Worse Than Johnson and Nixon?

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Roger Morris, a longtime critic of the imperial presidency, suggests that W. is now invested with more power than any other American leader in recent memory. By the Patriot Act and other enabling laws in the pervasive new realm of "Homeland Security," he writes, Mr. Bush has brought an imperial presidency home to a depth and breadth that Lyndon Johnson, with his furtive FBI spying on antiwar groups, or even Richard Nixon, with his Watergate "plumbers" and other extraconstitutional means, never contemplated.

Morris makes a good case, though I'm not so sure LBJ and Nixon never contemplated this much power. It could be worse, of course: Bush could acquire the unchecked power of Abraham Lincoln (or Jefferson Davis), or Wilson before his stroke, or Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor. The presidency grows strongest in wartime, stronger still in civil and world wars.

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  1. Jesse:
    Regarding the “disappearing” Democratic Left in Congress: If the Left is disappearing, presumably the Right is increasing. There is no Democratic Senator today as conservative as Jackson (and he was conservative only in military/foreign affairs). Ted Kennedy is still in office. Clinton and Schumer are more liberal than their NY counterparts in the 1970’s.
    Regarding the relative power of presidents, Reagan got far more of what he wanted, both in foreign affairs and domestically, than Bush could ever dream of. The House was Democratic all eight years of his Presidency. Additionally, the Constitution gives the President primacy in foreign affairs. I still see no reason not to believe the members of Congress voted for war in Iraq because they properly thought it was correct. Advise and consent.
    The USA PATRIOT Act is a terrible piece of legislation. But it can not be viewed in isolation. My point regarding moderate Republican opposition to tax cuts is not only that Bush faces opposition. The Congress clearly stands in favor of continually increasing the size and power of the government. For every Bush initiative there is a GAO audit, or a Congressional inquiry, or a hearing, etc. The members of Congress guard their powers, at least those that matter to them, jealously. Remember ABSCAM? Congress held months of hearings, implicitly threatened the careers of FBI agents, and, Hey Presto!, no more investigations of corruption at the federal level.
    Incidentally, regarding matters that no one outside the Beltway cares about. Historically, those matters, the ones under the radar screen, make some of the most profound changes in our polity.

  2. joe,

    My point was to have neither group should be making said decision.

    Now, to address to your query. The problem with the CDC making these decisions lies in their lack of political accountability. Hayak has written about this issue a lot. The delegation of authority allows the Congress to duck, quite frankly, the hard questions that it should be forced to answer.

  3. “If the Left is disappearing, presumably the Right is increasing.”

    That doesn’t follow at all. The Democratic Party is famously less ideologically diverse than it was in the days of the old FDR coalition. It leans neither as far left nor as far right as it did in years past.

    As for matters that no one outside the Beltway cares about — I agree that they can be very important. But I have yet to find any reason to care one way or another about the Democrats systematically blocking Republican judicial appointments. (There may be particular judges that I’d like to see approved or rejected, of course. But the larger pattern doesn’t upset or even really interest me.)

  4. I dunno. For their time the Wilson and FDR administrations were also fairly powerful, especially when they were at war, or (in the case of the racist Wilson) knocking “commie” heads.

  5. The Presidency was purposefully kept weak by the founders because they did not want to invest a whole bunch of power into the executive. The legislative branch was supposed to be the most powerful branch. However, since the Congress has abdicated (meaning transferred) so much of its authority since at least the the “Progressive Era” (what was so progressive about it?), the executive branch has grown by leaps and bounds. And since the courts haven’t taken the seperation of powers doctrine very seriously (SEE _Whitman v. American Trucking_, 2002) since the 1930s, don’t expect a contraction anytime soon.

  6. Gary: Like I said, Wilson or FDR would be worse.

  7. A good case could be made that the executive and legislative branches have been working together to give them both more power. The judicial branch is really to blame for not holding them back with the ninth amendment.

