Presidential History

Will on Healy

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In this week's Newsweek, George Will lets loose with some resounding praise for Gene Healy and his book The Cult of the Presidency, calling it "the year's most pertinent and sobering public affairs book." Will then gushes:

Healy's dissection of the delusions of "redemption through presidential politics" comes at a moment when liberals, for reasons of liberalism, and conservatives, because they have forgotten their raison d'être, "agree on the boundless nature of presidential responsibility." Liberals think boundless government is beneficent. Conservatives practice situational constitutionalism, favoring what Healy calls "Caesaropapism" as long as the Caesar-cum-Pope wields his anti constitutional powers in the service of things these faux conservatives favor.

Will—easily the most intellectually honest conservative pundit in the business—has been known to tease out his inner libertarian from time to time.

An excerpt adaptation from Healy's book ran as the cover story in our June issue.

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  1. “Will-easily the most intellectually honest conservative pundit in the business….”

    Maybe he is.

    But it’s not exactly sound journalism to lavish praise thusly when an excerpt from the object of Will’s admiration “ran as the cover story in [REASON’s] June issue.”

  2. For a journalistic endeavor called Reason…

  3. I don’t think “sound journalism” means what jkp thinks it means.

  4. I thought “sound journalism” was writing stories for Blender.

  5. bingo

  6. I thought “sound journalism” was writing stories for Blender.

    I thought sound journalism was taking cover photos for Blender.

  7. I thought sound journalism was reviewing blenders in Consumer Reports.

  8. jkp-You do realize that there is a difference between hard news and opinion journalism, right? Reason is the latter, and has never claimed otherwise.

  9. I’ve always liked Will. He was always hilarious in his ABC commentaries; too bad they eliminated them. The guy has one of the dryest wits in media.

  10. On the one hand, on the other hand…

    Nevermind that libearals in 2008 have adopted the restoration of checks and balances as a top-tier concern. Nevermind that the modern regulatory and welfare states (ie, “boundless government”) were constructed through acts of Congress. Nevermend that the expansion of executive power at the expense of Congress and the courts is a completely distinct issue from the proper scope of the government.

    Yup, liberals and conservatives are both equally and indistiniguishably in favor of expanding executive power.

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  12. Nevermind that libearals in 2008 have adopted the restoration of checks and balances as a top-tier concern.

    Well, checks and balances on the executive, while it is held by a Republican.

    I don’t hear them calling for checks and balances on the legislature, such as, perhaps, a line item veto, etc., since it is held by Democrats.

    Yup, liberals and conservatives are both equally and indistiniguishably in favor of expanding executive power.

    I would say that, historically, liberals and conservatives have been indistinguishable in their cries for restraint of executive power exercised by the other side, and strangely muted on this topic when one of their own holds the Executive.

    When Obama signs legislation limiting his own power, or a Democratic Congress passes it over his veto, I will be happy to say that I was overly cynical on this issue. But not before.

  13. Yup, liberals and conservatives are both equally and indistiniguishably in favor of expanding executive power.

    Call me cynical, but I’d suggest that might have something to do with liberals only holding the Presidency during 12 of the last 40 years, and 8 of the last 28.

    I mean, the Republicans were railing against executive power from 1993-2000, too.

  14. Nevermind that libearals in 2008 have adopted the restoration of checks and balances as a top-tier concern.

    Restore the checks and balances that Bush has so easily managed to circumvent? Other than passing more laws that demand obedience to existing law (and resulting in the same stretching, twisting, and circumventing at which politicans excel), what do Obama and Clinton propose?

    Nevermind that the modern regulatory and welfare states (ie, “boundless government”) were constructed through acts of Congress.

    Nevermind the presidential signatures on those laws. Nevermind the political mindset on both aisles that gives rise to the demand and ideas for boundless government.

    Nevermend that the expansion of executive power at the expense of Congress and the courts is a completely distinct issue from the proper scope of the government.

    How is the landscape of executive power completely distince from government’s proper scope? Is the presidency not part of the government?

    Will’s point remains. Liberals are promising to end American domestic suffering and conservatives are promsing to subdue scary people, neither of which bodes well for a humble Oval Office.

  15. I don’t hear them calling for checks and balances on the legislature, such as, perhaps, a line item veto, etc., since it is held by Democrats.

    I’m not sure that’s a check on the legislature as much as an expansion of the president’s power.

  16. I would say that, historically, liberals and conservatives have been indistinguishable in their cries for restraint of executive power exercised by the other side, and strangely muted on this topic when one of their own holds the Executive.

    I would say that, historically, the Democrats in Congress held an order of magnitude more hours of oversight hearings in 1993 than the Republican Congress held in 2001-2007.

    I would say that, historically, George Bush has issued more signing statements, and his signing statements have been more extreme, than any other president in history.

