It’s been a sad few months for thoughtful conservatives. Beginning in late spring of 2007 with two broad, varied rafts of capable candidates for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, we have somehow ended up with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain. As often before — more often than not in presidential elections, it seems to me — the old question comes up: With 155 million Americans eligible to run for president, how did we get stuck with three such lackluster candidates?
One possible response is a counter question: Does it matter? The U.S.A. has had some pretty nondescript presidents. Looking at the condition of the nation during their terms of office, and comparing it with the state of affairs under more glamorous chief executives, it is not at all easy to make the case that dynamic, charismatic presidents are good for us. It is, in fact, easier to make the opposite case. Consider, for example, William Howard Taft.
For the most part, Taft governed as a Progressive: he greatly accelerated trustbusting and lent his support to the 16th and 17th Amendments to the Constitution, providing for an income tax and direct election of senators. Yet history does not remember Taft as a heroic, reformist president. In fact, since he did not start any major wars or offer any deals, Square or New, Taft is now best known for being shaped like a Zeppelin — he weighed in at 355 pounds on the eve of his inauguration.
I think the simile might be improved. Zeppelins were actually quite sleek. Taft was more of a blimp. In any case, “dynamism” and “charisma” are not words that leap to one’s lips when reading about the Taft presidency. Yet the country went along very cheerfully in the Taft years. (It is not really fair to blame him for the income tax. It was perceived at the time as applying only to the wealthy. A state legislator in Georgia justified his vote for ratification on the grounds that nobody in Georgia earned enough to be subject to the tax.) Taft did not actually have much interest in the job of chief executive. His passion was for lawyering. After Taft’s fellow Ohioan Warren Harding made him chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Taft is supposed to have sighed contentedly: “I don’t remember that I ever was president.”
Harding was another stirring case of inertia in the executive. Paul Johnson remarked of him that: “He did not believe that politics were very important or that people should get excited about them or allow them to penetrate too far into their everyday lives.” Here’s another comment on Harding, from the same source as that Taft quote above:
[Harding] presided over the dismantling of [Woodrow] Wilson’s draconian wartime controls, ushering in an era of prosperous normalcy. … In 2001, two Ohio University economists developed an alternative presidential ranking scheme, based on reductions in size of government and ability to control inflation. Harding came in first. By 1924, federal spending had been cut nearly in half, leading to large government surpluses. And Harding’s good nature and liberal instincts led him to overrule his political advisors and pardon 25 nonviolent protesters that Wilson had locked up …
Both those quotes are from an excellent book I have been reading: The Cult of the Presidency by Gene Healy. The author is an editor at the libertarian Cato Institute, so I expected, and looked forward to, some Old Time Religion sermonizing about limited government, self-support, executive restraint, and liberty. The book didn’t disappoint. Its target, as the title indicates, is the exaggerated expectations we have come to have of the office that is, after all, only the temporary head of one of the three co-equal branches of a federal, republican government.
Somebody has to supervise our federal affairs, of course. We learn in school civics classes that the work is distributed among those three separate, precisely balanced powers. While pleasant to contemplate, this ideal is hard to square with the realities even of peacetime administration. When the country is at war, sheer necessity puts even more stress on constitutional idealism. America’s political history has in practice come down to a tug-of-war between executive and legislature, with the judiciary as a reluctant (usually) referee.
None of this would have been any news to our nation’s Founders, who thought long and hard about such matters. The 1793-4 debates between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison on the relative merits of presidential and congressional power have recently been published by Liberty Fund in a new edition. Political scientist Michael Uhlmann has a fine long essay-review of that book and two others on similar themes in the Spring 2008 issue of The Claremont Review of Books. At the heart of the issue are the deformations that executive and legislature are naturally prone to: for the executive, megalomania, willful assertions of prerogative, and impatience with constitutional procedures; for Congress, the ducking and fence-sitting that go with collective responsibility, and the temptations of localism and all that is captured by the current usage of the term “pork.”
Gene Healy naturally, as a libertarian, is on the Madisonian side of the debate. His preference, like mine, is for the Tafts and Hardings, and what he calls “the wonderfully forgettable presidents who passed through between Lincoln and McKinley.” (Can you name them all, with dates?)
Also naturally he has much to say about our current president and his style. A full third of The Cult of the Presidency is given over to an unsparing account of the George W. Bush administration as seen through the libertarian lens, with many asides on the craven way the conservative movement has nurtured and supported the man who said, and plainly believes, that “When someone is hurting, government must move.”
In part that cravenness is a sincere and patriotic reaction on the part of people who have convinced themselves that our country faces an existential threat. In part, too, it is a response to the sheer seductive appeal of great power, which few of us can resist. It is also, though, the consequence of a long historical development. Gene Healy:
In the 1970s, while liberals were having second thoughts about the need for a powerful, activist presidency, conservatives were warming up to the idea. Nixon had hardly governed as a conservative, but in some ways — serving as “tribune” of the “silent majority,” aggressively impounding funds and asserting control over administrative agencies — he showed conservatives how the office could be used to serve their political ends.
