Posted by Brad @ 4:03 pm on June 5th 2008

Calvin Coolidge and JFK Live

Or, perhaps, the Presidency this go-around means something quite different then the sum-total of policy that any administration ultimately oversees.

Here is an important point about the Bush administration: aside from the big initiatives of the Patriot Act, the authorization for the use of force in Iraq, and, arguably, Medicare, this administration has not been one defined, largely, by policy initiative, at least not in the “New Deal” sense of it. That is not to say that the Bush administration has not effected wholesale changes in America from the top down—because they certainly have, perhaps more, institutionally, then any administration since FDR—but they did so not, by and large, by massive rollouts of policy packages (when they attempted wholescale changes of significant portions of the American code at once—ala Social Security or immigration reform—they generally, and curiously, didn’t get very far), but rather they affected their monumental changes on the margins. The principal legacy of the Bush administration is not one of policy, but one of framework. And the framework that they have pushed forward into the American mainstream is one which subjugates and allows all potential policy-making to come behind it, not just signing statements but their views on oversight, on the elasticity of previously ho-hum legislative codes (ala the authorization of the use of force), on their capacity to define policy not through a revision of existing code in the normal, Congressional (or New Deal) sense of it at all, but by fiat.

Had you combined Bush’s desires on policy with the sort of policy framework most of us had assumed was already in place circa 2000, had he not expanded the scope of the office to meet to serve his policy desires (rather than vice versa, which is the normal course for an over-reaching Presidency) what you might have ended up with his a Presidency not substantially different then his fathers. Lot of nefarious gremlins on the margin, but who appropriately had most of their farthest-reaching influences kept in check, and most of their capacity for compromise drawn out, by the inherent limitations of the office.

The role of Congress—in fact the principal role of Congress since 2002, I would argue—has not been to use their majorities to PASS legislation allowing this or that—most of the significant legislative victories of the Bush administration in the positivist sense of it was on stealth measures that even the President’s supporters weren’t clear on the significance of at the time of passage—it was rather to pass legislation excusing or catching up to policy that was already in effect.

In that sense, the fundamental legacy of the Bush administration, the fundamental legacy period that the next President is going to inherit is not, primarily, “what are you going to do about progressive tax rates” or “how are you going to end/pay for entitlements” or “how are you going to restructure or refinance or managed care system in America” or “how are you going to balance the budget”—with the possible exception of the third question, no major American presidential candidate substantially disagreed on most of those questions—the fundamental legacy that is going to make the next Presidency so significant is how they are going to define—or not define—the role of the office itself.

To put that another way:

In the final analysis, of course, policy prescriptions, large and small, have only a certain place in a world where they have to be passed by majorities of both houses of Congress (and their component representatives of the people) and signed by the President. Entire legislative sessions are spent debating the ins and outs of a President’s proposal, airing objections, playing out the battle in the court of public opinion, and then ultimately getting their names on paper and their votes recorded in support of or in opposition to the legislative, at which point it either dies an in auspicious death or is passed on to the President’s desk for the requisite rose garden signing ceremony. Congress can, and regularly does, pass some awful legislation, but when the system is working they do, indeed, have to pass it; it has to have its day in court. And the good news is, when the makeup of that body changes, so does the legislation which passes or does not pass. Our system is set up to make that so.

That is not the case under an Imperial executive with a kangaroo-court for a Congress. I would rather have a New Deal style universal health care proposal that the majority of Americans support pass the United States Congress than the continuation or calcification of the office of the Presidency as being a branch of government existing on a higher plane than the other three…bottom line.

