Politics & Policy

What Kind of Presidency Do We Want?

(David McNew/Getty)
There’s nothing great about great-man politics.

A recent poll finds Ben Carson pulling ahead of Donald Trump, with the Republican presidential primary electorate apparently shifting toward a man with no particular qualifications for the office and away from a man with something like the opposite of qualifications for it. That is progress.

What kind of president you want is intimately bound up with what kind of presidency you want. In descending order of grandiosity, the choices are:

President as personification of the nation. This is a creepy and deeply un-American view of the presidency, but an increasingly common one. This goes a state beyond the idea that the president is our national representative, our ambassador general, and encompasses a quasi-monarchical approach to the chief executive: He is an avatar of the nation, an expression of the nation, an embodiment of our national character, our virtues, and our habits. This is how President Barack Obama understands himself and was implicit in Bill Clinton’s promise to appoint “a Cabinet that looks like America.” (President Clinton was successful in naming a Cabinet that looked like a pretty good cross-section of millionaire American lawyers. Baby steps.) L’Etat, c’est moi and all that.

If that is how you see the president, then you want a president who is culturally and socially like you, a president who as a man expresses your values. A great many Republicans have decided for the moment that their values are best represented by a Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon and culture warrior whose relatively high melanin levels discomfit would-be tormentors on the left; for Democrats, it’s uterus über alles. The Trumpkins are dead set on their man because their deepest desire is to shout “Loser!” at every individual and institution that ever has reminded them of their precarious socioeconomic position. Fearing his trademark phrase above all, they want the guy who says “You’re fired!” on their side for a change. Trump is a lowlife; Carson is a fine man. But in both cases, this is a pretty dumb way to approach the presidency.

RELATED: Can a President Change the Culture?

President as commander-in-chief. My fellow conservatives often make too much of the president’s role as commander-in-chief, a duty about which the Constitution has almost nothing to say. It is of course the case that the national defense is the first priority of the government, that defense matters are one of the few issues that are obviously in the federal portfolio rather than in the 50 state portfolios, and that the executive has a natural part to play as the energetic executor of military affairs. The Trumpkins are looking for a tribune of the plebs, while the national-security conservatives are looking for an imperator, which is the Roman term for commander-in-chief, a fact that we lowercase-r republicans should always have in mind. But, conservative rhetoric to the contrary, we are not really a country at war, at least not in the traditional sense. We are a country facing the sustained threat of terrorism at home — against which a large conventional military is of relatively little use — and engaged in trying to stamp out its sources of succor abroad. We are not a country that is about to be invaded by Canada — or by China.

The Trumpkins are looking for a tribune of the plebs, while the national-security conservatives are looking for an imperator.

The militarization of the presidency is a lamentable, un-republican tendency, one that corrupts both civilian and military manners. (John Lukacs was exactly right about that jaunty presidential salute; there’s a reason that U.S. presidents, including those who were generals, do not wear a uniform.) There is something a little fantastical, a little distasteful, and a little grandiose in the conception of the president as a military man primarily, but if that is your thing, then you’re out of luck: Jim Webb and Rick Perry are out of the race, though Colonel Lindsey Graham of the U.S. Air Force is hanging on. In terms of military policy, Carly Fiorina seems to have the most well-developed and detailed views on the Republican side.

President as policy entrepreneur. This is probably the most common position among conservatives and progressives both. You may indulge a little bit of presidential caesaropapism around the State of the Union, but you’re mainly interested in the president as a font of policy. This is frequently a frustrating position, since the Constitution puts the actual lawmaking authority in the hands of Congress. But the president remains the rock star of the policymaking world: proposing budgets that Congress will more or less ignore, proposing reforms that Congress will more or less ignore, making promises and demands that Congress will more or less ignore, and then taking credit and enduring the blame for everything from the price of wheat to the interest rate on zero-down mortgages.

Of all the questions that are asked, one of the most relevant ones — How do you propose to work with Congress to get this done? — rarely comes up.

This is the ground on which much of the presidential contest actually happens, though our increasingly polarized parties and our increasingly narrow political movements ensure that of all the questions that are asked, one of the most relevant ones — How do you propose to work with Congress to get this done? — rarely comes up. That makes for a lot of fun for people in my business, watching the CBO score theoretical budgets crafted with excruciatingly fine detail and bound for — nowhere. It keeps us busy, and for that we are grateful.