    I would say that ignoring the objective facts about what has happened to executive vs. legislative power over the past seven years, and dismissing any complaints as mere partisanship, is dangerous.

    don’t hear them calling for checks and balances on the legislature Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that Congress’s power has been significantly curtailed, while the president’s has been significantly expanded, making the further expansion of executive power at Congress’s expense less of a priority for people concerned about the restoration of checks and balances.

    When Obama signs legislation limiting his own power, or a Democratic Congress passes it over his veto, I will be happy to say that I was overly cynical on this issue. No, you wont.

    Since the expansion of executive power over the past few years has come almost exclusively from unilateral actions by the President and other top executive officials, without any action by Congress, and has often come in the form of ignoring laws already passed by Congress, it’s odd to see someone identify the passage of legislation as the only reliable proof of a respect for checks and balances.

    It won’t take an act of Congress for Barack Obama to stop sending government lawyers to argue that the president can order you thrown in a hole without trial.

  17. I like George Will. He good writer.

  18. Yup, liberals and conservatives are both equally and indistiniguishably in favor of expanding executive power.

    I would argue that the 303 Committee and the introduction of military theater commanders were the building blocks for the Bush doctrine.

  19. Restore the checks and balances that Bush has so easily managed to circumvent? Other than passing more laws that demand obedience to existing law (and resulting in the same stretching, twisting, and circumventing at which politicans excel), what do Obama and Clinton propose?

    Executing the responsibilities of the President without making outlandish and absurd claims about executive power. That would be a nice change of pace.

    Nevermind the presidential signatures on those laws. Nevermind the political mindset on both aisles that gives rise to the demand and ideas for boundless government. Yes, nevermind that, because it has nothing to do with the issue of what has happend to the balance of power between the branches of government, and what the two parties think about that.

    How is the landscape of executive power completely distince from government’s proper scope? Because they are two different issues. A strong Congress can expand the welfare state, and strong Congress can curtail the welfare state. A strong president can expand the welfare state, and strong president can curtail the welfare state. The issue of how power WITHIN the government is balances is completely distinct from the issue of what the government should do.

    Liberals are promising to end American domestic suffering and conservatives are promsing to subdue scary people, neither of which bodes well for a humble Oval Office.

    The size of government and the balance of power within it are two completely different issues.

  20. Happy Jack,

    I would agree that there were unwise expansions of executive power in the past, and that Bill Clinton in particular ushered many of them in. I would further agree that Bush’s castle has, to a substantial extent, been built on that foundation.

    But no one held a gun to his and made him issue those signing statements, or order the indefinite detention of American citizens seized on American soil. Or bully those United States Attorney offices into carrying out his political vendettas.

    Clinton left a dangerous weapon lying around. Bush picked it up and went on a rampage, and there only seems to be one side of the aisle who has a problem with what he’s doing.

  21. Will’s point remains. Liberals are promising to end American domestic suffering and conservatives are promsing to subdue scary people, neither of which bodes well for a humble Oval Office.

    There’s some truth to that, but in addition to distinguishing between the issue of checks and balances vs. overall government power, I’d say that military and security matters lend themselves to executive overreach in particular more readily than expansions of the welfare state, for the simple reason that the President is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and can take unilateral action in this area more readily.

  22. Will-easily the most intellectually honest conservative pundit in the business…

    I don’t know about honest, but he’s certainly the best. Wish he would give immigration the same scrutiny he gives other issues, though.

  23. Will-easily the most intellectually honest conservative pundit in the business-has been known to tease out his inner libertarian from time to time.

    This statement says more about conservative pundits than it does about George Will.

    George Will: Intellectually honest? HA HA! That IS funny!

  24. joe makes two good points:

    1) “The size of government and the balance of power within it are two completely different issues.”

    I wouldn’t say that they’re completely different, because there are some connections between the issues. However, the issues are definitely not interchangeable. There are distinctions.

    2) “Clinton left a dangerous weapon lying around. Bush picked it up and went on a rampage,”

    Clinton wasn’t the only one who left it lying around. The Ring has been growing in power for a while, but it was admittedly curtailed somewhat in the 1970’s in response to Nixon. Still, if we amend the statement to “Bush’s predecessors left a dangerous weapon lying around…” then I agree.

  25. Watching joe perform contortions to defend Democrats can be very entertaining.

    But the Article I versus Article II argument is nothing but a strawman. Democrats in Congress passed almost all of the legislation that empowered the imperial presidency to begin with, often under Democratic presidents (FDR and LBJ). They’ve never raised separation-of-powers arguments when Democrats were in the White House.

