There’s a liberal/neo-con tiff brewing over the legacy of Harry Truman. Peter Beinart gets sniffy about George W. Bush “tak[ing] Truman’s name in vain.” (Who’s Harry in that metaphor?) Max Boot says HST, like GWB, was wonderfully unilateral: “The decision to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki? A unilateral U.S. initiative. The Marshall Plan to aid European recovery? Ditto.” Matt Yglesias thinks Truman was “great,” but “What Would Truman Do?” isn’t really a useful question.
All three focus on Truman’s legacy abroad. But when you look at behavior on the home front, it seems to me that George W. Bush has as good a claim to Truman’s legacy as anyone. Domestically, HST was as unilateral as all get-out. Look at the Steel Seizure case. Facing down a nationwide steel strike in the midst of the Korean war, Truman ordered his secretary of commerce to seize the steel companies and operate them for the government. He did so using a constitutional theory that’s by now familiar. Here’s assistant attorney general Holmes Baldridge laying it out before federal district court judge David A. Pine in 1952:
Judge Pine: So you contend the Executive has unlimited power in time of an emergency?
Baldridge: He has the power to take such action as is necessary to meet the emergency.
Judge Pine: If the emergency is great, it is unlimited, is it?
Baldridge: I suppose if you carry it to its logical conclusion, that is true….
Judge Pine: And that the Executive determines the emergencies and the courts cannot even review whether it is an emergency.
Baldridge: That is correct.
Later, Pine asked Baldridge: “So, when the sovereign people adopted the Constitution, it enumerated the powers set up in the Constitution, but limited the powers of the Congress and limited the powers of the judiciary, but it did not limit the powers of the Executive. Is that what you say?” Baldridge replied, “That is the way we read Article II of the Constitution.”
Luckily, neither Judge Pine nor the Supremes bought it.
Then there’s that minor undeclared “police action” on the Korean peninsula. Wonderfully unilateral there as well, as far as Congress goes.
If, like Boot, you think the country suffers from insufficient concentration of power in the executive branch, then Truman’s legacy is something to fight over. But if you don’t, then “WWTD?” isn’t the right question by a long shot.