Saturday, February 2, 2008

Executive Power and Organic Change

I wanted to discuss another important suggestion from this article I just linked to from Corgi Guy: as a matter of policy, the person we choose as President matters relatively little. While I disagree with this assertion to the extent it ignores the expansion of Executive Power that has occured over the last 7 years, it is otherwise historically quite accurate. Assuming that the Bush expansions of Executive Power are rolled back, the historical American system of separation of powers will take effect yet again, and the President will be prevented from making radical changes of policy except with the assistance of the other branches of government and/or the overwhelming support of the American people. Indeed, the Presidents who have ushered through the most radical top-down policy changes over the years have primarily done so through the misuse of Executive Power or novel Constitutional theories: FDR (think court-packing scheme here), LBJ (famous for using all sorts of shady tricks to get his way legislatively), Nixon (duh!), and now Bush.

We tend to forget that our system is set up to create gridlock (this is a good thing). For major changes to occur at the policy level in this country without implicating Constitutional violations, it is usually necessary for there to first be major organic changes. Top-down policy change is exceedingly difficult in this country without violating the Constitution (and I would argue that the dramatic changes we have seen in the Bush years have in fact come at the expense of the Constitution). When top-down change is attempted in a manner that is compliant with the Constitution, the political repercussions are swift and dramatic - see, e.g., the fall out from Hillary Clinton's first attempt at health care "reform" and the resulting 1994 Republican Revolution. Or look at the fact that policy-wise Reagan was largely unsuccessful at reducing the size of government; but also look at the fact that his rhetoric was transformational and created an organic change in attitudes that led to the shrinking of the federal government under Bill Clinton.

This fact of American political life means that the single most important issue in this upcoming election is the President's view of Executive Power. A President that will roll back the Bush-era expansions in that area is a President that will be unable to force through dramatic changes in policy without first obtaining a clear and overwhelming mandate for each change from the American people.

This is why I am so fearful of Hillary Clinton - her history strongly suggests a penchant for Bush/Nixon-level secrecy, and I have little faith that she would actually roll back many, if any of the Bush-era expansions of power. She may well put an end to specific abuses like torture, but her record suggests that she will build upon the unitary executive theory (for example) to implement her agenda, whether or not it is well-considered and supported by a super-majority of Americans.

But if we elect a President who has a healthy respect for the President's proper role, then we will get an America that once again hums along quite nicely on its own. We always forget that we are electing a President, not a dictator, and that the powers of the President, properly construed, are nowhere near as strong as we like to think. This is why I am so willing to support Obama, and why I could even live with John McCain (although I am beginning to see a disconnect between his stated positions on Executive Power and his actions - he may be more sympathetic to Bush-era expansions of power than he admits, which gives me great pause).