Friday, January 16, 2009

The Founders' Great Mistake (The Atlantic)

For the past eight years, George W. Bush has treated the White House much as Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Toad treated a new automobile—like a shiny toy to be wrecked by racing the motor, spinning smoke from the tires, and smashing through farmyards until the wheels come off. Bush got to the Oval Office despite having lost the popular vote, and he governed with a fine disdain for democratic and legal norms—stonewalling congressional oversight; detaining foreigners and U.S. citizens on his “inherent authority”; using the Justice Department as a political cudgel; ordering officials to ignore statutes and treaties that he found inconvenient; and persisting in actions, such as the Iraq War, that had come to be deeply unpopular in Congress and on Main Street.

Understandably, most Americans today are primarily concerned with whether Barack Obama can clean up Bush’s mess. But as Bush leaves the White House, it’s worth asking why he was able to behave so badly for so long without being stopped by the Constitution’s famous “checks and balances.” Some of the problems with the Bush administration, in fact, have their source not in Bush’s leadership style but in the constitutional design of the presidency. Unless these problems are fixed, it will only be a matter of time before another hot-rodder gets hold of the keys and damages the country further.

The historian Jack N. Rakove has written, “The creation of the presidency was [the Framers’] most creative act.” That may be true, but it wasn’t their best work. The Framers were designing something the modern world had never seen—a republican chief executive who would owe his power to the people rather than to heredity or brute force. The wonder is not that they got so much wrong, but that they got anything right at all.

The rest of the article is an interesting read going into how various folks have interpreted and wielded executive power.


Ceroill said...

Interesting article, thanks for sharing it with us. I've long held that the electoral college is obsolete and should be done away with.


There is much to this article to which I agree, but I have major problems with his remedy.

My anxiety over changing the Constitution now has many forms.

We are so factional now, I fail to see how we could come to any agreement, especially with most citizens not having any experience with a weak President; most don't have any first hand knowledge of what that would look like.

The Constitution is a simple document. I feel in our litigious society we are now unable to write a simple reform for the Presidency; anything a lay person would understand without getting a headache.

Changing this part of the Constitution would open the door to change the rest and I am sure most here know how I feel about that, the dead document that it is.

In the article, Epps states Hamilton was in the vast minority in his thinking the President should be a very powerful position. Even though Cheney and his legal minions used Hamilton's arguments to fuel the powergrab Bush was to produce, the vast majority of the Founder's did not envision a strong Executive Branch. He was to be a humble administrator and generally in the first hundred years, with a couple of exceptions and Lincoln, this was the norm. It wasn't until T. Roosevelt and Woody Wilson and the progressive movement at that time that the Presidency was looked upon as a instrument of change for the good of everybody. This is where the office gets off it's Constitutional track. Individual liberty be damned. The collective is king and they wanted a king.

Then came FDR, and the Constitution really went out the window. Every President since FDR expanded the Presidency to some degree and then we have Nixon to thank for putting this powergrab under scrutiny, but Congress let the office off the hook before the job was done.

Today the American people look to the President to solve ALL it's problems, instead of the Congress, where Constitutionally the real power was supposed to lie. This is partly the responsibility of Congress(for basically abdicating it's power to the Presidency), the Supreme Court(for letting all this unConstitutional shit happen)and the citizens themselves for putting too much on the job of the Presidency(and much of this probably lies with the lack of understanding of what our Constitution is all about).

And I daresy, bob, the Electoral College would hardly matter much if the Presidency had stayed that humble administrator and not become "the most powerful man in the world".

I strongly urge everybody to borrow or steal a copy of Glen Healy's "The Cult of the Presidency" which outlines how we got to this "Imperial Presidency". Our Constitutional system is warped out of shape and I believe most of the blame lies with a few power hungry individuals who inhabited the office, the Congress for bending over and the citizenry for demanding more and more of the office where any sane person would have to seek the extra-Constitutional powers to meet those overblown expectations.

We get the government we deserve; we need to start looking in the mirror.

Anonymous said...

As for flawless, Barrack is the 43rd person to be president not the 44th as he claimed but who is counting? I hope his fact checkers are more careful in the future especially on the big ticket items.