Politics & Policy

A Small Man in a Big Office

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The president’s operating principle appears to be that democracy is what you can get away with.

My mother was, in her modest way, an Ayn Rand villain, someone who lived by the moral principle that John Galt mockingly summarized: “It is your need that gives you a claim to rewards.” She believed that being poor gave one a warrant to exploit any situation to one’s own material benefit. The results of this were generally comical, if cringe-inducing: On the few occasions upon which we found ourselves staying in motels, she and her husband would steal practically everything that was not nailed down: towels, bathrobes, ashtrays — this was in the pre-Enlightenment era, when hotel rooms still had ashtrays and Gideon Bibles. Come to think of it, there were a couple of Gideon Bibles in our house, too, the provenance of which was suspicious. This belief was not limited to economic concerns: She was an enthusiastic partisan of the intentional, strategic foul in football, and of the proposition that athletes should attempt, when possible, to inflict disabling injuries on their opponents. Having been initiated into the ancient mystery cult that is West Texas high-school football, I knew these beliefs to be barbarous, heretical. The Lubbock High School Westerners had a fine long tradition of losing with honor.

I have seen a high-school football coach refuse to shake the hand of his opposite number after a football game in response to perceived affronts to sportsmanship, and that’s a serious thing. (They take it seriously in that other kind of football, too.) It’s basically Sampson biting his thumb at Abraham in the opening of Romeo and Juliet. “When good manners shall lie all in one or two men’s hands, and they unwashed, too, ’tis a foul thing.” You don’t shake hands with somebody who has behaved dishonorably.

I do not think I would shake hands with Barack Obama.

My friend Jay Nordlinger describes the president as operating according to what we might call the Warhol Doctrine: “Democracy is what you can get away with.” And why shouldn’t he? A lawyer or 20 could make a plausible legal case that the president is legally permitted to proceed as he has (and also that the law clearly forbids this, which is why the analysis of lawyers is of limited interest to me), just as you could make a case that, old-fashioned ideas about sportsmanship or gentlemanly behavior be damned, if the rules of the game make intentional fouls strategically useful, then one should commit those fouls when doing so is desirable.

This is, as many have pointed out, a problematic line of argument. The Congress would be legally within its rights to, e.g., refuse to fund government operations, filibuster in the Senate every single appointment that President Obama attempts to make, impeach him and everybody he has appointed to office, declare war on Canada and Togo, pass a law requiring that all future U.S. coinage be made out of papier-mâché and glitter, etc. Why shouldn’t Republicans impeach the president? There are practical considerations, of course: They probably would fail to convict him. But practical considerations are not the only considerations — surely there are higher and worthier motives at work than mere political calculation.

What stops a defensive tackle from intentionally injuring a halfback even if he thinks he can get away with it — even if he is willing to suffer the consequences of the foul — is sportsmanship. What stops a politician from adopting a what-you-can-get-away-with strategy is, under normal circumstances, patriotism. Congress forgoes impeaching the president every time it would be convenient for the legislative majority to do so not merely out of narrow self-interest, but because doing so would violate our constitutional principles even if the letter of the law could be interpreted to permit that course of action. It would be bad for the country. In an elected official, patriotism means, among other things, elevating the interests of the country above the interests of party and career. President Obama has failed to do that, seems personally incapable of doing that, and in fact has done the opposite. He might be reminded, at the very least, that his presidential duty is to the citizens of the United States, not to citizens of other countries, regardless of where they happen to be located at any given moment. But the very idea of taking that seriously seems foreign to him.

We already knew that Barack Obama is a coward – a man who, to take one obvious example, pronounced himself opposed to gay marriage right up until the millisecond that political calculation demanded he do otherwise, and who now believes that it is mandated by the Constitution. His putting off his amnesty announcement until after the election – and his dishonest refusal to acknowledge that it is an amnesty – is another example. We already knew that he is a liar (“If you like your coverage . . . ”) and have some reason to suspect that he is a fool. But the fundamental problem is that he is a lawyer, one without the intellectual or moral equipment to be anything more than a litigator of the picayune. For President Obama and his enablers, the law is a species of magic: He is entitled to do whatever he pleases, even when it plainly violates both the national interest and our longstanding habits of government, if he can simply think of a way to say the right words in the right order as he acts. That isn’t governance – that’s alchemical hokum, transforming the dross of Democratic political ambition into pure gold.

There are many defects with that model of government, but the largest one is that the words “illegal” and “legal” no longer have any meaning. If a sufficiently powerful person or faction demands that the illegal should be the legal, then it is so. Never mind the law – and certainly never mind the lawmakers, who are increasingly irrelevant in our emerging Gaullist, strongman form of government. Charles de Gaulle and his supporters at least had the intellectual honesty to call that form of government what it is: rule by decree.

And he may yet get away with it. But a wiser and better man would not try to.

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


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