Rant: Learning to Love the Imperial Presidency

How conservatives made peace with executive power.

“I took an oath, and I take that oath to the president very seriously,” former White House aide Sara Taylor told the Senate Judiciary Committee during the summer hearings on the U.S. attorneys purge. Taylor’s statement prompted an indignant clarification from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.): “No, the oath says that you take an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States!”

Leahy was right, of course. But it’s not surprising that the 32-year-old Taylor, born the month after Nixon’s resignation, had some trouble locating the object of her sworn fealty. For as long as she’s been alive, the conservative movement has prioritized the expansion of presidential power, often at the expense of the Constitution.

It wasn’t always that way. Almost to a man, the conservatives who coalesced around William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955 associated executive power with liberal activism and viewed Congress as the conservative branch. In 1967 the right-wing intellectuals Russell Kirk and James McClellan praised the late Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, “Mr. Conservative,” for warning that an overly aggressive foreign policy threatened to “make the American President a virtual dictator.” During his 1964 presidential bid, Barry Goldwater called the celebration of presidential power “a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers.”

Yet Goldwater’s distrust of presidential power fit uneasily with his embrace of a hyper-aggressive posture in the struggle against the Soviet Union. When conservatives did support the expansion of presidential power, it was almost always in the context of foreign policy. Even so, postwar, pre-Watergate conservatives in Congress voted against the expansion of presidential power more consistently than did liberals.

That began to change with Nixon. Prominent conservatives began to see the executive as the conservative branch and set to work developing a conservative case for the imperial presidency. Right-wing ressentiment over Nixon’s downfall helped drive the shift. As the right-wing writer M. Stanton Evans quipped, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

Conservatives started to consistently vote for major expansions of presidential strength, even when those expansions contradicted traditionally conservative positions. By the Reagan era, prominent Republicans were calling for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to two terms. In the ’90s, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich led an unsuccessful effort to repeal the War Powers Act, even though that would have increased the powers of President Clinton. “I want to strengthen the current Democratic president,” Gingrich explained, “because he’s the president of the United States.”

Trying to strengthen the powers of the presidency when the office is occupied by a political enemy shows principle of a sort. But it’s not a recognizably conservative principle. Conservatism as its best has recognized man’s weakness for power. As Kirk put it in 1993, “The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage.”

Modern conservatives, by contrast, spent much of the ’90s trying to convince the nation that its highest office had been seized by an unscrupulous, venal man who would stop at nothing to retain power. They’ve spent much of this decade trying to tear down checks on that office’s power, all the while with another Clinton warming up in the on-deck circle.

The Heritage Foundation, the leading conservative think tank in D.C., still offers a Russell Kirk lecture series. The speaker at the Kirk Lecture of February 2006 was John C. Yoo—an architect of the PATRIOT Act, coauthor of White House legal memos asserting that the president could unilaterally suspend the Geneva Conventions, and the legal academy’s most prominent advocate of unbridled executive power.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Gene Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute, is writing a book called The Cult of the Presidency, to be published next year.


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  • ||

    They're not conservatives (even if they call themselves that). They're Republicans.

  • ||

    FDR (mostly) created the monster, but modern-day Republicans seem to most eager to keep it alive and make it grow.

    It's worth pointing out that Reagan was a New Deal Democrat, and that many of the baby boomer neo-cons started political life as radical leftists. Traditional Midwestern-style Republicanism has been a dead letter for a long time.

    The Republicans began rejecting conservatism as early as 1952, when they passed over Robert Taft in the presidential campaign in favor of a War Hero, albeit one who distrusted the Washington establishment.

  • ||

    It all depends upon whether Caesar is your man or not.

  • ||

    So, every single blog post is required to include a typo, even one that is only two lines?

  • ||

    "The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage."

    Party over principle. Would we libertarians fall prey to that if we had power? I'd like to think not, but I'm not so sure. Damn, that chain of thought is a bringdown.

  • x,y||

    They're not conservatives (even if they call themselves that). They're Republicans.

    Try explaining that to someone.

    In 10 years, conservative will be synonymous with big-government, nation-building Republicans. Just the way liberal is now synonymous with big-government and wealth-transferring.

  • ||

    I use Taft as a litmus test for younger people who claim to be old-school conservatives, hip enough to be ashamed of Bush. Most have never heard of him.

  • ||

    bugsbunny,

    So we're not cool enough for your club, :(

    I'm a Calvin Coolidge man myself

  • ||

    Woe to the club that holds me as their standard for hip.

    To quote the venerable Homer J Simpson: "I haven't changed since high school and suddenly I'm uncool!"

  • ||

    The southern strategy seems to have aligned a little too neatly with the shift in GOP politics.

  • ||

    Was the middle-century embrace of a limited executive the anomaly for conservatives? Or the late-century/21st century embrace of a power executive?

    It seems natural to me that the Daddy party would be a natural fit for those who want to salute a strongman, but then again, I'm one of those post-Nixon Americans for whom it has always been that way.