Any legislation, in the former sense of it, will always be inherently limited—it will be checked and balanced, and you may lose the battle but the war is still open to you. But any final codification of the latter-style Presidential governance closes that door entirely, perhaps irredeemably. Give us a John McCain and Hillary Clinton to follow up George W. Bush with, and we may not have to bear the burden of a system where structural changes of the sort envisioned in wide-reaching policy packages must navigate our system of checks and balances at all. We could get merely a Congress passing a resolution that says “Dear President, please fix health care, signed, Congress”, and the ensuent policy changes all happen on the margins, beyond the scope—or power—of the ordinary citizen to influence entirely. And that will be how the system works from now on. The new conceptualization of power in the United States government. We are much closer to that fear being a reality than many may think, but we are not so far gone that a good President, willfully conscious of the inherent dangers and feeling empowered to intervene, can step us back off the precipice.

Lest anyone think I’m getting too abstract, I’ve noted before, but there are three, I think, central questions that the next Presidency is going to move us closer to an answer on:

1. What is the role of government in America?
2. What is the role of the Presidency in government?
3. What is the role of America in the world?

Note what is missing here: How high or low will the income tax rates be? What plan do you have for managing health care? What are your views on Congressional earmarks? Even “what are your plans (in the specifics) for Iraq? Many of these questions—important questions, mind—will in large part be answered, at least functionally, by the answers to 1, 2, and 3.

Where we are use to thinking about Presidential elections is along that first axis. And on it, McCain and Obama are about as different as any generic Republican vs. any generic Democrats. In fact, the change may be greater in practice—that’s the fear, isn’t it, not in ideology but in practice—because McCain might be relatively weaker then your generic Republican (in that he’ll largely have his hands tied by a Democratic majority, also because none of his plans for domestic policy are particularly ambitious in either a bad or a good way, and also because he seems much less concerned with social conservatism) and Obama might be relatively stronger then your generic Democrat (in that would have an easier time making large chances, because he’ll have more success communicating his vision to Congress and beyond them, to Americans at large). And there is surely something to that. Certainly, generic Democrats envision the role of government in America being greater then generic Republicans do.

I should be clear, McCain is generally preferable, to me, along those lines. As, indeed, the Republican party is generally preferable to me. Were that the only consideration, I would probably be casting my vote for McCain. Were this 1996 or 2000, I would probably be backing McCain. (And even THIS year I found Hillary Clinton to be the most objectionable of the final 3—because she would be wrong both on the specifics of policy and the structure of governance). But this is not 96 or 00; this is an election a lot closer, as Rojas mentioned, to 1980, or 1936.

Where we are not necessarily used to thinking about Presidential election is along axes 2 and 3, but that is where I believe this next election, for thinking conservatives/libertarians/progressives, must lay.

On axis 2, I have seen nothing—nothing—indicating that McCain would have plans to significantly roll back the unenumerated powers of the office of the Presidency (in fact, in some policy—such as line item veto—he hopes to expand them). Even on the biggest symptoms of ire regularly directed at the Bushian executive office conduct—on, say, torture and warrantless wiretapping, or the suspension of habeas corpus, on signing statements, etc.—McCain has proved decidedly….mushy…on issues which can’t allow that (again, one way or the other).

Certainly, I think it’s fair to say that McCain will be less interested in pushing the boundaries of the office as Bush was. In that sense—in the world of A Christmas Story—McCain is a toad, not a bully. A salient next question, however, is whose toad…and if you think the answer is fiscal conservatives and small government libertarians (and not neoconservatives and national greatness Republican partisans), you haven’t been paying attention, or are being willfully naive.

Nevertheless, nothing strikes this contrast better than the answer to the question “what would you do in your first day in office?”

McCain’s first action, according to his press office, will be…well, I’m still waiting to hear back (something about earmarks). But by 2013, there will be Peace on Earth.

Barack Obama—who, incidentally, authored and passed legislation last term setting up a national searachable database of all earmarks—has stated that his first day in office, he lays out all of Bush’s signing statements—all 1,100 of them—and will throw out all those he deems unconstitutional.

