The Imperial Mount Rushmore

Though it’s been a few weeks since it appeared, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Stephen Knott’s excellent piece on whether Woodrow Wilson destroyed the office of the presidency. The clamor about the imperial presidency is on the rise with many commentators (such as George Will) and Knott’s article gives us a better understanding of its rise, as well as its implications. Knott describes the “expectations gap” that has arisen due to modern conceptions of the presidency, where we expect the president to heal the planet, rather than work to enact reforms within the institutions of constitutional government.

In response to Professor Knott I would only mention that I think Woodrow Wilson may not even deserve top billing in terms of producing the rise of presidential power.

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The Pen, the Phone—and the Constitution

President Obama and his advisors have told us that he can work around a purportedly obstructionist Congress by using what they claim is legitimate executive authority exercised by “pen and phone.” The phrase is meant to put across the idea that the president can get things done by signing off on various formal and informal executive initiatives, and cajoling Americans within government and without to act according to his vision. White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer, who is credited with inventing the phrase, recently explicated its meaning by observing that in an era of divided government, a Democratic president cannot easily get his way when Republicans control Congress. In order to “move the ball forward” on the president’s agenda, the deployment of “executive power” is required, according Pfeiffer.

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Friday Roundup, January 24th

Don't miss this month's Liberty Law Forum on the Constitution's structural limitations of power and the Bill of Rights: Contributions from Patrick Garry, Ed Erler, Michael Ramsey, and Kenneth Bowling. How should contemporary defenders of limited government and the rule of law understand and learn from the New Deal's revolutionary movement? The current Liberty Law Talk with Gordon Lloyd, co-author with David Davenport of The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism, discusses this question. Liberty Law Reviews: William Atto on Scott Berg's Wilson:  In 1879 . . . he published his essay “Cabinet Government in the United States,” in the International Review. Clearly…

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The Physics of Party Government

It took Woodrow Wilson a century and a quarter, and help from Harry Reid, but America now has what Wilson said we needed in 1885: government by a majority party empowered to do whatever it wants to push the country along the paths of progress – just like in Europe. Harry Reid and the Obama Democrats’ unilateral change of rules to make the US Senate run strictly on majority votes simply capped a long process of growth in partisanship that has Europeanized public life in America without changing a word in the Constitution. This is not how Wilson wanted to do it, but the unlovely results are the same.

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A Superfluous Congress

There is not the slightest constitutional pretext for deferring enforcement of unworkable provisions of the Affordable Care Act. By all accounts it is reasonable policy to do so. But the constitutional precedent is profoundly troubling. Congress’ craven capitulation to it is even more so.

No one has noticed in the present case because Congress and the President seem generally to agree on this course. Republicans do not want the law enforced at all, and most Democrats appear to concur in President Obama’s conclusion that more time is needed before certain parts of it should be enforced.

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Of Constitutionalism, Consequentialism and Climate

The president, armed with inherent executive power topped with statutory authority, faced a dilemma: Danger beckoned. Congress alternated between theatrical hems and political haws.  The international position and perhaps security of the United States were at stake.  So he chose the path of boldness—the path down which greatness lies.

Reported in certain journals, that might have been President Bush at the height of the Global War on Terror.  But portrayed in other outlets, it was President Obama bypassing Congress, employing unilateral executive power to regulate greenhouse gases.  Politically, a great distance separates Bush and Obama.  Constitutionally, it is increasingly difficult to tell them apart—and one reason is the theory of the Presidency some conservatives propagated a decade ago and which is now being bent toward purposes that probably make them wish they had remembered the axiom never to endorse any power one would not entrust to one with whom one disagreed. 

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Curbing Campaign Cash

Curbing Campaign Cash

The next Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with Paula Baker about her new book, Curbing Campaign Cash. You might recall former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith's review of the book in this space. Smith observed that Baker's book uncovers for the reader the perennial tale of campaign finance legislation and its many untoward consequences that distort a system of fully competitive elections. "Before Super PACs, McCain-Feingold, “soft money,” and the Keating 5; before Watergate, and even before Teapot Dome, there was the Michigan Senate race of 1918. . . . one of the nation’s most contested elections and earliest campaign…

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We Demand to be Ruled: Reflections on a Servile Electorate and its Narcissistic Presidency

It is a logical fallacy and a clinical delusion, and the body politic is suffering from both: magical thinking—the false linkage of causal events, in this case between the president and, well, everything.  Hence the claim—literally childish, as will be seen—that the president personally as well as his policy in the Middle East are somehow to blame for an eruption of rioting against American targets in that region.  The concomitant argument from the Romney camp is that were their man president, the riots never would have happened: a claim that is patently absurd except to those who seriously believe enraged rioters en route to a demonstration halfway around the world actually pause first to ask themselves whether the President of the United States frowns upon their actions.

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Political Scientists Bow to the Laws of Nature

After some hesitation, the American Political Science Association (APSA) has cancelled its annual four-day, pre-Labor Day convention, with Hurricane Isaac bearing down on its New Orleans venue. Even proud contemporary political science must eventually submit to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” in practice, while remaining resistant in theory.

Causing consternation for several days, the APSA, which was founded in New Orleans in 1903, had wanted to defy the laws of nature and proceed to meet in the city of its makers. (To be fair, several hundred convention participants, of the 6000 or so anticipated, were already in New Orleans prior to the long-scheduled Thursday, August 30 formal opening.)

Musing on a catastrophe of Katrina proportions, one person involved in organizing the Annual Meeting joked about a political science version of “Hunger Games.” However satisfying the vision of political scientists spearing each other might be (after making rational choice calculations), the APSA finally acknowledged the sovereignty of the laws of nature and likely averted disaster.

But the confrontation with brute nature brings attention to how political science scholarship set out to manipulate human nature.  The first two decades of the APSA produce shocking examples of open assault on the American founding and the Declaration of Independence in particular.  The APSA’s first presidents sought counterrevolution against the natural rights and the limited government that flows from them.

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Is This Progress?

President Obama is a man of history—that is, he places himself quite deliberately in historical context. His much-derided self-comparisons with Abraham Lincoln come immediately to mind. But those are clearly superficial. More telling is his choice of Osawatomie, Kansas for a speech that drew comparison to Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech delivered there 101 years before.  Roosevelt called for a vast expansion of federal government responsibility—a Bureau of Corporations and legislation involving families. Obama claims the legacy of both the Great Emancipator and the Rough Rider to justify his own dramatically more radical schemes.

Obama struck again in his recent speech at Roanoke, Virginia, with a speech that begs comparison with Woodrow Wilson’s “What is Progress?” address from his triumphant 1912 presidential campaign.

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