Saturday, September 22, 2012


(Click on image to enlarge, and then return.  Please.)

David Horsey's latest column isn't really an Obamabot's excuse, even though the cartoon seems to imply as much.  Instead, it's his reflection on the changing tides of the power of the president in this nation.  It's a good essay and well worth reading in full.  As usual, I don't completely agree with Horsey, but (again, as usual) he caused me to stop and think about the issue.

He commences his argument by pointing out the nation's founders purposefully designed a government with checks and balances because they didn't want too strong an executive branch.  They were tired of George III and his treatment of the colonies as just a source of income.  And so they put forth a government which would hopefully prevent that from happening again.

Of course, because of the exigencies of current events, we have had strong presidents who have rammed home policies (both foreign and domestic) even in the face of recalcitrant congresses.  Horsey uses the example of Lyndon Johnson as the last really strong president, and attributes that to Johnson's experience in Congress and his understanding of how to make it go along with his wishes.  My generation tends to remember Johnson only for his disastrous foreign policy (Viet Nam and Cambodia), but he also got the Voting Rights Bill and Medicare passed, two of the most important US laws in the 20th Century.

Since then, Horsey implies, the "strong president" has had to yield to Congress and bases much of his argument on the success of the Newt Gingrich in neutering the president's ability to count on persuasive techniques with important congressional committee chairs.

With the advent of the Cold War and the rise of the national-security state, this balance tilted when it came to making war and conducting foreign affairs. In that realm, presidents are now nearly kings. In setting domestic policy, however, presidents still need to make bargains with other power players in order to achieve success. Lyndon Baines Johnson was a genius at getting what he wanted from senators and representatives because, as a senator himself, he had mastered the game. Johnson knew how to reward or coerce every committee chairman, and he knew they could deliver once he bent them his way.

That is where Newt Gingrich comes in. In 1995, when he became speaker of the House, Gingrich eliminated the long-standing system that had invested most institutional power in the chairmen of the various House committees. Gingrich also brought a more confrontational kind of politics to his caucus that has only become more strident and ideological in the years since he stepped down as speaker.

Horsey raises some important points, but I would argue that the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney administration was one of the strongest executive branches in modern history.  Yes, 9/11 gave them the anticipated boost in foreign policy, but that bled over into domestic policy in the Patriot Act(s) , the use of non-judicially overseen wire and email tapping, indeterminate detentions, and the use of military "inventions" on American soil (drones).  And, unfortunately, that derivative domestic policy continues under Barack Obama with little outrage from either party.

I do agree, however, that the strident ideological stance of the GOP (and to some extent, the DLC/Blue Dog members of the Dems) have offset some of Obama's power and his ability to use the "bully pulpit" so important to FDR, JFK, and LBJ.

And that leads us back to Madison and what the founders originally wanted for this new nation, and what we should think long and hard about.  Do we really want a supremely strong executive, a king or (the modern equivalent) a CEO?  Yes, I think it fair to say that we want a strong executive, one who leads on important issues, but don't we want his ideas to be tested by the representatives we have sent to Washington?  Or , and this is the important part, do we want a federal government that we own to represent us?

That of course would require an electorate not splintered by the internecine warfare of a 24/7/365 election cycle and a press that would provide us with real news and analysis and an education system that taught us all how to think and to judge.

I may be asking for too much.


Post a Comment

<< Home