  • ||

    for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage

    There's the nub of it. Whether it's "save the children" or "war on terror" or simply winning the next election, both liberals and conservatives are willing to override the constitutional checks on government to serve their ends.

  • ||

    The conservative movement was united at the end of WWII. The New Deal and the war had increased the power and scope of government to unheard of levels in a very short time. Libertarians were essentially the socially tolerant wing of the movement, as everyone was united in support of free markets and small government.

    Then the split occured. The defeat of communism took precedence in many minds. The Global Communist Menace was seen as a direct threat to our liberties in much the same way the Global Islamofascit Menace is today. The Buckleyites were still Hayekian free marketers, but the goal of small government kept getting pushed further and further down the list of priorities.

    Then, as now, a meddlesome foreign policy became the defining characteristic of conservatism.

  • ||

    """but the goal of small government kept getting pushed further and further down the list of priorities.""

    Maybe they figured out that government is a necessary means to their ends. The greater the government, the better for them.

    So would that make me a sort of isolationist if I said government (welfare) money should go to US citizens and not the rest of the world?

  • ||

    To x,y et al:

    It's easy to explain.
    There are many Republicans who are not conservatives.

    The definition of "conservative" has been relativized by the orthodox media who, being 90% liberals, are adrift in relativity.

    Bush Jr is a NOT a Conservative, any more than his old man was.
    They are both Rockefeller Republicans, like Nixon. That is to say, they are strong on defense, but quite happy with the big government Welfare State, thank you.
    Nowadays, we call Rockefeller Republicans neo-conservatives; though, if we were more exact, we would call them what they really are-neo-liberals.
    Here are better anchors for those adrift: Reagan was a Conservative; Milton Friedman was a Conservative; William Buckley is a Conservative; Thomas Sowell is a Conservative.

    You may be right about the definition of conservative changing over 10 years, but only if conservatives continue to let themselves be defined by their enemies, e.g. the orthodox media.

    PS: I just read Brandybuck. Well said.

  • ||

    It seems natural to me that the Daddy party would be a natural fit for those who want to salute a strongman, but then again, I'm one of those post-Nixon Americans for whom it has always been that way.

    The GOP wasn't the Daddy party until Nixon, and possibly even Reagan.

    TrickyVic basically gets things right, but it's important to distinguish the difference between how the Democrats and the Taft Republicans wanted to counter the Soviet threat. The Democrats' policy was aggressive "hearts and minds" interventionism, of the type that got us ensnared in Korea and Vietnam. The Republicans, even under Eisenhower, preferred more of a "bombs and missiles" strategy that had the advantages of being less costly and entangling, while sending a clearer and harsher message to the Soviets.

    However, as exemplified by the Dulles brothers' little adventure in Guatemala, even 1950s Republicans had their anti-conservative tendencies, though I'm not sure that the Taft types approved of such actions. J.F. Dulles is almost sui generis as an American political figure.

  • ||

    I should have credited Brandybuck, not TrickyVic above...

  • carrick||

    The practical problem for libertarians is that we require individuals to run for political office for the express purpose of not using the power of that office to do good works.

  • ||

    ...eager to hail Caesar (or his Texas-bred equivalent).

    What are the nominative, objective and dative cases of "Bush?"

    Is it proper to address the current president as "George Walker" in the same way that Romans would address Ceaser as "Gaius Iulius"?

    Just askin'

  • ||

    Is it proper to address the current president as "George Walker" in the same way that Romans would address Ceaser as "Gaius Iulius"?

    I believe that one's place in the social order would have partially determined such a thing in Rome. Caesar had various official titles over the years, and I'm sure those would have come into play, also.

    In the Roman way, both Bush I & II would have been named "George Herbert Walker Bush", since the eldest son almost always was given the father's exact name. Making things comically difficult at times for historians and archeologists, as you can imagine. Both men would have been addressed by their social peers as "George Herbert" and by "Consul" for the current prez and most likely "Censor" for the ex prez (who would likely have been voted that august title at some point).

  • ||

    "as exemplified by the Dulles brothers' little adventure in Guatemala, even 1950s Republicans had their anti-conservative tendencies"

    The Dulles brothers along with Kermit Roosevelt were also responsible for the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran.

  • ||

    "I'm a Calvin Coolidge man myself"

    A good president.

  • ||

    "Party over principle. Would we libertarians fall prey to that if we had power? I'd like to think not, but I'm not so sure. Damn, that chain of thought is a bringdown."

    We probably would given enough time when you consider that the Democrat Party of the 19th century was the libertarian party of that time and look at them now.

  • Scop||

    Anyone who writes "ressentiment" instead of a proper English word (and last time I checked, this is an English-language site), should be taken out and shot in the head. Assuming, of course, that we can extract the writer's head from his ass first.

  • ||

    Scop: your should be taken out and shot in the head based on the fourth word of your post.

