Conservatives and the Presidency

But for the intriguing–and unsettling–revelation that President Bush’s nickname for his attorney general is “Fredo,” there’s not much new in the Washington Post’s recent four-part series on vice president Dick Cheney.  But the series does serve to remind us of how consistently Cheney has pushed for three decades to expand the powers of the presidency.  That in turn is a good jumping-off point for examining how inconsistent post-Watergate conservatives’ affinity for powerful executives is with conservatism, properly understood. 

Almost to a man, the postwar conservatives who coalesced around William F. Buckley’s National Review associated presidential power with liberal activism and viewed Congress as the “conservative” branch.  In 1960 NR senior editor Willmoore Kendall, who had been one of Buckley’s professors at Yale, published an influential article called “The Two Majorities,” which made that case.  In 1967, Russell Kirk and coauthor James McClellan praised the late Robert A. Taft, “Mr. Conservative,” for insisting that war had to be a last resort, threatening as it did to “make the American President a virtual dictator, diminish the constitutional powers of Congress, contract civil liberties, injure the habitual self-reliance and self-government of the American people, distort the economy, sink the federal government in debt, [and] break in upon private and public morality.” 

Even so ardent a Cold Warrior as NR’s James Burnham recognized that “by the intent of the Founding Fathers and the letter and tradition of the Constitution, the bulk of the sovereign war power was assigned to Congress.”  Burnham doubted that congressional control of the war power could be maintained, given the demands of modern war.  But he wrote a book defending Congress’s centrality to the American constitutional system and warning that erosion of congressional power and the rise of activist presidents risked bringing about “plebiscitary despotism for the United States in place of constitutional government, and thus the end of political liberty.”

The politician who represented the culmination of postwar conservatives’ hopes for political success, Senator Barry Goldwater, could sound as extremist in opposition to presidential power as he did on other matters involving “the defense of liberty.” In his 1964 campaign manifesto “My Case for the Republican Party,” Goldwater wrote:

We hear praise of a power-wielding, arm-twisting President who “gets his program through Congress” by knowing the use of power. Throughout the course of history, there have been many other such wielders of power. There have even been dictators who regularly held plebiscites, in which their dictatorships were approved by an Ivory-soap-like percentage of the electorate. But their countries were not free, nor can any country remain free under such despotic power. Some of the current worship of powerful executives may come from those who admire strength and accomplishment of any sort. Others hail the display of Presidential strength … simply because they approve of the result reached by the use of power. This is nothing less than the totalitarian philosophy that the end justifies the means…. If ever there was a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers, it is this one.

Of course, Goldwater’s distrust of presidential power fit uneasily with his embrace of a hyper-aggressive posture in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Rollback of communist gains demanded presidential activism abroad, and those demands began to weaken conservative opposition to powerful presidents.

In an article for Presidential Studies Quarterly examining congressional voting patterns on executive power, political scientist J. Richard Piper found that “what erosion occurred in conservative support for a congressionally-centered federal system [from 1937-68] occurred most frequently on foreign policy matters and among interventionist anti-Communists.” Even so, post-war, pre-Watergate conservatives in Congress “were more likely to favor curbing presidential powers than were moderates or liberals.”

During the Nixon administration, all that began to change.  The 1970s brought increasing tension over foreign policy and, perhaps more importantly, the emergence of what political analyst Kevin Phillips called “The Emerging Republican Majority” in the electoral college. Right-wing ressentiment over Nixon’s downfall helped drive the shift; as conservative M. Stanton Evans quipped, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

By the ‘70s, prominent conservatives had begun to see the executive as the conservative branch, and set to work developing a conservative case for the Imperial Presidency. In November 1974, National Review featured a cover story by Jeffrey Hart, “The Presidency: Shifting Conservative Perspectives?” Hart began by noting the “settled and received view” among American conservatives, who “have been all but unanimously opposed to a strong and activist presidency.” Foreshadowing the conservative embrace of Unitary Executive Theory in the 1980s, Hart noted the growth of the administrative state and the corresponding need for a powerful president who could hold the bureaucracy in check. Even more important, according to Hart, was the emergence of a “fourth branch of government” in the form of an activist, left-leaning press. Only a centrist or conservative president willing to use the bully pulpit could check the liberal media in the fight for American public opinion.

In Congress as well, conservatives demonstrated a growing affinity for a strong presidency. As Piper noted, of “37 major roll call [votes] concerning presidential powers of greatest long-term significance [from 1968-86] conservatives took the most pro-presidential power position… often (as on the item veto, impoundment, and war powers) contradicting conservative positions of the past.”

By the Reagan era, prominent right-wingers were calling for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment, and conservative conventional wisdom held that the real threat to separation of powers lay not in an Imperial Presidency, but in an Imperial Congress.   And during the Clinton administration, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.) led an unsuccessful effort to repeal the War Powers Act, with Gingrich urging House Republicans to “increase the power of President Clinton…. I want to strengthen the current Democratic president because he’s the president of the United States.”  The bulk of the Republican delegation supported the bill, which failed to pass the House because of Democratic opposition and 44 Republican defections.   

That conservatives were willing to strengthen the powers of the presidency even when the office was occupied by their political enemy shows principle of a sort, but it’s unclear why it’s a conservative principle.  Far more than liberals, conservatives recognize the imperfectability of human nature, and, taking man for what he is, have generally supported restraints on the concentration of power.   Russell Kirk was no libertarian, but on this point, he and most of the postwar conservative movement stood with Jefferson: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”  As Kirk put it:

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. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands….

Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.   

Do conservatives still hold to that wisdom?  Evidence that they do is difficult to discern.  They spent much of the ’90s trying to convince the country that the nation’s highest office had been seized by a terribly unscrupulous, venal man, a man who would stop at nothing to retain power.  And they’ve spent much of the current decade trying to tear down checks on that office’s power, all the while with another Clinton warming up in the on-deck circle. 

True, one of the leading conservative think tanks in D.C. still offers a Russell Kirk lecture.  In 2006, the speaker was the legal academy’s most prominent advocate of presidential war and unbridled executive power, John C. Yoo

You’ve come a long way, baby.