Commentary

Learning to Love the Imperial Presidency

How conservatives made peace with executive power.

“I took an oath, and I take that oath to the president very seriously,” former White House aide Sara Taylor told the Senate Judiciary Committee during the summer hearings on the U.S. attorneys purge. Taylor’s statement prompted an indignant clarification from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.): “No, the oath says that you take an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States!”

Leahy was right, of course. But it’s not surprising that the 32-year-old Taylor, born the month after Nixon’s resignation, had some trouble locating the object of her sworn fealty. For as long as she’s been alive, the conservative movement has prioritized the expansion of presidential power, often at the expense of the Constitution.

It wasn’t always that way. Almost to a man, the conservatives who coalesced around William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955 associated executive power with liberal activism and viewed Congress as the conservative branch. In 1967 the right-wing intellectuals Russell Kirk and James McClellan praised the late Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, “Mr. Conservative,” for warning that an overly aggressive foreign policy threatened to “make the American President a virtual dictator.” During his 1964 presidential bid, Barry Goldwater called the celebration of presidential power “a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers.”

Yet Goldwater’s distrust of presidential power fit uneasily with his embrace of a hyper-aggressive posture in the struggle against the Soviet Union. When conservatives did support the expansion of presidential power, it was almost always in the context of foreign policy. Even so, postwar, pre-Watergate conservatives in Congress voted against the expansion of presidential power more consistently than did liberals.

That began to change with Nixon. Prominent conservatives began to see the executive as the conservative branch and set to work developing a conservative case for the imperial presidency. Right-wing ressentiment over Nixon’s downfall helped drive the shift. As the right-wing writer M. Stanton Evans quipped, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

Conservatives started to consistently vote for major expansions of presidential strength, even when those expansions contradicted traditionally conservative positions. By the Reagan era, prominent Republicans were calling for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to two terms. In the ’90s, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich led an unsuccessful effort to repeal the War Powers Act, even though that would have increased the powers of President Clinton. “I want to strengthen the current Democratic president,” Gingrich explained, “because he’s the president of the United States.”

Trying to strengthen the powers of the presidency when the office is occupied by a political enemy shows principle of a sort. But it’s not a recognizably conservative principle. Conservatism as its best has recognized man’s weakness for power. As Kirk put it in 1993, “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.”

Modern conservatives, by contrast, spent much of the ’90s trying to convince the nation that its highest office had been seized by an unscrupulous, venal man who would stop at nothing to retain power. They’ve spent much of this decade trying to tear down checks on that office’s power, all the while with another Clinton warming up in the on-deck circle.

The Heritage Foundation, the leading conservative think tank in D.C., still offers a Russell Kirk lecture series. The speaker at the Kirk Lecture of February 2006 was John C. Yoo — an architect of the PATRIOT Act, coauthor of White House legal memos asserting that the president could unilaterally suspend the Geneva Conventions, and the legal academy’s most prominent advocate of unbridled executive power.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

Gene Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute, is writing a book called The Cult of the Presidency, to be published next year.