resign over the original warrantless wiretapping program. (Marty Lederman made a similar point last year, when Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee).
Ashcroft’s record on civil liberties and executive power is fairly well known. And keep in mind who Goldsmith and Comey are. Goldsmith says plainly that he’s “not a civil libertarian,” and he got the OLC job on John Yoo’s recommendation. And as a US Attorney in New York, James Comey was quite comfortable with pushing the law to its limits and beyond. He prosecuted Martha Stewart for misleading federal investigators about behavior that wasn’t a crime, and he even seriously considered pursuing mail and wire fraud charges against disgraced reporter Jayson Blair for the hitherto unknown crime of making stuff up in the New York Times (Bill Kristol, beware). But the original program was a bridge too far even for them.
Gellman describes a “come to Jesus” meeting orchestrated by David Addington, Alberto Gonzales and Dick Cheney, to get the Justice Department to reauthorize the surveillance program:
Comey, Goldsmith and Philbin found the titans of the intelligence establishment lined up, a bunch of grave-faced analysts behind them for added mass. The spy chiefs brought no lawyers. The law was not the point. This meeting, described by officials with access to two sets of contemporaneous notes, was about telling Justice to set its qualms aside.
The staging had been arranged for maximum impact. Cheney sat at the head of Card’s rectangular table, pivoting left to face the acting attorney general. The two men were close enough to touch. Card sat grimly at Cheney’s right, directly across from Comey. There was plenty of eye contact all around.
This program, Cheney said, was vital. Turning it off would leave us blind. Hayden, the NSA chief, pitched in: Even if the program had yet to produce blockbuster results, it was the only real hope of discovering sleeper agents before they could act.
“How can you possibly be reversing course on something of this importance after all this time?” Cheney asked.
“I will accept for purposes of discussion that it is as valuable as you say it is,” Comey said. “That only makes this more painful. It doesn’t change the analysis. If I can’t find a lawful basis for something, your telling me you really, really need to do it doesn’t help me.”
“Others see it differently,” Cheney said.
There was only one of those, really. John Yoo had been out of the picture for nearly a year. It was all Addington.
“The analysis is flawed, in fact facially flawed,” Comey said. “No lawyer reading that could reasonably rely on it.”
Gonzales said nothing. Addington stood by the window, over Cheney’s shoulder. He had heard a bellyful.
“Well, I’m a lawyer and I did,” Addington said, glaring at Comey.
“No good lawyer,” Comey said.
Bonus Angler revelation: Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey suggests that Cheney lied to him to keep Armey from going all wobbly on the Iraq War vote:
The threat Cheney described went far beyond public statements that have been criticized for relying on “cherry-picked” intelligence of unknown reliability. There was no intelligence to support the vice president’s private assertions, Gellman reports.
Armey had spoken out against the coming war, and his opposition gave cover to Democrats who feared the political costs of appearing weak. Armey reversed his position after Cheney told him, he said, that the threat from Iraq was “more imminent than we want to portray to the public at large.”
Cheney said, according to Armey, that Iraq’s “ability to miniaturize weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear,” had been “substantially refined since the first Gulf War.”
Cheney linked that threat to Hussein’s alleged ties to Al Qaeda, Armey said, explaining “we now know they have the ability to develop these weapons in a very portable fashion, and they have a delivery system in their relationship with organizations such as Al Qaeda.”
“Did Dick Cheney . . . purposely tell me things he knew to be untrue?” Armey said. “I seriously feel that may be the case. . . . Had I known or believed then what I believe now, I would have publicly opposed [the war] resolution right to the bitter end.”
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.
There’s a new poll out from the Associated Press and the National Constitution Center that shows “Americans strongly oppose giving the president more power at the expense of Congress or the courts, even to enhance national security or the economy.” Which is certainly good news, but it doesn’t mean there’s deep public support for de-imperializing the presidency. As the survey itself shows, only a minority of Americans thinks our current, gargantuan presidency is “too powerful.”
Which is one reason why there’s been very little debate over presidential power in campaign over the last few months (I know, because I’ve been looking fruitlessly for op-ed news hooks). Even after the Bush years, presidential power is not a pressing electoral issue.
Last December, Charlie Savage did the electorate a service by getting all the presidential candidates to go on the record with their views on executive power. (Here are McCain, Obama, and Biden’s answers.) But the voters don’t punish candidates who break these promises like they do presidents who break a “no new taxes” pledge. If the voters did, the candidates would have worried more about flip-flopping on the wiretapping question, but both McCain and Obama felt they could do it with little difficulty.
So sure, around 2/3s of the respondents to the AP/National Constitution Center poll oppose further expansions of executive power. But how people answer broad, abstract questions about governance is one thing; what they actually demand from potential presidents is another thing entirely. If the rhetoric of this presidential campaign is any indication, voters continue to respond to the idea of the president as a combination miracle-worker-cum-national parent.
