On the home page, our Robert VerBruggen has a really smart and insightful piece on the breakdown in talks about pandemic economic relief, concluding that there has “rarely been a better example of a longstanding problem in American politics: Congress doesn’t feel like doing its job, and the executive branch doesn’t feel like staying within its constitutionally established role.” I would add just three points.
First, Trump critics vehemently oppose the incumbent and see his presidency as national nightmare, and one would think that one conclusion they would take from this painful experience is that the concept of the imperial presidency needs to be dispelled as much as possible. Instead, Kamala Harris believes that the executive branch can unilaterally enact gun-control restrictions that Congress refuses to pass. To many Democrats, the problem is not that we have a president who envisions almost unlimited authority in the executive branch; the problem is that we have the wrong president who envisions almost unlimited authority in the executive branch.
Second, we would also expect Trump critics would want to jettison the cultural baggage of the president as some sort of national father figure whose authority and responsibility for us all are is comparable to that of parents over their children. Yet one of CNN’s “Republican” commentators recently declared that the reassurance of knowing “Uncle Joe” and “Auntie Kamala” will be there help her sleep soundly at night. Instead of recognizing that the head of state is not a national “daddy,” the perception among some of the president’s critics is that we simply have the wrong parental figure in the Oval Office.
Finally, Robert concludes, “Congress shirking its duties is not new; neither is a president pushing the limits of his authority. It is remarkable, though, that even a major recession caused by a deadly pandemic could not make American government function properly.”
Perhaps one of the most toxic statements in modern politics is then White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s one-liner at the dawn of the Obama administration, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Perhaps Emanuel was paraphrasing a proverb used in a John F. Kennedy speech in 1959: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” (That is not really the case, according to Chinese linguists.) We’re used to thinking of crises as problems to be solved, whereas in the Emanuel (and presumably Obama) mindset, they are opportunities to be exploited. Something terrible has happened; this is the moment to envision this terrible event as a chance to get something I wanted before this calamity befell us.
The problem is that even if a crisis presents a form of an opportunity, it also represents a crisis, and the more time and energy a leader spends trying to get those previously unattainable objectives, the less time and energy he’s spending on actually solving the crisis. The trend of political leaders seeing crises are opportunities to get what they want aligns well with the point of another piece on our home page, from Liberty Univeristy alumnus Kyle Greisinger:
Well-functioning institutions make demands of the people within them and the people who lead them. The president of a university should make decisions and conduct himself in light of the obligation he owes to the school, its students, and its alumni. Institutions should compel their members — especially their leaders — to constantly ask, as [Yuval] Levin put it in an interview with NPR, “Not just what do I want, not just what would look good, but given my role here, what should I do? It is a question you ask when you take the institutions that you’re part of seriously.”
America is beset by leaders who never want to waste a crisis, and in the process, ensure that they very rarely solve a crisis. Crises aren’t about what a leader wants. They’re about the people that leader represents — and those leaders need to prioritize the interests of those people over their previous political or personal goals.