Cult of the Presidency in National Review

Claremont Institute fellow Michael M. Uhlmann has a dismissive review of The Cult of the Presidency in the current issue of National Review: “It’s Not Just the Executive,” September 15, 2008. (Here it is if you get NR Digital, otherwise it’s available in the print edition). It seems to me that the review largely consists of inaccurate characterizations, unsupported assertions, and non sequiturs. But hey, I’m the author, and understandably biased, so check it out and judge for yourself.

Uhlmann writes that “The bulk of Healy’s book is devoted to various sins, offenses and negligences of the Bush administration.” That’s a bizarre statement, given that the book has nine chapters and an introduction, and only three of those chapters cover GWB’s tenure. In fact, the “bulk of the book” is devoted to demonstrating that, as I write in Chapter Two, “the problems of the modern presidency did not begin when George W. Bush emerged victorious from 2000’s seemingly interminable Battle of the Chads” and that–despite what some on the Left seem to believe–those problems will not vanish in January 2009 when he heads back to the ranch to cut brush.

The book is a history of the presidency’s transformation from the important, but constitutionally limited office the Framers designed to an extraconstitutional monstrosity charged with moving the masses and saving the world. But by beginning his review with a discussion of “unhinged” Bush critics, and mischaracterizing the book’s contents, Uhlmann has undoubtedly left NR readers with the impression that The Cult of the Presidency is yet another partisan screed against the current administration.  Move along, nothing to see here.

That’s a shame, because conservatives could surely benefit from reexamining their decades-long affinity for strong presidencies.

There’s nothing particularly conservative about investing vast unchecked power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top in a modern presidential contest. As Russell Kirk put it, “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.” And if principled reasons aren’t good enough, the fact that Republicans, let alone conservative Republicans, are unlikely to dominate the electoral college in the coming decades ought–like the prospect of a hanging–to concentrate the mind somewhat.

Uhlmann is willing to concede that the Bush administration’s claims of uncheckable authority over the detention and treatment of terrorist suspects “entail arguable legal propositions.” Which is gracious of him. But he provides very little argument for his view that the Framers envisioned a president with anything like the powers the current president–or others before him–have claimed. What arguments he provides often consist of offering innocuous and uncontroversial historical claims about 18th-century Americans’ views of executive power–as if those claims establish that the modern presidency is the constitutional presidency. In each case, he falls a few premises short of a syllogism.

Yes, the Federalist suggests, as Uhlmann notes, that “legislative excess is the danger chiefly to be guarded against in a republic.” But that was so, as Madison explains in No. 48, because the government the Constitution envisioned would be fundamentally different from one in which “numerous and extensive prerogatives are placed in the hands of a hereditary monarch.” Legislative power was more to be feared precisely because under the American Constitution “the executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and the duration of its power.”

Yes, the Framers sought to avoid some of the mistakes made in some of “the state constitutions adopted between 1776 and 1787” and to create a relatively vigorous and independent executive. But there’s quite a distance between that fact and the current administration’s claims that Congress cannot restrain the president from ordering torture and that the president has the power to permanently imprison American citizens without charges or legal process. (Uhlmann treats these issues at greater length in an extensive essay on presidential powers in a recent edition of the Claremont Review, in which, it seems to me, the verbiage-to-evidence ratio is also fairly high.)

Then there’s Uhlmann’s painfully obvious argument that “It’s Not Just the Executive” that’s a problem in our modern welfare-warfare state. Well, yes. It’s not clear who Uhlmann’s arguing with when he points out “the size and arbitrariness of government in general” are intertwined with concerns about a powerful presidency, and that the growth of presidential power would not have been possible without the collaboration of Congress and the judiciary. I make the same points repeatedly and at length throughout the book.

But the book focuses on the presidency because the president has become the focal point of Americans’ dangerously unrealistic expectations about what government can deliver, at home and abroad. As the political scientist Theodore Lowi explained (and as I discuss in the book), the post-New Deal state pledged itself to the constant delivery of goods and benefits, with the public looking most of all to the president to meet the key test of the new regime’s legitimacy: “service delivery.” The emerging “Second Republic of the United States” was one in which, as Lowi sums up, “the system of government had become an inverted pyramid, with everything coming to rest on a presidential pinpoint.”

So the presidency is important. It merits special attention, perhaps especially from conservatives, given their longstanding myopia about the dangers of presidential power. For too long the Right has been wedded to the odd proposition that next to the “Imperial Congress” and the “Imperial Judiciary”, the executive branch–the branch with guns–is the least dangerous branch. I’m glad that NR reviewed the book, and I didn’t expect an uncritical embrace of my perspective. But I would have preferred a serious discussion of the issues the book raises.