After eight years of George W. Bush, conservatives find themselves back at the beginningthat is, back at the beginning of the modern American Right, circa 1933. Once more the country is in a deep financial crisis (we don’t call them “depressions” anymore) for which Republicans have taken the blame. And again a pragmatic Democratic president, backed by majorities in both chambers of Congress, promises to spend us back to prosperity. After conceding the president virtually his every whim during the Bush yearswith the occasional Harriet Miers-sized exceptionconservatives have begun to rediscover the virtues of checks upon executive power.
The 1930s Old Right arose in reaction against Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. But conservatives today need not look back quite so far to find articulate critics of presidential aggrandizement. Unlike Roosevelt’s enemies in the 1930s, James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall, two of National Review’s original senior editors, were not strict in their devotion to individual rights, the free market, or limited government. Kendall, a “wild Yale don” in Dwight Macdonald’s description, was a majority-rule democrat who held that legislatures could and should circumscribe personal liberties for the sake of national security. Burnham, a former New York University philosophy professor, was a Rockefeller Republican in politics and disciple of Machiavelli in philosophy. Yet both were as staunch as any Old Right libertarian in their hostility to presidential power. To them, the executive branch was not only the seat of liberalism but an incipient threat to the Republic.
Kendall and Burnham spoke for the mainstream Right in the 1950s and ’60s. By 2007, however, right-wing attitudes toward executive power had undergone a sea change. Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield, writing that year in the Wall Street Journal, gave voice to the new presidentialist attitude prevailing among conservatives in what he called, “the debate between the strong executive and its adversary, the rule of law.” Mansfield argued that in times of emergency, executive power should be unfettered, both at home and, especially, in foreign policy. “One man, or, to use Machiavelli’s expression, uno solo, will be the greatest source of energy,” he wrote. “Such a person will have the greatest incentive to be watchful, and to be both cruel and merciful in correct contrast and proportion.” Mansfield attributed “the difficulties of the war in Iraq” not to presidential overreach but to “a sense of inhibition.”
Mansfield lent philosophic weight to the case for the strong executive, but Vice President Dick Cheney gave it the force of the policy. For 30 years, Cheney has been the Zelig of presidentialism, present whenever there is a constitutional dispute over the executive’s prerogatives. As chief of staff under Gerald Ford, he chafed at the restraints Congress placed on the post-Watergate presidency’s use of intelligence services. As a congressman in 1987, he was the ranking Republican on the committee investigating Iran-Contra. His minority report condemned “the boundless view of Congressional power [that] began to take hold in the 1970’s, in the wake of the Vietnam War” and argued that presidents have “inherent executive powers under Article II of the Constitution” to employ secret agents and “a broad range of foreign policy powers” as they deem best. Three years later, as secretary of defense under George H.W. Bush, Cheney asserted before the Senate Armed Forces Committee that the president did not need a congressional authorization to commit forces to the Persian Gulf. (In an intimation of things to come, Cheney cited a United Nations resolution as “not authorization, but certainly … support” for the president’s intentions.)
Indeed, burnishing executive authority seems to be a Cheney family value. Daughter Elizabeth wrote her undergraduate thesis on presidential war powers, arguing that the Framers “certainly did not intend, nor does history substantiate, the idea that Congress should legislate specific limits on the President’s power.” “Her father may not have written her thesis,” Zac Frank commented in Slate, “but before and after its publication, he held unwaveringly to its ideas.” Wife Lynne, for her part, published a novel in 1979 titled Executive Privilege, about a president besieged by the press. President Jenner, who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Cheney, believes that “the history of the presidency in the twentieth century is the history of a gradually weakening institution. … It’s almost as though the President becomes a symbol when he’s elected, a symbol to be torn down and destroyed when the nation’s frustrations reach a certain pitch.” The novel’s plot revolves around Jenner lying to the press (and public) to protect a democratic coup in the Philippines.
