Politics & Policy

The Can-Do, Mustn’t-Do Presidency

Senator Rand Paul (Mike Stone/Getty)
Rand Paul straddles a conservative fault line.

The more hawkish wing of the Republican party and the conservative movement prefers a can-do presidency, vigorous and dynamic not only on matters of foreign policy and military affairs but domestically as well. The can-do models are Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR, which is not to say that these conservatives necessarily admire Wilsonian progressivism or the New Deal (though Conrad Black makes a persuasive case for Roosevelt), but rather that they desire to have a president who acts energetically across a broad range of issues. Of course they claim Reagan for their own. When it comes to Founding Fathers, the can-dos like Madison and Washington. They see the Constitution’s description of the president as commander-in-chief and its investing the executive with a broad role in foreign affairs as a warrant for action. If they were British, they’d be Tories.

The characteristic can-do vice is a sneaking envy of strongmen, but while their critics accuse them of suffering from Putin envy, what they really long for is a Churchill, though they’d take a de Gaulle in a pinch. Their characteristic virtue is having been fundamentally correct about the nature of our enemies in Nazi Germany, the Communist bloc, and the Islamic world, though in the case of Iraq their remedy exemplified another vice: an excess of optimism.

In the opposite corner are the more libertarian-leaning partisans of the mustn’t-do presidency, cautious and finicky about foreign entanglements and deeply suspicious of executive power at home. The mustn’t-do models are Cleveland, Coolidge, and Senator Robert Taft, which is not to say that they universally are admirers of the gold standard or are tempted toward mugwumpery, but that they desire to have a president who has a narrower conception of his role rather than a broader one. Of course they claim Reagan for their own. When it comes to the Founding Fathers, the mustn’t-dos like Jefferson and Paine. They see the Constitution’s separation of powers, the Tenth Amendment, and the congressional role in treaties and war declarations as limitations on government generally and on the president particularly. If they were British, they’d be Whigs.

The characteristic mustn’t-do vice is passivity, but while their critics accuse them of being Pollyanna pacifists, what they really long for is Senator Taft, though in a pinch they’d take George W. Bush before he discovered the allure of nation-building. Their characteristic virtue is having been correct about the metastatic nature of what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex and about the limited, uncertain prospects of the so-called democracy project in the Middle East, though in the case of Iraq their position exemplified another vice: a weakness for counterfactual just-so stories.

The main internal housekeeping project of the can-do wing is, at the moment, working to ensure that Senator Rand Paul, the most prominent mustn’t-doer on the scene, does not become the Republican nominee in 2016. They point to his not entirely consistent or coherent approach to Vladimir Putin and, especially, to the Islamic State as evidence that his mustn’t-doism would undermine the American position by failing to offer a credible political framework for American leadership in the world — the current absence of which they blame for the anarchic Middle East and resurgent Russian imperialism.

Senator Paul, for his part, is struggling to reconcile his habitual anti-interventionism with the fact that the Islamic State has, in his view, “absolutely” declared war on the United States and is going around sawing the heads off people. So far, Senator Paul has emphasized two principles: a real-threat criterion and scrupulousness about process. “If I were president,” he says, “I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.” There’s a bit of can-doism in that — recognizing a threat and annihilating it — balanced by a bit of mustn’t-doism — that the president mustn’t go to war without Congress.

Senator Paul generally prefers to be understood as a “constitutional conservative” rather than as a “libertarian,” which has two uses: The first is to appeal to the conservative deference to process, which lends constitutional gravity to a great deal of philosophical mustn’t-doism; the second is to acknowledge, without hosting a seminar on the matter, that there are libertarians who are conservatives and libertarians who are not, and that Senator Paul intends to be the former.

In a perfect world, conservatives would have a platform — and a candidate — with just the right balance of can-do and mustn’t-do. But conservatives are not people who expect to see this fallen world perfected, meaning that both sides should prepare for dissatisfaction and console themselves with the knowledge that whatever ad hoc admixture of can-do and mustn’t-do we end up with, it is almost certain to be an improvement over the doesn’t-know-what-the-hell-he’s-doing model that has obtained since 2009.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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