Hence the oxymoron of “national greatness conservatism.” Hence conservative acquiescence in the most repulsive and obscene spectacle in our national political life today: the State of the Union extravaganza, in which the president offers us preposterously grandiose assurances of protection, provision, and moral guidance, these declarations of benevolent omnipotence punctuated by standing ovations and cheers form the assembled legislators after every declarative clause. Hence also the transformation of a proper respect for the president’s office to a style of groveling adulation more appropriate to the court of an oriental despot. Healy offers a particularly stomach-turning example.
Robert Draper, a journalist granted unique access to [George W.] Bush in 2006 and 2007 to write the president’s biography, notes that in every cabinet meeting since White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten took over for Andy Card in 2006, Bolten has begun by looking at Bush and saying, “Thank you for the privilege of serving today.” At no point, it seems, did Bush thank Bolten for his deference and then tell him to cut it out.
I have not so far heard that White House functionaries walk backwards away from the Presidential Presence, as is done in the royal courts of Britain and Japan, or get down on their knees and knock their heads on the floor in a full formal kowtow, as was the rule in Imperial China, but surely such protocols cannot be many years away.
That republican manners have decayed to a level of servility that would have embarrassed Elagabalus, is bad enough. That modern conservatives have accepted, even helped enable the process, is very depressing indeed. The belief in existential danger is no excuse. Even if we are all going to be murdered by fanatical terrorists, which I don’t for a moment believe, let’s at least die like free citizens of a free republic.
As in matters of style, so in matters of substance. Don’t conservatives ever stop to wonder about the future development of the trends they have helped set in motion? Gene Healy:
[C]onservatives seemed incapable of imagining that anyone other than George W. Bush would ever wield the new powers the administration was busily forging.
The thing most painful to recall is that when George W. Bush was running for the presidency in 2000, many of us believed and hoped that he would be an inconsequential president in the style of those bewhiskered late 19th-century snoozers. Bush’s affable mediocrity seemed well suited to another long spell of peace and prosperity. Then History went into spasm and our system was put under strain. An old-style conservative affection for the presidency as an office of modest powers, occupied by modest men, came to appear complacent.
Possibly the appearance corresponds to reality. Calvin Coolidge, the most capable practitioner of the Taoist style in the presidency, liked to say that “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.” That is very likely true. In an age of nuclear proliferation and widespread suicidal terrorism, though, the tenth buggy may be carrying something extremely unpleasant.
Then again, there is such a thing as bringing trouble on yourself. A very energetic and efficient character in a novel I reviewed recently was described thus by a critic: “The kind of man always welcome in a tight spot, Merrick slowly comes to seem … more like the man who brings the tight spot with him.” That there really are such people, I think we all know. Perhaps we should be careful not to elect one of them to the presidency.
The Ron Paul campaign shows that the Taoist style of masterly presidential inactivity still has some level of public appeal. Dr. Paul likes to put the example of Switzerland before his listeners: A nation that is well defended by a citizens’ army (with widespread private ownership of firearms), whose regions enjoy great autonomy, and whose president not one American in a thousand could name. Paul promises to be just that inconspicuous in office.
Now Dr. Paul has a book out: The Revolution: A Manifesto. Not much in it will be surprising to anyone who has heard a Paul speech, browsed his website, or watched one of the innumerable YouTube clips of the good doctor strutting his stuff, but it is handy to have the Paul program packed into 167 well-produced pages. There is no index or endnotes, but there is “A Reading List for a Free and Prosperous America” appended.
I turned first to the sixth of the book’s seven chapters: “Money: The Forbidden Issue in American Politics,” hoping one more time to grasp Dr. Paul’s program for our monetary system. It all seems quite logical as you proceed through the chapter, but if I had to stand up and explain it to you an hour later, I would not be able to. And what happens if some vast new deposit of gold is discovered under Antarctica, or on the Moon? The book does not make it clear. I can’t believe, though, that Paul’s proposed abolition of paper money would be any more harmful than the current galloping extravagance practiced by President and Congress together in happy unison. Perhaps it truly would act, as Dr. Paul says it would, as a brake on the ever-increasing appetites of our rulers. I’d be willing to give it a try.
It doesn’t seem likely we shall find out. The next president will be a person just as enamored of what Gene Healy calls “situational constitutionalism” as the current one, and probably with an even more galaxy-sized sense of his (or her) own importance, and of his entitlement to the fruits of our labor to fund whatever world-saving project he has in mind. The fault is not in them, after all, it’s in us. Look at who we’ve chosen! “A republic, if you can keep it.” What a pity we couldn’t.