Presidential History

The Right Should Re-rethink Presidential Power

Hard as it may be to remember, conservatives were the original opponents of the Imperial Presidency.


With conservatives still smarting from Mitt Romney's 126-vote drubbing in the Electoral College, now is the hour for "rethinking" on the Right. I'm no Nate Silver, but I'll hazard a prediction on one result of the ongoing ideological introspection: The conservative movement is finally going to rediscover a healthy skepticism toward presidential power.

Last week, in "Restoring Constitutional Checks on the Executive," a post on her Washington Post "Right Turn" blog, Jennifer Rubin gestured in that direction: "When Republicans were in the White House more often than Democrats, they became more than a little expedient when it came to separation of powers. It is time to return to conventional checks and balances."

Such a return would, in a way, be "coming home" for the Right.

Hard as it may have been to remember during the George W. Bush era, conservatives were the original opponents of the Imperial Presidency. After FDR's 12-year reign, conservatives in Congress championed the 22nd Amendment, limiting presidential terms. Most of the intellectuals who coalesced around William F. Buckley's National Review in 1955 were executive-power skeptics who associated powerful presidents with activist liberalism. In 1964, Barry Goldwater denounced "the current worship of powerful executives" as "a philosophy totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers."

By the '70s however, as the "emerging Republican majority" in the Electoral College began to emerge, conservatives set to work developing a conservative case for a dominant presidency, helped along by their new ideological allies, neoconservatives—zealous cold warriors who came over from the Left.

Rubin's right that Republicans "became more than a little expedient" with presidential power when Team Red held the office more frequently. The GOP's advantage in the Electoral College and the apparent Democratic "lock" on Congress led the conservative movement to "grow in office," pushing for expanded executive power in the hopes that center-right presidents could rein in the regulators and roll back communism abroad.

By the Reagan era, prominent conservatives were calling for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment and insisting that the real threat to separation of powers lay in what Rep. Newt Gingrich denounced as an "Imperial Congress." (For more, see "How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imperial Presidency," in my book "The Cult of the Presidency.")

It's past time for them to start worrying again. In 2002, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published "The Emerging Democratic Majority," predicting a new era of Blue Team dominance based on the rising electoral strength of minorities, single ladies, the youth vote and postindustrial professionals. After the Republicans' congressional gains in 2002 and George W. Bush's 2004 re-election, their thesis was basically snickered off the stage.

But nobody's laughing now. As The Examiner's Michael Barone noted last week, "Democrats have won the White House in four of the six presidential elections starting in 1992," whereas the GOP has controlled the House in eight of the last 10 congressional elections. The electoral script has flipped: the Dems' "structural advantage" is in the Electoral College, the GOP's lies with Congress.

Today, with President Obama insisting that "we can't wait" for Congress to pass laws before the president acts, it's clearer than ever that the Right made a grave mistake by abandoning its traditional skepticism toward executive power. A return to first principles may be politically convenient—but it's also the right thing to do if conservatives ever want to live up to their limited-government rhetoric.

In her blog post last week, Rubin wrote, "Until Republicans rediscover the key to presidential electoral politics, they need to re-establish some limits on presidential power." Catch that "until"? How about "whether or not"?

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.


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  1. That’s fine with me. Congress can start flexing its muscles. At least the House. I assume the Senate leadership will rubber-stamp anything the administration does.

  2. The conservative movement is finally going to rediscover a healthy skepticism toward presidential power

    Well, until TEAM RED gets the Presidency again.

    1. While I’ve been laughing off suggestions that the Republicans are somehow doomed for losing an election by a small margin, especially given that the only way to punish Democrats in most people’s minds is to elect Republicans, it could serve the cause of liberty better if the Republicans think they might not get the White House back in the near term. Then they’ll have every incentive to restore the balance in the Farce.

      1. They are not doomed because they lost, they are doomed because of how and why they lost.

        Their coalition is fraying and falling apart and the few parts of it that remain reliable votes are demographic dead ends.

        Basically you can no longer win a national election targeting middle age middle class white rural Americans but any attempts to bring in other demographics will cost them as many votes from one wing of their current coalition as it will likely gain them.

        This does not mean they will never win another Presidential election, but it does mean that they will never win one on their own merits but rather because the Democrats nominate someone who is a very weak candidate.

