Friday, May 25, 2007

Power and the President

Thank you Alex Rossmiller for saying what every liberal -- and Stanley Fish -- believes would never actually admit: that there's nothing really wrong in prinicple with Dick Cheney's powerful role within the executive branch. And why not? Because if it were a progressive in there kicking ass and taking names, liberals would be the last ones screaming about the constitution, the imperial vice-presidency, and whatnot.

The same, no doubt, can be said about "King George" and his moves to greatly expand the powers of the executive. It remains an almost iron law of American History that the greatest presidents not coincidentally are the ones who greatly expanded the power of the presidency: Jackson with his Indian Removals and bank vetoes; Lincoln with his war declaration and suspension of Habeus Corpus; Franklin Roosevelt with his "court-packing" plan, New Deal reforms, Japanese internment, etc. The reason I never much cared for current left-wing cries about expanded executive power is that I have no doubt such complaints wouldn't exist were there a Democratic president; and when a Democrat does become president, his/her mandate for change will be based on the work done by George Bush.


Blogger Scantron said...

Excuse me, Robot, if I find this post a bit...odd. Unfortunately, I can't read the prospect article at the moment behind the subscription wall, but I've heard this argument before. And I profoundly disagree with it.

First, you conjure up here a very powerful conception of the political, one that goes "all the way down" so to speak and suggests that all opposing groups want is control of absolute power and that they only complain when they're out of power. That is to assume that every liberal is a Stanley Fish. I personally have never really though this way and I know you don't either so I find that comment a bit strange.

Second, I think you're mistaken when you say "there's nothing really wrong in principle with Dick Cheney's powerful role". I think what you mean is that *in principle* it's actually quite wrong, and an overreach of the powers vested in the executive branch by Article II, but that *in practice* we can all agree that we all wish we had a finger in the pie that Cheney currently enjoys, or else that we secretly wish some Democratic demagogue were ruling by decree in the capacity of an absolute executive. That's a logical/terminological point. But I still don't agree with what you're actually saying.

Third, appealing to past abuses of executive power is no way to seriously engage in this debate. It's a cop-out. You can't say "Lincoln was great," so I'm going to turn my head to what's going on now. Isn't the right thing actually to *stand up* to what we think is wrong, no matter who's perpetrating it? Because the Civil War turned out on the side of the Union, are we then to write off the suspension of habeas corpus as a "historical necessity"? Hardly. Plus, how much are you excusing FDR's treatment of Japanese-Americans here? Are we really to theodicize his presidency to such a degree? "If FDR did it, it must be okay"?

Fourth, your final comment about "such complaints wouldn't exist were there a Democratic president"--is this such a certainty? And if we had a Democratic President right now (Al Gore, say) and he had done all the terrible things Bush and Cheney had done after 9/11, would political allegiance really hinder you from criticizing those policies? Let's forget a moment about what the "base" of the Democratic party would say: If a Democrat does it, does that make it okay for you?

Pry yourself apart from the Democratic Party for a second. Are your political beliefs really so binary? And what exactly would be the Democratic flip-side of "kicking ass and taking names"? Decreeing progressive taxation schemes? What does this mean?

I think we rightly decry hardcore conservatives for their lack of critical thinking about the heinous practices perpetrated by their boys in the White House. Not only because we disagree with them ideologically, but because we cringe at the idea that someone could become so engrossed in their own party groupthink that they can no longer make independent decisions. This is a bad recipe for politics no matter what, precisely because many of the outrages committed by this presidency could *very* conceivably have been committed under Democrats: renditions, torture, spying, dissimulation, et al. What does it mean to say that Democrats only wish they were the ones in charge of such practices? Don't they remain terrible crimes no matter what?

I'm interested to hear your thoughts. I mean, I love ya brother, but I've really gotta throw down here.

3:58 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

I appreciate your rebuttal.
I'll address your points the best I can one by one.

1) I will quote from the article, but do read it in its entirety. It's not behind a subscription wall, and it's well worth taking a minute to sign up for the free content--at the very least to clarify what I thought I didn't need to say. First and foremost, by saying that there's nothing in principle with "Cheney's powerful role in the executive" I'm not at all saying there's nothing wrong with Dick Cheney. Indeed, there's everything wrong with Dick Cheney: he's a liar, a torturer, a thief, etc. He's the worst egregious vice president in the history of our country.