In his acceptance speech, John McCain professed humility, only moments after a video montage that suggested God rescued him from a carrier-deck fire so he could be president someday. And, judging by Rudy Giuliani’s keynote address, McCain will bridge the Mommy Party/Daddy Party divide, becoming a all-purpose national parent: “And we can trust him to deal with anything, anything that nature throws our way, anything that terrorists do to us…. and we will be safe in his hands, and our children will be safe in his hands.” He’s got the whole world in his hands.
This expansive vision of presidential responsibility is incompatible with limited government. And so long as it prevails, we can’t take much comfort in the fact that Americans tell pollsters they’d like limits on presidential power.
More bad news here.
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.
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.
CNBC just ran a feature entitled “Electing the CEO of America.” It’s a great illustration of the insane expectations Americans invest in what’s supposed to be a limited, constitutional office. As I write in that book,
Over the second half of the 20th century, Gallup polls showed that an average of 41 percent of Americans per year cited economic issues as the most important problems facing America. Here, as usual, the buck stopped with the president, Rossiter’s “Manager of Prosperity,” despite the fact that expecting any president to successfully “manage” a 13-trillion dollar economy made up of some 150 million workers, each with their own plans and goals, is unrealistic, to put it mildly.
The only presidential candidate in recent years to echo William Howard Taft’s 1912 admonition that “the national government cannot create good times,” was a fictional one, Republican contender Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda on NBC’s “West Wing.” In November 2005, the network aired a live “debate” between Vinick and his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Smits’ Matt Santos. Asked “how many jobs will you create?” Vinick said “None.” “Entrepreneurs create jobs,” he elaborated, “Business creates jobs. The president’s job is to get out of the way.” Real-life contenders don’t talk that way, nor do real-life presidents. (For what it’s worth, Vinick lost.)
Though I suppose “CEO of America” is an improvement over Hillary Clinton’s phrase: “We need a president who is ready on Day 1 to be commander in chief of our economy.” As Jerry Taylor put it at the time, “we eagerly await your orders, ma’am!”
The obvious answer to John McCain’s recent, lame, anti-Obama soundbite, “Carter’s Second Term,” is that while Carter was no Gerald Ford, at least the man wasn’t as bad as Richard Nixon, the nearest recent historical parallel to George W. Bush. Though even that may be unfair to Nixon, who after all did not start the Vietnam War, and at least made peace with China. Moreover, despite his extravagant theories of executive power, Nixon at least disclaimed the right to lock up American citizens without charges or a trial, signing the Non-Detention Act of 1971. For the story behind that act, which the Bush legal team considers unconstitutional, see this piece [.pdf] by the indispensible Louis Fisher.
His administration deregulated trucking and air travel, market-friendly reforms that had huge, beneficial effects on American economy and life. (I’m old enough to remember when flight was for business travelers and the rich.) He appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed and backed his tight-money policies right through an election year.
I’m not convinced, nor is Jim, entirely. He runs through some of Carter’s bad points, like his godawful energy policy and his creation of two additional cabinet departments (one more than Reagan). I’d add the Desert One operation which, to read Mark Bowden’s account, was the craziest military operation approved by a president since the Bay of Pigs. Of course, Jimmuh’s unbearable sanctimony and self-righteousness shouldn’t count, but I’m sure it’s colored my assessment. But the fact that people reflexively rank Carter among the worst of the modern presidents says something about the bias toward presidential activism that warps our public debate.
How did I miss this quote while researching the book? It’s perfect. Remarks to the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis, Maryland – Pres. Bill Clinton speech – Transcript Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Feb 17, 1997:
And it’s hard when you’re not threatened by a foreign enemy to whip people up to a fever pitch of common, intense, sustained, disciplined endeavor. But that is what we must do, my fellow Americans. That is what we must do.
I have an anarchist friend who has referred to the Constitution as “the Clinton Health Care plan of 1787, except it passed.” I was reminded of that quip recently while rereading large parts of the Federalist for a Liberty Fund seminar. Every so often you come across statements that ring somewhere between funny and tragic given how things have worked out. Federalist No. 45 has a couple of good ones:
On federal tax collectors:
If the federal government is to have collectors of revenue, the State governments will have theirs also. And… those of the former will be principally on the seacoast, and not very numerous…
On the commerce power:
The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained.
But my favorite is one I use in the book. From Hamilton in Federalist No. 68, describing the presidential selection system (which to be fair, we haven’t stuck to):
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.
…over at Reason.tv. See here for background on the Cory Maye case. Very well-produced, powerful stuff–you’d have to be one numb SOB not to be angry by the end of it. Watch it and spread the word.