Let me make my assumption clear: McCain will, at best, mark a half-hearted or entirely non-challenge to the expansion of the office of the executive and the checks and balances in government as redefined by the Bush administration. At worst, he will mark a willful continuation of them, as he finds it his only way to get anything done under a Democratic Congress (and because it’s all “national security” to McCain anyway).

Barack Obama, empowered by the correct mandates against the Bush administration, in full knowledge that he can pass his agenda anyway (given his skill and a sympathetic congress), will use the power of the Presidency, in large part, to shut Pandora’s Box. To set things back up to pre-Bush.

That, to me, will be the biggest legacy of the next President, and it has much less to do with the specifics of policy and much more to do with the structure of governance—what does the Office of the Presidency itself look like when our next President leaves it to his successor?

And make no mistake, Axis #2 is what I’m watching closely. Specifics of policy, of course, matter. A new managed care scheme for health care will suck. I would much prefer marginal decreases in spending than moderate increases (though both are, in some senses, rearranging deck chairs on the titanic since nobody save Bob Barr and Ron Paul seem interested in challenging the most fundamental questions of fiscal responsibility and entitlement). But specifics of policy change from one President to the next, one Congress to the next. Redefinitions of the function of government itself, in the legacy of Presidents like Lincoln, FDR, Nixon, and Bush Jr., are far, far more pernicious. Rojas is correct in pointing out what, exactly, was bad about FDR. It was less spending levels and more a fundamental redefinition of what government itself can do. Where he’s wrong, I think, is in placing that concern on Axis 1, and not Axis 2. He’s overstating the redefinitions that would happen along the lines of policy (i.e. a health care bill, another Medicare-under-Bush-II-ish fiasco, which would be bad, but not a fundamental restructure of American governance), and understating the effects of where a President will truly redefine the role of government, i.e. adding to the list of unenumerated (“implied”) executive powers, or where “national security” provides (or does not provide) total cover from oversight, or where signing statements can redifine rather than clarify, or where it’s regular course to fill more than a third of every government agency with partisan hacks, or, likewise, flooding the system with “national greatness” conservatives or judges rather than “limited purview” bureaucrats.

To me, the difference is night and day. There is some question, to my mind, of the degree to which McCain would be bad or Obama would be good, but no question as to general drift.

All that’s the Calvin Coolidge stuff. Axis 3 is, I think, equally valid, if sometimes more ethereal.

The obvious point on America’s role in the world is that, for Barack Obama, the United States ought to work more at communicating our vision and at policy humility. For John McCain, the United States needs to assert itself more and be more at the vanguard of protecting the world for Western liberalism and democracy through, primarily, “hard” hegemonic means. If you believe that George W. Bush and his team were basically right in their conception of America and her role in the world, and only mucked it up in the execution specifics, then John McCain is your man. If not, he’s not. Simple as that.

But there’s also the “psychic” shift—or non-shift—that an Obama or McCain Presidency would entail.

Andrew Sullivan, on this point, has been very good. Give a look to a conversation he has with Marc Ambinder in which he states, pretty cogently, how the principle benefit of an Obama Presidency would not be along the lines of policy, but would be along the lines of perception—both how America thinks of itself, how it presents itself, and how the rest of the world receives us:

This is an easy point to poo-poo, I think—people like James will scoff at the notion of caring what anyone think of us, and people like Rojas may get lost in the policy specifics and not fully appreciate that scope of the ethereal. But, to me, it’s the single greatest selling point of an Obama Presidency.

The great Presidents in the 20th century, or those that are generally considered great by the masses, generally considered to have spear-headed fundamental and positive shifts in the direction of the country and of history, have not done so, primarily, on policy (FDR is the exception). Frankly, the best policy Presidents may have been guys like LBJ and Calvin Coolidge. But the ones we look back on most positively are guys like Ronald Reagan, Eisenhower, and JFK, who articulated and redefined what America is. The ones we look back on most negatively are for their similar effect—Nixon, Carter, etc.—in the opposite direction. Neither Carter nor Nixon were particularly bad Presidents along the lines that, say, Rojas is asking us to judge such things, nor were Reagan and JFK particularly good ones. But there was a quality to all those Presidencies that was much, much greater than the sum of their parts.

