In our more frustrated moments, those of us who still hope to forestall the constitutional crisis that President Obama’s executive action is almost certainly going to provoke will resign ourselves to showing rather than telling. Thwarted by the considerable difficulty of explaining constitutional and historical norms to an audience that is either too impatient to absorb the context or too self-interested to care about anything other than its own desires, the president’s opponents eventually resort to blunt and brutal threats of retaliation. “I can’t wait until President Cruz decides to reform the tax code on his own,” we muse darkly. “And imagine what will happen in 2017,” we add, “when a Republican executive tires of the stasis and simply refuses to enforce Obamacare.” For the more cynical among the progressive champions of what Ross Douthat has accurately described as “the will to power of this White House,” such prospects should rankle. If we can’t convince the vandals that Obama is entering “extraordinarily brazen territory,” our thinking goes, we can at least remind them that he is opening the door for his opponents to tear apart everything that they hold dear.
As a didactic exercise, this approach is all well and good. And yet, I have of late begun to see some on the Right treating the tactic as more than just idle levity or debaters’ flair. Rather, they have started to mean it. Sean Trende, who is among the most interesting and level-headed writers within the firmament, today proposed on Twitter that the Republican party’s “smart play on executive immigration is to shrug, then have a field day when they next get the presidency.” When I asked him for clarification, Trende told me that the system runs on “norms” and that, once broken, those norms are difficult to reinstate, and he therefore contended that Republicans should acknowledge the power grab and wait patiently until they can utilize it. “I think it is a horrifying precedent being set here,” Trende conceded, “but the die seems to be cast.” Ace of Spades’s Gabriel Malor, another man I hold in high regard, holds a similar view, often expressing excitement at the possibility that Republicans will eventually be able to take advantage of what he terms, cheerfully, “The Obama Rule.”
Once, Barack Obama sided with the abused and the usurped. Reaffirming his “appropriate role as president” in 2011, Obama pushed back against those who wished him to “bypass Congress” and “change the laws” on his own, reminding his audience that “that’s not how our system works; that’s not how our democracy functions; that’s not how our Constitution is written.” Last year, he insisted vehemently that the United States was a “nation of laws” and that his critics should refuse to “pretend like [he] can do something by violating our laws.” Today, he takes the opposite view, putting his preferences above the “appropriate role” of the president — above the “system,” “democracy,” and the “Constitution” — and indeed promising to “bypass Congress and change the laws” on his own. In the meantime, suffice it to say, we have not added a “gridlock clause” to our charter. If conservatives sit idly by as the executive branch abdicates its responsibility to faithfully execute the laws, they will be complicit in the devastation of our political system.
Sean Trende is absolutely correct when he maintains that constitutional “norms” are nigh on impossible to retrieve once they have been abandoned. But, far from providing a justification for surrender, this is precisely why conservatives should refuse to “shrug” their shoulders and wait patiently for revenge. If, as he suggests, we cannot afford to watch these conceits consigned to ash, then shouldn’t we make it abundantly clear that they should be protected at all costs? Trende is also on to something when he observes morosely that “the public pays no attention to process arguments” and that Obama’s move will “be seen as a fight over immigration, which is what the Admin wants.” But, again, he is absolutely wrong to suggest that there is more to be gained by avoiding this fight than by engaging with it. The Constitution of the United States represents an explicit attempt to codify and preserve a republican form of government, and to set hard limits on the power within the system of any one person, group, issue, or institution. For champions of ordered liberty, the integrity of this codification is not vital to getting what we want: Instead, it is what we want. Passionate as I am about day-to-day politics, that a president of whom I approve might one day be able to push through my coveted agenda with little to no resistance is no consolation at all. Nor am I inspired by the prospect of my preferred leader’s being able to disregard the law if he happens to disagree with it. Instead, I am keenly aware that the rule of law and my own security are inextricably bound together. As George Orwell might have said, a strongman that one holds in high regard is still a strongman.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.