  • Not Frightened by Foreign Lang||

    takes sip of cafe au lait thoughtfully while engaging in schadenfreude to Scop's ressentiment before commencing a menage a trois and then going out for nouvelle cuisine. (while recording all on a Sony)

  • DannyK||

    Interesting article. I've wondered for a long time why the Republicans have been so aggressive in boosting executive power, given that the next executive may well be Hillary. I figured it was because they hoped to have the game thoroughly rigged by now, so that the USA would basically be a one-party state, with Congress playing the same role to the President as the Russian Duma does to their President, a rubber stamp and a means of spreading bribes.

  • JBinMO||

    "neo-liberals"

    There is nothing liberal about these people unless you let the liberals' enemys define what it means to be a liberal.

  • ||

    Either a) the Republicans think they've got the game sufficiently rigged (possible), or b) they think the Democrats will invariably snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (a good assumption), or c) they're not thinking that far ahead (also very likely.)

    If and when Hillary gets elected, I predict an immediate and enormous uproar from the peanut gallery on the right, suddenly Very Concious That The President Has Too Much Power And That It Must Be Reined In.

    Checks and balances, checks and balances. But only for the other guy, right?

  • ||

    If Democrats win the presidency, we will know in 2009 whether their complaints about a strong presidency were serious or just Bush Hate(tm).

  • ||

    ChrisO,

    The GOP was very much for strong executives in the days of Lincoln, and of TR.

    DannyK,

    The modern Republican Party has become defined by its adherence to wishful thinking in the pursuit of free lunches. Laffer curves. Neoconservative foreign policy. "Faster, Lighter" military policy. Global warming denial. Privatization in Russia securing a responsible, liberal democracy. Lights around the corner at the end of the tunnel in Iraq.

    The Permanent Majority that Rove thought he was building was just another example of this intellectual self-indulgence.

  • x,y||

    My point was that most people don't understand the difference between conservative and Republican. These same people don't understand the difference between liberal and Democrat.

    You can scream that "GWB is not conservative" until you're blue in the face. You'd be right, of course. But try explaining that to someone.

  • grylliade||

    The modern Republican Party has become defined by its adherence to wishful thinking in the pursuit of free lunches.



    Wow, much like the Democratic Party! Weird how that works, huh?

  • ||

    No, not like the Democratic Party. At all.

    Democrats admit that doing things they like has costs, and they don't cleave passionately to positions that have been proven false. At least, not in any great numbers.

    Kneejerk "pox on both their houses" reasoning - the drawing of equivalencies where none exist - is the most intellectually dangerous form of partisanship, because it seduces its adherents into believing that they are incapable of falling into a partisan trap.

  • ||

    I believe it was the late Dr. Milton Friedman who said it best. "A Government powerful enough to give you eveything you want, is by definition, a Government powerful enough to take everything you have."

  • ||

    Don't forget that no Republican presidential candidate can win without pandering to religious fundamentalists who perceive their God to be such a weenie that He needs Caesar's help.

  • ||

    since truman, the republicans have won the presidency 9 times versus 5 for the dems. by contrast, the democrats have held the senate 18 times to 10 for the republicans. the house has been even more lopsided, 20-8 in favor of the democrats. so a strong presidency is better for the republicans on average, while a weak presidency is better for the democrats. accordingly, republicans have spent decades thinking of ways to make the presidency stronger, and what we're seeing now is all that work coming to fruition.

  • pölitic||

    free lunches…

    Democrats want to collect everyone's lunches and redistribute them in order to rectify perceptions of unequal opportunities, and then they make it easy for some people to sue your lunch away and hoard money in foundations and trusts.

    Democratic Caesar may have a smaller jurisdiction, but makes up for it with the glitz and Hollywood entourage.
    With Democratic Congress = scary
    Tactic: people can organize for longer meal breaks and extra grants of crumbs, bonus to biggest whiners.

    Republicans just want to take your lunch, berate you for your lifestyle, and catapult it at anybody who makes eye contact.

    Republican Caesar has big guns and a sense of religiously sanctioned absolution.
    With Republican Congress = scary
    Tactic: Hope for some gristle to trickle down, crumbs to fall, and a 2nd amendment with rewards in the afterlife.

    Strategy: at least a 3rd party, being comprised of green libertarians.

  • ||

    The GOP was very much for strong executives in the days of Lincoln, and of TR.

    Good point. The sad reality is that U.S. history at the macro level has seen a continual, albeit usually slow, expansion of the executive power since at least the Civil War, if not the Jackson Administration. One could make a good case that such a development was inevitable as the size of the federal government grew.

    No, not like the Democratic Party. At all.

    Democrats admit that doing things they like has costs, and they don't cleave passionately to positions that have been proven false. At least, not in any great numbers.


    Joe, that is about the most dumbassed thing I've ever seen you write. You are an extremely partisan Democrat and I don't expect you to agree, but both parties regularly promise the moon without discussing the bill. It's how they get elected.

    Of course, the understood implication is usually that "someone else" will be paying the bill for the party.

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  • Jan||

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