That a presidential chief of staff and later vice president would have a fond view of executive power is not surprising. But Cheney’s resentment of the limitations Congress imposed upon the Nixon and Ford administrations was shared by many grassroots conservatives. In 1974, while his colleague Burnham continued to rail against “Caesarist mass democratism,” National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart noted with approval the Right’s changing attitude toward the presidency. Hart believed that something more than mere partisanshipconservatives rallying to embattled Republicans Nixon and Fordwas at work here. He advanced two arguments of his own for right-wing presidentialism. First, he believed that only a strong president could tame the federal bureaucracy. “No matter who the people actually vote for,” he wrote, “they end up being governed by the same semi-permanent bureaucrats and quasi-autonomous agencies.” Nixon had been “making modest moves” in this direction, Hart argued, before Watergate brought him down. Alas, subsequent presidents, weak or strong, would prove equally incapable of the task.
Hart’s second argument for embracing executive power was more compelling. Only the president, by virtue of his office’s stature, could take on the most powerful new force for liberalism to emerge since the New Dealthe left-leaning national media. “The capacity of the media to determine the terms of the public debate gives them, at least for extended periods, a political leverage that may well be superior to that of a variegated and often ill-informed Congress,” Hart contended. Thus the Fourth Estate could shape the direction of public policyunless the president stood in the way. “The key struggle in the American political equation,” Hart continued, would no longer “pit ‘great’ liberal Presidents against resisting Congress, as in Kendall’s formulation. The key struggle, on the frequent occasions when a centrist or a conservative occupies the White House, will be between the President and the media, and it will be a contest over public opinion.” Vice President Spiro Agnew had shown the wayhis attacks on the media made him a popular figure, especially on the Right, until scandal brought him down.
Hart’s essay was prescient. Over the next 30 years, conservatives would indeed expend as much energy fighting Dan Rather as trying to limit government. What has become apparent since Hart wrote, however, is that the media, liberal or not, and the president, Republican or not, enjoy a mutually reinforcing relationship. After all, among the many extraconstitutional roles the modern president plays is that of the nation’s number-one celebrity. Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and now Obama made the most of this status. But even presidential failures such as Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush acquired vast influence over public discourse thanks to the media role of their office. (A sign of just how important celebrity is as a feature of the modern presidency can be seen in the power of the executive branch to make famous even those who merely seek, but do not attain, high office. Ron Paul had been arguing for sound money and noninterventionism for decades, but only when he made a run for the Republican nomination did he become a star. Before being tapped as John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin was just another of the nation’s 50 governors. Even Obama, for all his telegenic appeal, was not half the celebrity he became in 2008 before he decided to run for president.)
There are practical explanations for the symbiosis between the president and the press. Covering a presidential news conference is, after all, easier than reporting on the activities of 535 congressmen and senators organized into scores of committees. More important than this, however, are the reciprocal privileges of access. The White House can grant favored journalistsdoes anyone re-member Jeff Gannon?special access to the world’s greatest celebrity. And when George H.W. Bush wanted to plead with conservatives to re-elect him after he broke his pledge not to raise taxes, he went on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. What was good for Bush was good for Rush, just as what would later be good for Bush’s son was good for Fox News. Democratic presidents and the liberal media enjoy the same relationship. The careers of Jay Carney, George Stephanopoulos, and the late Tony Snow attest to the intimate link between executive power and the national media.
Far from dismantling the liberal media, conservatives’ embrace of presidentialism helped create a right-wing echo chamber. Neither presidential power nor the influence of the media suffered for it. But conservatism as a philosophy, and the fortunes of the GOP in Congress, did suffer.
The nexus of presidentialism and media power hastened the emergence of a nationalized, homogeneous conservatism that contributed to the Right’s downfall in 2006 and 2008. Through the presidentNixon, Regan, or the Bushes the Right learned to speak with and listen to one voice. Earlier conservatives had pronounced regional accents: Southern conservatism was very much its own thing; the Midwestern Right, even during the Cold War, had a noninterventionist and populist streak; both coasts had their own regional variations. Reagan as a media figure, the “Great Communicator” if not the great administrator, successfully blended these regional voices into his own. But by the time of George W. Bush, the accent of conservatism sounded the same across the countryit was the twang of a Southwestern oilman.
