A Response to Brian Beutler

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Over at the New Republic Brian Beutler responds to my piece from yesterday, and in so doing both mischaracterizes my position and advances a counter-argument that makes little sense. Beutler contends that my aim was to “blame Trump on liberals,” and that what I “came up with” was, “essentially, #ThanksObama.” Moreover, he casts my view as being that “Trump may be an unrepentant illiberal authoritarian, but he would be well contained within the presidency were it not for President Barack Obama’s own monomania and precedent-setting expansion of executive power.”

This is incorrect, as anybody who has read my near-constant Trump coverage will know. Rather, my argument is a) that both executive power and illiberalism exist on a continuum, and that we had gone a long way down the road toward executive imperialism and illiberalism before Trump arrived, and b) that progressives are in denial as to the role they have played in the undermining of our norms.

Having misdescribed my case, Beutler then tries to refute the examples of overreach and illiberalism that I provided (N.B.: he is right to correct me on the details of Obama’s SCOTUS criticism in his first point; my mistake). Oddly, though, his approach to doing so is less to argue that the actions I cite were in fact acceptable, and more to propose that they don’t count because Trump might turn out to be worse. For example, Beutler acknowledges that:

Obama at times pushed the boundaries of executive power. This backfired in one famous instance when the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that he’d exceeded his recess appointment power (which has now been significantly constricted).

But then he writes that:

The concern with Trump, though, isn’t that he will read laws creatively to change U.S. policy, fully aware that courts might reverse him (he enters power, after all, with unified control of government, lessening the need for such creativity). It is that he will be the “Caesar” conservatives tendentiously accused Obama of being, and that nobody in Congress or the Supreme Court with any power will try to stop him.

Or, put another way: Yes, this objection is correct. Yes, Obama is on the continuum. But Trump might at some point be worse. That’s not a refutation.

Beutler does this more than once. He writes, for example, that:

Democrats have argued for restricting gun sales to people on government terror-suspect lists, but to precisely zero substantive or political effect. Had Democrats succeeded, and Obama signed a law codifying these proposed restrictions, it would have created real due process violations, but also may well have been struck down by a Supreme Court that Obama defers to. Meanwhile, Obama is an extremely vocal critic of left-wing campus illiberalism.

In other words: Yes, Democrats did try this. Yes, it was outrageous. And yes, it would have succeeded if they hadn’t been stopped by the Republicans. But it doesn’t matter, because

Obama’s due process record isn’t sterling, but it is broadly consistent with liberal norms, and exceeds his predecessors in many critical respects. Trump’s threats to due process, by contrast, would end-run Congress and the Supreme Court (see above). Trump, to take another example, threatened to jail his general election opponent. Obama never threatened to jail Mitt Romney or John McCain, and he even (mistakenly, in my view) quashed a Justice Department investigation into the Bush administration’s torture regime.

Again: Beutler’s argument here is that the Democrats were indeed trying to push something terrible into law, but that Donald Trump might at some point do something worse so it doesn’t count. Again: That’s not a refutation.

For good measure, Beutler repeats this argument in his conclusion:

Obama really did expand executive power in some ways. When President Trump employs those powers, and liberals complain, it will be entirely appropriate for conservatives to cite precedent. But Obama did not set a precedent for authoritarian rule or kleptocracy or nepotism or any of the horrors Trump is promising to unleash. And the distinction between these categories is incredibly vital.

If Trump does impose “authoritarian rule or kleptocracy or nepotism” it will indeed be terrible. In fact, that there exists a possibility that he might try is exactly why I have opposed Trump so strongly heretofore. And yet nothing in Beutler’s contention is inconsistent with the point of my article, which is a) that bad precedents have been set during the Obama years and that they are likely to be expanded on, and b) that the illiberalism of the last few years caused a reaction on the Right. In case it’s unclear, I’ll repeat it once more: My argument was that history did not start on November 8th, not that Barack Obama was Hitler. The presidency is an evolving institution, not a video game that resets after each and every completion. It is possible to observe worrying trends without indulging in partisan tribalism.

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