What I mean when I say there's nothing wrong in principle with his role is exactly what the author says, and I'll quote him at length so that you can get an idea of what I’m talking about: "First, [Cheney] has exercised powers vastly exceeding the formal constitutional functions of the office or those exercised by any of his predecessors.... Cheney has spent six years exerting outsized influence and a hard-line ideology, virtually all under the radar, answering to no one other than the president himself. While a solid majority of Americans disapprove of his job performance, the base of the Republican Party adores him, packing his fundraisers and tuning in every time he surfaces to chat with ideological brethren like Rush Limbaugh or Brit Hume…. Given Cheney's personality and ideological orientation, he has of course done what many Democrats and independents view as tremendous damage to the country. The other way to look at it, though, is that he has assiduously and effectively implemented the agenda of today's conservatism. Which raises a question: What if the next vice president sustained the Cheney model -- but as a progressive? …. In office, of course, he blazed a trail of right-wing policymaking, foreign and domestic, often far under the radar. At once unaffected by the limited formal or historical powers assigned to the office and liberated from the desire for attention or approval, he was free to implement ideas and programs extolled by hard-line conservatives. His impact has been devastating.... But imagine a vice president with similar abilities, a comparable profile, and the same inclination to exercise maximal influence in office, but who is progressive and honest rather than reactionary and malevolent."

2) I did not intend to equate my position with Mr. Rossmiller's, but rather demonstrate that Mr. Rossmiller is unintentionally exposing a hypocrisy I believe to be widespread. I find it to be almost a truism that a Vice-President who used his powers to push through progressive policies in the same way as this Vice-President pushes through reactionary ones*\ would be defended IN PRINCIPLE by left-leaning sorts of all kinds. The difference, it seems to me, is in the content (no torture, no mass-killing, etc.) not the principle.

3) The part on past president's perhaps needs some clarification. I chose these three presidents not coincidentally but because they are considered the greatest presidents in liberal historiography (Schlesinger and Wilentz being the two giants of the last 50 or so years). I did not intend to defend these presidents, only to point out that very prominent liberal academics defend them not despite of but because of their expansion of presidential powers. They simply would not have been able to accomplish what they did without these measures, and they're widely admired for that. Just to be clear, again, I was not excusing FDR's treatment of Japanese-Americans, but to ignore his role in the executive on this matter while championing his role in the more liberal causes is to be blatantly dishonest about his tenure.

4) By now I would hope that your fourth point has already been answered. The post itself is quite clear on the issue. To reiterate, by writing broadly about liberals who criticize Bush now, but who wouldn't if Bush were a liberal I'm NOT saying the following a) That I'm one of these partisan liberals! Where in the post do you see this allegiance to the Democratic Party. If anything, I'm criticizing those of the Democratic Party who today are saying what they clearly wouldn't say tomorrow! b) That by "principle" I mean, "a Democrat could institute the same policies as a Republican and be exempt from criticism from the left. The whole point is that it's the CONTENT of these policies that really matters, and that the principle of realizing them is what's quite slippery. The thought experiment is of a progressive Dick Cheney, not of a Dick Cheney who is pretending to be a Democratc (eg.. Joe Lieberman.)

As for my own opinion on the matter, I won't mince words: I look forward to having a powerful, progressive, executive branch who's willing to push through the right kind of policies without fear of what will certainly be seen as hypocritical Republican cries of "imperial President!" It's quite clear that the executives' current policy is being shoved down the throats of the majority by a recalcitrant 15%. I am confident that this President has pushed a generation of Americans into the left, and I'm quite happy about that. When a Democratic president does get elected, I hope s/he uses the mandate s/he has to make our government's policies more progressive.

What this next president will also have to do is to figure out what it means to be president in a post-Bush America. This debate will and very much should happen. What is clear in my mind, however, is that there's no turning back to pre-Bush times. As I said to end the first post, the next president will certainly use the power of his or her office to enact change in ways that were largely unfamiliar in the times before Bush.

6:13 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:14 AM  

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