  8. A supine Congress that will do anything Bush wants? Tell that to Estrada, or the other judges that won’t make it to a floor vote in the Senate. Democrats who are more conservative than their predecessors? Patty Murray vs Scoop Jackson. Nonexistent Republican moderates? Why is the tax cut plan having trouble? A Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz domination over the administration? That explains all those leaks calling Rumsfeld a reckless fool. The entire UN debacle in the fall and winter was a Wolfowitz plan, right?
    Maybe Congress voted for the Iraq war because they thought it was the right thing to do. Is that really so hard to believe?
    Morris’ problem is not really the power of the executive. Afterall, what Congress gives away, Congress can reclaim. Morris’ real problem is that the president isn’t a liberal Democrat.

  9. Yes, Glenn: The Democrats are blocking judicial appointments for partisan reasons, in a battle that no one outside the Beltway cares about. On the most important issues — war with Iraq, the Patriot act — they’ve been rolling over without a fight.

    Patty Murray isn’t anywhere near as liberal as the Democratic left of the ’60s or ’70s. The fact that she isn’t as conservative as Scoop Jackson (or George Wallace for that matter) isn’t relevant: Morris is saying that what used to be the party’s left is disappearing, not that it never had a right wing. (A better example would have been Jim McDermott — yet another Democrat from Washington State, which has undergone some major demographic and economic shifts since Scoop Jackson’s day. But despite such individual aberrations, there’s no force in Congress today that has the reformist energy of the freshman class of ’74. People who still hold those values voted for Nader, not Gore — or else wished they had the guts to.)

    What you’re basically saying is that the fact that Congress challenges the president at all, or that there are any dissident legislators at all, or that Bush faces any internal challenges at all, means that Morris is wrong. But he isn’t arguing that Bush heads an absolute monarchy. He’s making a relative claim: that the Bush White House has more power than other recent administrations, particularly in foreign affairs. That’s a much more defensible position.

    As for Morris’s preferences, he’s definitely on the left. But as anyone familiar with his attacks on the Johnson and Clinton administrations can tell you, he’s never been shy about criticizing imperial Democrats.

  10. An imperial presidency is preferrable to a too powerful congress. Presidents are more visible and accountable, and are removed for poor performance, as opposed to congressman, who can invisibly blame the president for anything that goes wrong.

  11. A lesson in America’s political culture:

    1) There will be an election in 2004, and Bush will be re-elected or not, depending on public perceptions of his performance…not his “power”.
    2) Whatever Bush’s power before the election, it will be effectively halved if (when) he gets returned to office, and steadily decline therafter.
    Why?

    A first term president gets the benefit of the doubt, and a chance to try things: Bush says we need a war with Iraq. On first exposure to the idea, the public says 45% Agree and 35% Disagree and the Rest Can’t Decide. Bush says, but it’s important…and congress authorises and poll numbers climb.
    If it seems to work out…he’s OK.

    Second term: Bush says “Libya?” 45%/35%…and it stops there: congress doesn’t authorise and the numbers don’t move. A second term president gets listened to, but unless he embodies a consensus at once, he gets no benefit of the doubt.

    If you want a president with his wings trimmed, work earnestly to re-elect Bush. A replacement would have a first-term “mandate”…a chance to try his leadership out.

  12. Jim,

    Actually, things that were created to keep the Congress powerful, like the so-called “legislative veto,” have been held to be unconstitutional.

    The essence of the problem lies in the administrative/regulatory state. Congress doesn’t have the ability/expertise/mandate to act as regulatory body (or so goes the theory). So the executive has to be invested with these powers in order for the various vague laws that the Congress passes to work. In other words, the Congress tells the regulatory agencies that it creates to “do good,” and it gives these agencies fairly unlimited and often unchecked power to do so. I think there is a fairly easy way to get out of or at least curb this trend. 🙂

  13. Croesus,

    Do you really think we’d be better off if the acceptable level of PCBs in drinking water was decided via a battle of wits between Cynthis McKenney and Sonny Bono, instead of by scientists at the CDC and EPA?

  14. EMAIL: draime2000@yahoo.com
    IP: 62.213.67.122
    URL: http://www.enlargement-for-penis.com
    DATE: 01/26/2004 06:26:56
    You get what anyone gets. You get a lifetime.

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