    What is most relevant to the discussion on this thread is that such powers have been enabled, expanded upon, and greatly abused most often by Republican presidents, who have held the presidency for the most terms in the ‘imperial era’. Thus, Will’s assertion is spot-on, I’d say. He can be maddeningly prone to baseball analogies and conventional wisdom, but I’ll happily give him props for this article.

  26. I would say that, historically, the Democrats in Congress held an order of magnitude more hours of oversight hearings in 1993 than the Republican Congress held in 2001-2007.

    I’d want to see a link on that. And I’m not nearly as interested in hours of hearings as I am in action by Congress, in any event.

    I would say that ignoring the objective facts about what has happened to executive vs. legislative power over the past seven years, and dismissing any complaints as mere partisanship, is dangerous.

    I would say that believing complaints by Democrats about abuses by a Republican President are anything but partisanship is dangerously naive, without good reason to believe otherwise.

    Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that Congress’s power has been significantly curtailed,

    How?

    When Obama signs legislation limiting his own power, or a Democratic Congress passes it over his veto, I will be happy to say that I was overly cynical on this issue.

    No, you wont.

    Sure I will.

    It won’t take an act of Congress for Barack Obama to stop sending government lawyers to argue that the president can order you thrown in a hole without trial.

    That’s true. I will also be happy to admit that I was overly cynical on this issue if Barack Obama signs executive orders surrendering existing executive powers.

    The size of government and the balance of power within it are two completely different issues.

    Yes and no. Our system of checks and balances is designed largely to prevent the expansion of government power, in that it prevents one branch from going out of control.

    I’m not sure [the line item veto is] a check on the legislature as much as an expansion of the president’s power.

    Its a zero sum game. Checks on the legislature have to be housed somewhere – either in the judiciary or the executive.

  27. Watching joe perform contortions to defend Democrats can be very entertaining.

    That must explain the lengthy list of factual and logical errors you were able to point out – because of how “contorted” my statements are.

    Just noting that a recitation of facts tends to make the Democrats look better isn’t actually evidence that there’s anything inaccurate about it.

    Democrats in Congress passed almost all of the legislation that empowered the imperial presidency to begin with, often under Democratic presidents (FDR and LBJ). Most of the most egregious over-reaching, both historically and recently, have come about through unilateral executive action, without Cognressional authorization at all.

    They’ve never raised separation-of-powers arguments when Democrats were in the White House. LoL. Did you live in this country in the early 1990s?

  28. I’d want to see a link on that.

    Then find one. The hearing schedules of both houses are probably online, and a search on oversight hearings shouldn’t be too hard.

    I would say that believing complaints by Democrats about abuses by a Republican President are anything but partisanship is dangerously naive, without good reason to believe otherwise.

    As if the past 7 years didn’t happen.

    How?? Through the willful and blatant disregard this President has shown for the laws passed by Congress, ranging from his “signing statement” announcements that he’s not going to follow the law, to his illegal FISA spying, to his illegal torture orders. You have to really try not to understand that there’s been an expansion of executive power at Congress’s expense, but you certainly game for that type of work.

    I will also be happy to admit that I was overly cynical on this issue if Barack Obama signs executive orders surrendering existing executive powers.

    Oh, good. I’m sure you won’t just pretend they never happened, like you’re doing with the expansion of executive power.

  29. Comparison of Congressional oversight link. The second link generated by a Google search on “Hearings Congress Democrats Republicans.”

    http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2005/11/20/congress_reduces_its_oversight_role/

  30. Since the expansion of executive power over the past few years has come almost exclusively from unilateral actions by the President and other top executive officials, without any action by Congress,

    Well, that lack of action by Congress was a big part of the problem. The proper congressional reaction to signing statements and every other unconstitutional expansion of presidential powers is to convene impeachment hearings. The Democrats joe thinks will clean things up did not convene said hearings, same as the Republicans before them. If the Democrats won’t act when a Republican president overreaches, can anyone realistically expect them to act when a Democratic president overreaches.

    Of course, it’s really hard to spank an executive for acting unconstitutionally when most of congress does is unconstitutional.

  31. “situational constitutionalism”

    Now that’s some great snark!

  32. Joe, the executive branch minions are able to pull off all of that horseshit because they receive paychecks funded from appropriations bills passed by, get this, Congress!

    Eliminate the paychecks, and you eliminate the problem. Defund a large chunk of DOJ and the internal security apparatus, and you’d go a long way towards restoring the presidency to its correct status. But Democrats don’t seem to be big on defunding anything, do they? And, unfortunately, neither do Republicans.

    Congress has the power to cut the executive down to size, and the Republicans briefly considered trying it in 1995. I don’t recall many Democrats signing onto that.

  33. I don’t think I’ve ever seen goalposts moved outside the stadium before.

    Apparently, there are precisely two actions available for Congress: impeachment, and the defunding of the federal government.