Because Congress is complicated and the presidency is relatively simple — just the one guy — we’ll continue to talk about “Reagan deficits” and “Clinton surpluses” rather than “O’Neill deficits” and “Gingrich surpluses,” and we’ll evaluate our presidential candidates as though their deviations on this or that issue were more significant than they are. If you are a contemporary Republican of the sort whose mood is set by talk radio and cable news, you’re treating every policy disagreement as a personal betrayal — every difference of opinion is straight out of Macbeth on the airwaves in 2015 — so you’ll campaign against Marco Rubio as though he were the devil himself because of his never-consummated apostasy on the matter of immigration reform. You should probably care a lot more about who is the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest — surely, all you immigration-is-the-only-real-issue guys know who that is? — who in all likelihood will have much more of an effect on an eventual immigration law than the president.

#share#And, finally . . . 

President as chief administrator of the federal bureaucracy. This is my preferred model of the presidency: not a Bismarckian chess-master, not a personification of the nation, not even the chief organ of governance.

Our Constitutional order gives us three branches of government but four chief institutions of government. Two of them, the House and the presidency, are largely democratic, though the democratic nature of the presidency is diluted by the Electoral College, a feature of the American way that should be cherished rather than despised. The other two, the Senate and the Supreme Court and its inferiors, are antidemocratic, though the Senate is a good deal less antidemocratic than it should be — than was intended by the Founders — thanks to the direct election of senators, a disastrous policy innovation mandated by the 17th Amendment. (If you really wanted to improve American democracy, you’d repeal the 17th Amendment and raise the voting age to 35.)

It is the role of Congress to decide what the federal government is to do, and it is the role of the president to get it done. The president is a servant, not a master.

American sovereignty resides in the American people, not in the American state, still less in the person of the chief executive, and the organ most closely representative of the people is the one whose members we call, not coincidentally, representatives. We are a nation under law, a nation of laws, a nation with equality under the law, etc., which necessarily means a nation under lawmakers — not a nation under an elected and term-limited pharaoh. It is the role of Congress to decide what the federal government is to do, and it is the role of the president to get it done. The president is a servant, not a master.

I have written in the past that there really are no qualifications for the presidency as currently understood — which is to say, in its caesaropapist form. But there are qualifications for president-as-chief-administrator, which is why so many of us with a more modest conception of the chief executive prefer governors over senators: A candidate for an executive position who has held executive positions is to us instinctively preferable to one whose occupation is making speeches. President Obama is an excellent example of what happens when you elect a president who believes, still, seven years into the thing, that his job is to make speeches. (President Obama gave a very stirring eulogy for Ambassador Chris Stephens, who perhaps would have preferred something else from the president, such as an effective diplomatic-security apparatus.)

RELATED: A Day for Rating the Presidents

For us small-presidency guys, the State of the Union is a grotesque spectacle, the president’s comings and goings via armored convoy with a vast accompaniment of retainers and courtiers worrisome indeed. President Obama’s characteristic rationale for reinterpreting presidential powers in an expansive and autocratic way — that Congress refuses to act — is, properly understood, indefensible. We are a nation of laws, not a nation of Barack Obama’s enthusiasms.

#related#The increasingly autocratic and anti-democratic substance of the presidency is rooted in the presidency’s increasingly democratic form: A candidate has to promise everything, from abolishing the bogeyman to making the rains nurture the crops, to win election, and therefore has great incentive to arrogate to himself ever greater portions of political power. George Washington’s presidency was democratic only in a very shallow sense: The Electoral College twice certified him a unanimous winner with no opposition. George Washington got better reelect numbers than Saddam Hussein, but these United States were none the worse for it. There is more to authentically democratic and genuinely liberal governance than majority sign-off via plebiscite.

While we are thinking about who should be entrusted with the awesome powers of the American presidency, perhaps we should think just a little bit about whether those powers are a bit too awesome, and about whether the presidency should be somewhat reduced to something closer to its original constitutional conception. Calvin Coolidge could afford to be a modest president, because he occupied a much more modest presidency. Before you decide what kind of president you want in 2016, think about what kind of presidency you want in 2016, and thereafter.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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