        1. I don’t agree at all. This election wasn’t won by seventy million votes. There’s no real evidence of a cultural shift, either. Just two years ago, the GOP won a huge congressional victory and will likely have both houses before too long. And Obama should complete his work of tainting his party with another term. Apparently, we needed more abuse than one would’ve suspected.

        2. You mean there is a weaker candidate than this failure that is the current president?

          1. Calling Mr. Biden, Mr Biden. Where are you Joe?

  3. if conservatives ever want to live up to their limited-government rhetoric

    Except that they don’t have any plans to live up to it, nor have they ever.

    It’s just a game they play to get libertarians to vote for them.

    1. Actually it’s just a word game they play to get racists to vote for them, but you’re close.

      1. What do limited government and racism have to do with each other? The worst institutional racism in this country was created by government.

        1. Progressive liberals seek to treat people differently based upon their race. For example, they believe that blacks are less intelligent than whites or yellows, and thus require special treatment.
          If you disagree then it is you who are racist.

        2. GOP base voters absolutely don’t want to do away with their own big government goodies. As with libertarians, it’s always someone else who’s immorally taking more than they deserve. The GOP knows who that “someone else” is to its base voters.

          1. Which has fuck all to do with race.

          2. “As with libertarians, it’s always someone else who’s immorally taking more than they deserve.”


            Also, this is exactly what I’m talking about when I say that Tony tries to have it both ways in that he simultaneously claims that Republicans 1) Don’t care about big government, as long as their preferred groups benefit and 2) Republicans are radical small-government extremists who want to eliminate all social programs, including Social Security and Medicare

            1. Cali, it’s a sockpuppet. Trying to understand it’s logic, or arguing with it is futile. Ignore. Filter.

            2. T o n y is played out. He destroys language or redefines statements on the fly to avoid contradiction. All unwittingly. The limits of his intellect are on constant display. I have nothing but pity.

          3. So, what Tony is saying is that any argument about “someone else who’s immorally taking more than they deserve” is racist.
            Following that logic any argument Tony says about higher taxes on the rich is racist, because, they “are taking more than they deserve”. Same with the military.

    2. Right. Limited government is one of the first things that you unlearn as you make your way into the mystery cult.

    3. It’s just a game they play to get libertarians to vote for them.

      Not just libertarians.

      There’s a large percentage of republican voters that actually care about reducing the size of the federal government. Which is why the establishment lies about doing so.

      1. My mom is a total Republican, who wasn’t at all happy about my Johnson vote, but she’s definitely a limited government believer. She’s just in the LCD of evil camp of voters, which means she accepts candidates she doesn’t particularly care for. Most of her politically minded friends appear to think the same way.

      2. Sure people care about reducing the size of the federal government.
        Just not defense. We need a strong defense.
        Can’t cut Social Security or Medicare. They’re way too popular and too many depend upon them.
        In fact, there really aren’t any cuts that can be made that don’t involve someone losing their job or some benefit that they really need.
        So yes, we need to cut the federal government. Just not that part. Or that part. Not that part. Can’t cut that. Nope, not that either. Too many people depend on that. Same with that. Maybe we could cut… nope. Not that. OK, what about… no can do. Let’s see, what if we cut…

        1. Except, again, you’re talking the Republican leadership, not necessarily conservatives in general. Before I ever heard of libertarianism, I remember my conservative father talking about how Social Security was a scam. And he had some pretty good things to say about Paul, even if he didn’t like his foreign policy. I mean, remember, a large portion of modern conservatism came out of Old Right Libertarianism.

        2. There was a commentary in the NY Times today along those exact lines. It cost 1,500 words of spilled ink to basically say, we need to cut spending and raise taxes, except cutting spending would be too dangerous, so let’s just raise taxes.

          1. Well thankfully, raising taxes has no economic consequences. Unlike cutting government spending, which would result in our wimmins and childrenz being ravaged in the streets by the Horde.

      3. That’s one of the mistakes I hear a lot of libertarians make – confusing conservatives with the Republican leadership.

  4. The electoral script has flipped: the Dems’ “structural advantage” is in the Electoral College, the GOP’s lies with Congress.