John McCain, along these lines, is a non-starter. For all the nobility and heroism of his personal biography, not much of it bleeds into his political one. Americans (and the world) would generally perceive him as Rojas does, a relatively inoffensive if uninspiring speed bump.

How different the possibility of Barack Obama. Barack Obama, along with say David Cameron (perhaps Sarkozy too, though more significant than both), could really function as the first 21st century politician in the Western World. I won’t belabor the point, lest anyone accuse me of Messianism, but the statement, both to ourselves and to the rest of the world, is there, and will exist long beyond any given marginal policy one way or the other.

This election, in my mind, is too important to try to distill down in the “safe” territory of comparing CATO spending sheets on 150 billion vs. 750 billion in domestic spending. Far too important to try to box into the framework of “more managed care vs. earmark hacking”. What we have in this election is an opportunity to both atone for the massive restructuring of government we’ve seen under Republican stewardship and to begin the Herculean task of trying to roll that boulder back uphill, and we also have the opportunity to provide a vision for what America will look like in this new century. We can choose to take that step, with its ensuent risks, or we can balk and try to play it safe, comforting ourselves on the policy margins while we balk from making the tough choices. The decision, I think, could not be more clear.


  1. Barack Obama—who, incidentally, authored and passed legislation last term setting up a national searachable database of all earmarks—has stated that his first day in office, he lays out all of Bush’s signing statements—all 1,100 of them—and will throw out all those he deems unconstitutional.


    If Obama follows this plan to the letter, he will be reversing the executive orders of his predecessor that he deems undesirable. Every President does that. I see NOTHING here suggesting that he renounces the ability of the President to make policy through signing statements. And that, of course, would be necessary in order for him to make progress on your axis #2.

    Which specific powers does Obama believe Bush usurped which he intends to renounce? Not which policies–which powers? I’m pretty sympathetic to your overall argument where the role of government is concerned, but it seems to me that until Obama actually gets concrete as to what he intends to do to give back executive authority, it’s all wishful thinking.

    I grant you that I would rather have my liberty usurped by a legislative body than an executive one, as I have greater relative control over the legislature. But when the overall goal of Obama’s project appears to usurp as much economic liberty and responsibility as possible, I find the means through which he acts to be small comfort.

    Comment by Rojas — 6/5/2008 @ 5:39 pm

  2. …on signing statements, etc.—McCain has proved decidedly….mushy…on issues which can’t allow that (again, one way or the other).

    McCain said he wouldn’t ever use signing statements; he’d veto or sign. Obama and Clinton just said they’d use them less. Why did you think that McCain was mushy on them?

    Comment by Adam — 6/5/2008 @ 8:00 pm

  3. You’re right (both of you). Take out signing statements from the laundry list. Just torture, habeas corpus, warrantless wiretapping, limitless wartime powers, etc. etc.

    Comment by Brad — 6/5/2008 @ 8:06 pm

  4. I’ve gone through the “McCain on torture” argument before, so don’t care and won’t bother to repeat it (neither of us are convincing the other one iota), except to say that I wholly disagree with your characterisation on that issue.

    On Haebus Corpus, you are talking about Guantanamo Bay or cases like that of Jose Padilla? I don’t think that McCain claims that wartime powers are ‘limitless’, incidentally.

    The wiretapping issue is the only one you raise where I think that there is genuine concern and it is significant (although not as significant to me as, say, free trade; that’s not to say, however, that it’s not important, but rather just to say something about my ranking of issues); I don’t care about warrants in particular, but there ought to be something resembling due process (a role often fulfilled by filing for warrants).

    Comment by Adam — 6/5/2008 @ 9:09 pm

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