At the same time as the polyphony of the old conservatism gave way to monoglot presidentialism, liberals recovered their fluency in speaking the language of the states. That fluency goes far toward explaining how Democrats maintained their hold on Congresswhere regional and local interests still count for somethingthroughout the years of conservative ascendancy in the executive branch. This may even account for why liberals have failed at national talk radioalthough they control the mainstream media, which tries hard not to present itself as an official mouthpiece of liberalism, the Left finds it difficult to speak with one universally popular voice (or ideology) to the whole country.
Kendall and Burnham had warned about the dangers of letting the presidency symbolize or speak for the nationone of their reasons for believing the executive branch to be inherently liberal was its seemingly direct connection (the Electoral College notwithstanding) to the public. Those who wish to see a Rousseauvian General Will expressed within the American constitutional form would naturally look to the executive branch. The General Will must be indivisible and univocal, which within the American system only the president can be.
By contrast, Congress embodied plurality and diverse local interests. The “little platoons” of Edmund Burke may not have direct representation in Congress, but the organs of civil societyfamilies, churches, businesses, civic associationshave considerably more sway within congressional districts than within the great pool of the presidential electorate. Kendall emphasized that conservatism depended upon these local institutions, and whatever virtue might be found in government relied upon the expression of these ordered (and often hierarchical) interests within the legislature. Not only did Congress give voice to these groups, but the machinery of the legislature worked toward compromise and consensusin contrast to presidential unilateralism. This made the legislature a poor venue for idealism or “high principle” but an excellent medium for deliberation and prudence.
The tendency of the executive is always to reach over the heads of the little platoons and appeal to absolute truth and national unity, according to Kendall. He wrote:
Because the Executive so clearly represents ‘high principle and knowledge,’ the conclusion is well nigh irresistible that Congress represents low principle (or, worse still, no principle at all)…
The Executive regards ‘pork barrel’ measures as ‘selfish’ and ‘particular,’ and does what it can, through pressure and maneuver, to forestall them. It appeals frequently to a national interest that is allegedly different from and superior to the interests of the constituencies.
To presidentialists, as Burnham noted, “intermediary institutions always appear to be incomplete, distorted and obstructive expressions of the general will. Through them are expressed the interests of classes, local regions, industries, churches, races, or other sub-sections of the people as a whole.” Yet “it is precisely through these intermediary institutions that the otherwise formless, politically meaningless, abstract entity, ‘the people,’ is given structure, and become articulate, organized, operationally significant.” If these organs are bypassed, the Republic is doomed: “Caesar is equivalent to the destruction of the intermediary institutions, or at least of their independence.”
This suggests another, subtler reason for the conservative turn toward executive power. Civil society and social authority have been besieged since the 1960s, in part by the growth of state power and in part by upheavals such as the sexual and civil-rights revolutions. In the absence of strong social authority, Caesar has become more appealing to the Right. He provides a direct outlet for the energies of activists who would like to stage a counter-revolution. Yet conservatives who support Caesar misunderstand the nature of the problem, which lies less with the triumph of the political Left than with the (related but distinct) decline of traditional authority. Presidential power not only cannot restore that social authority but actually displaces it, as Kendall and Burnham warned.
The effects of right-wing presidentialism can be seen in the reckless behavior of the Bush administration and in the decline of intellectual conservatism. By embracing executive power, the Right tacitly embraced the qualities that Kendall and Burnham identified with the president: idealism in foreign policy; abstract values-talk in domestic politics; energy and action, rather than prudence and deliberation, both at home and abroad. The tenor of the intellectual Right during the Bush yearsand indeed since Nixonhas echoed the qualities of the executive branch itself, above all in a preference for absolutes over prudent deliberation and consensus.
This may explain why conservatives over 60 frequently detested the Bush administration, while those under 50 embraced it. The older conservatives possess “legislative” characters. The younger generation has “presidential” personalities. In Platonic terms, their souls mirror the element of the Republic to which they give their allegiance.
Right-wing presidentialism failed spectacularly under Bush and has now yielded to what may be the strongest expression of left-wing presidentialism since Franklin Roosevelt. Conservatives have an important lesson to learn here. They must not only oppose Obama as they once opposed FDR, they must recognize the threat that presidential power represents to an ordered Republic no matter which party occupies the Oval Office.
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: [email protected]