    All the more reason to end winner take all for the EC electors and institute a by congressional district paradigm.

    The republicans could use the democrats own rhetoric against attempts to preserve the status quo.

    Too bad republicans are too fucking stupid to try.

    1. Constitutionally, Congress is by far the more powerful branch, assuming Congress ever wants to flex its muscles. Even one house can throw a wrench into everything.

      1. Maybe, but they’re too chickenshit to do anything.

        1. I think the only way they do is if they really believe the White House is out of reach for some reason. That would be a dumb position, but they may have it, being idiots.

        2. You can thank Newt and BillyBob for this. Newt did the right thing but was completely snookered by someone who was ‘feeling your pain.’

  5. The conservative movement is finally going to rediscover a healthy skepticism toward presidential power.

    Yeah, right.

  6. What, like the average libertarian’s “skepticism” of presidential power, which is skeptical toward anything “TEAM”-related but eternally optimistic about anything that a hypothetical libertarian president could accomplish.

  7. I think Thomas Sowell summed up the problem with the GOP pretty well in his column today…..ators_oped

    “Mitt Romney now joins the long list of the kinds of presidential candidates favored by the Republican establishment– nice, moderate losers, people with no coherently articulated vision, despite how many ad hoc talking points they may have.”

    Skepticism as a goal is self-indulgent and pointless. Principles are what’s important, as well as conviction. That could have helped Romney, if there were voters that stayed at home because they felt that Romney wasn’t sufficiently fiscally conservative. But that’s a big assumption. It assumes that some people were somehow led to believe that Romney was practically a libertarian (Obama voters) while others weren’t, but still didn’t want to vote for a libertarian candidate.

    1. “It assumes that some people were somehow led to believe that Romney was practically a libertarian (Obama voters) while others weren’t, but still didn’t want to vote for a libertarian candidate.”

      Actually I don’t see why this is such a big assumption at all. When you have a politician with no core beliefs who at some point in his career has held just about every position on the map it becomes very easy for each individual to project their own preferred view onto that candidate.

    2. if there were voters that stayed at home because they felt that Romney wasn’t sufficiently fiscally conservative

      I have seen any number of people pointing to the fact that Romney got fewer votes than McCain as evidence that the GOP is doomed. I haven’t seen anybody pointing out that, if this were true, the larger gap between Obama ’08 and Obama ’12 should logically be even doomier for Democrats. Obviously, lots of voters stayed home. If it wasn’t that they wanted a more fiscally conservative candidate, wouldn’t they have voted for Obama?

      I think the most logical explanation for the results of this election is that Romney really really sucked.

      Will the next GOP candidate be even suckier?

      1. It wasn’t so much that Romney sucked, but he was milquetoast. No one was getting thrills going up their legs. Obama’s appeal was largely the leg-thrilling he gave to numerous libs who wanted to purge themselves of America’s original sin, racism. Voting for Obama was as good as a Baptist plunge.

  8. Think the writer meant to say “scratch” that “Until”

  9. Remember that Republicans were the original party of the imperial presidency, with Abraham Lincoln.

    I think that goes to prove that imperial presidencies aren’t necessarily bad.

    1. No kidding. If only we could get a president who would incite a war that killed 600,000 people and suspend constitutional rights. Ahh, for the good ol’ days…

      1. But just think of all the locked up money that would be unleashed funding the post-war rebuilding, it would be an economic boom or unimaginable awesomeness!!!!


  10. I really doubt this will happen. The Republican party is in the pockets of the military industrial complex and has been ever since Reagan was elected. That industry is so huge now and with us spending $1.7 trillion a year on OFFENSE that’s just too much money in the pockets of that industry for either party to refuse. That’s half the federal budget that politicians get to dole out to weapons manufacturers and others for getting them elected. Both parties, but especially the Republicans are going to line up like hungry puppies willing to serve the interests of that industry.

    1. Not that I don’t agree with the sentiment, but your numbers are flawed. Even taking into account foreign defense aid (basically U.S. financed weapons sales) and spending on other only tangentially “military” projects the total spent in 2011 is closer to 1 trillion, this includes war spending.

      I do find it terribly amusing that the party of “destroy the MIC” (Dems) has spent many times more on the military (and war) than the party usually associated with the MIC (GOP).

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