  34. I’d want to see a link on that.

    Then find one.

    Hey, joe, you’re the one who made a factual assertion. You back it up.

    Comparison of Congressional oversight link. The second link generated by a Google search on “Hearings Congress Democrats Republicans.”

    Thanks. Very nice article. Was that so hard?

    The current Congress is apparently a lost cause on executive oversight, so I look forward to the post-partisan Congress investigating and overseeing the Obama administration as extensively as Congress investigated and oversaw Clinton.

    I would note that more than one person in the article you linked to indicated that Congress had all kinds of ways to put pressure on the Executive.

    Through the willful and blatant disregard this President has shown for the laws passed by Congress, ranging from his “signing statement” announcements that he’s not going to follow the law, to his illegal FISA spying, to his illegal torture orders. You have to really try not to understand that there’s been an expansion of executive power at Congress’s expense, but you certainly game for that type of work.

    joe, illegal activity is not a reduction of Congressional power. Congress still has all the power it ever did; its just not using it (well), preferring to spend its time investigating steroid use by home run hitters and the like.

    The lack of political will is not the same as the lack of legal authority. I was really asking about the latter, not the former.

    Signing statements are pure PR, legal nullities. If the President actually does disregard the laws he signs, take him to court. If FISA spying is illegal, hold hearings and if necessary defund the program or take it to court. Etc., etc. Sure, the Republican Congress of years past was too busy grubbing in the trough to do any of this, but the Pelosi’s Dems haven’t really been any better, have they?

  35. Thanks. Very nice article. Was that so hard?

    No, it’s not hard, it’s not scary, you would have no trouble whatsoever researching a subject. As I did. Which is why I could make that factual assertion.

    The current Congress is apparently a lost cause on executive oversight

    Actually, the current Congress has grently expanded its oversight role, compared to the Delay/Frist Congress.

    joe, illegal activity is not a reduction of Congressional power.

    It is when the executive is breaking the law in a manner that expands his actions beyond the limits set by Congress.

    If FISA spying is illegal, hold hearings and if necessary defund the program or take it to court. And there have been, an continue to be, hearings on precisely that.

    Sure, the Republican Congress of years past was too busy grubbing in the trough to do any of this, but the Pelosi’s Dems haven’t really been any better, have they?

    Yes, they have, actually. Karl Rove is about to be found in contempt for blowing off Congress. It was Congressional hearings into the Justice Department that forced the cleanup at Justice. The Democrats have been miles better than the Republicans in this area.

  36. Apparently, there are precisely two actions available for Congress: impeachment, and the defunding of the federal government.

    Uh, the power of the purse is only the most important power that Congress has. Since Congress doesn’t have its own personal army or police force, they’re a bit limited in directly punishing/preventing executive malfeasance. As we’ve seen, they can hold all the hearings they want, but that doesn’t amount to much without executive power to back it up.

    But controlling the purse strings is arguably far more important. If the executive cannot demonstrate an ability to wield power in a responsible manner, then it should not be given the funds to wield that power at all. And that’s true regardless of which set of craven assholes inhabits the White House at any given time.

  37. Karl Rove is about to be found in contempt for blowing off Congress.

    And who’s going to enforce that contempt citation? Certainly not the Bush DOJ…and we’ve seen before that the Dem Congress will piss its pants and back down rather than exercising its constitutional authority to dispatch the Seargeant At Arms to enforce such citations.

    It was Congressional hearings into the Justice Department that forced the cleanup at Justice.

    What cleanup? Sure, a few of the names have changed, but the DOJ still condones torture, refuses to enforce the law against executive branch people who break the law and shirk Congressional subpoenas, and in general act as the president’s publicly funded legal team.

  38. Apparently, there are precisely two actions available for Congress: impeachment, and the defunding of the federal government.

    Having just gone on a tirade about how this administration has abused and usurped power in a way unlike any previous, shouldn’t any Congress worth its salt support such measures? Extreme abuses justify extreme measures, don’t you think?

  39. Karl Rove is about to be found in contempt for blowing off Congress.

    Maybe. I believe the latest attempt to subpoena him has been referred to the courts. Which is not a bad place to determine the validity of a subpoena, if you think about it.

    joe, illegal activity is not a reduction of Congressional power.

    It is when the executive is breaking the law in a manner that expands his actions beyond the limits set by Congress.

    I think we’re talking past each other here. I am talking about Congress’ legal authority, which I believe is undiminished. Congressional will is something else altogether.

    The Democrats have been miles better than the Republicans in this area.

    Then we agree that the Obama Administration will benefit from vigorous, even adversarial Congressional oversight, and there is no reason to expect the post-partisan, new-kind-of-politics Democrats to back off when one of their own is in the White House?

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