The Imperial Presidency

I tend to skip over the Nixon/Watergate posts, but this is a really good explanation of the imperial presidency, and its limits (it’s a lot longer than the snippet below).

Okay, it’s time for me to finally write about the flipside of the problem of presidential weakness: the imperial presidency.

The problem is as follows.  Richard Neustadt said, back at the end of the Eisenhower administration, that the presidency was constitutionally a very limited (or “weak”) position.  Presidents are not absolute rulers of the government; they’re not, Neustadt explains, even absolute rulers of the executive branch.  They can only give orders to executive branch departments and agencies and hope to have those orders carried out in relatively rare and strictly limited situations — and even then, operating by giving orders turns out to be terribly costly for presidents who try.  (Note: this is also true of Members of Congress, governors, foreign prime ministers, party and interest group leaders, and others who presidents need things from, but it’s the exec branch that’s important here).

So Neustadt believed.  But Watergate and other episodes (especially but certainly not limited to the Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and W. Bush administrations) raise the question of: what if the president doesn’t take “no” for an answer?  What if the president finds a way around the bureaucracy?  What if he does what he wants done, essentially, by himself — or by people he hires who are loyal to the president, not to their agencies?  If the normal functioning of American politics is full of built-in checks and balances, what if presidents find a way to cheat that system, and to find ways to govern unchecked and unbalanced?

My answer is going to be: yes, presidents have tried to do that.  They generally do it through the “Presidential Branch” of government — the White House Office, and the larger Executive Office of the President.  They have, in limited ways and for short periods of time, apparently succeeded.  But in the cases for which we have information, what these presidents have found is that the system is stronger than they thought, and that going rogue has all sorts of dangers to the president.  On the whole, I am convinced that this kind of thing — that is, using the Presidential Branch to get things done that the president wants but that the normal processes of government stymie — doesn’t “work” in the sense of allowing a president to have unlimited dictatorial powers.  It doesn’t work at all; it backfires, and destroys those who would try it.  I’m an optimist, in other words, about this problem.  It is, nevertheless, even from my optimistic position, a real danger to be aware of.  And there’s no question that presidents do have the capacity to attempt it, and can create all sorts of damage in the process.


Sunday Morning Reads

I’m coming to the realization that I may turning into a morning person, and I’m not sure what to make of this.

  • China too is going through a leadership transition. Here are Foreign Policy’s articles on it.
  • In addition, a New Yorker article on corruption in China, focusing on high-speed rail.
  • On the (Rapid!) march of gay rights. It was only 4 years ago that Prop 8 passed in California saying that the state would only recognize marriage as between a man and a woman. Last Tuesday, 3 states pass marriage equality by referendum, and another to define marriage as between a man and a woman was defeated.

Party and Candidates

A trio of blog posts about the importance of voting for the party over the person.


I freely admit that Unger’s principles are better than Obama’s, that next to him Obama’s credentials as a progressive are muddied and blunted. If I had to choose between them as men of probity, I would prefer Unger as quick as the eye can blink. But in politics we never choose men of much probity. One of the recurring comedies of American politics is the rapture with which people elect a shining prince, and then collapse into self-pitying cries of betrayal when the shine comes off once the candidate is in office. A refrain of dismay runs the fairy tale in reverse: “We elected a prince and he turned into a frog.”

Obama was never a prince. None of them are. The mistake behind all this is a misguided high-mindedness that boasts, “I vote for the man, not the party.” This momentarily lifts the hot-air balloon of self-esteem by divorcing the speaker from political taintedness and compromise. But the man being voted for, no matter what he says, dances with the party that brought him, dependent on its support, resources, and clientele. That is why one should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate. The party has some continuity of commitment, no matter how compromised. What you are really voting for is the party’s constituency. That will determine priorities when it comes to appointments, legislative pressure, and things like nominating Supreme Court justices.


As Wills points out, noting that parties will be more responsive to some groups than others doesn’t mean that any particular group will get its way at all times. After all, both parties are made up of groups that frequently disagree about policies, and beyond that, politicians are also responsive to median (general-election) voters. It’s complicated — and to seriously engage in politics is to accept the complexity, rather than to retreat to the fantasy of a third party whenever things go the other way.

Elections are not only about choosing between sets of constituencies. We also choose one team of political elites or the other; we choose, more or less, between two sets of policy choices; it’s even true at some level that the individual in the Oval Office can make a difference, although a lot harder to foresee how that will matter. But, yes, we really are choosing between sets of constituencies.

 And Three:

Even among political reporters, there’s a tendency to separate the candidate from the party, as if a president is somehow separate from the constituencies that he represents. But the truth of the matter, as Wills points out, is that in most instances, the president works to fulfill the priorities and demands of the groups who elected him. Mitt Romney may or may not be a moderate—it doesn’t matter. What matter’s is that—if elected president—he’ll represent a Republican Party that has abandoned moderation in favor of radical cuts to the size and scope of government, and regressive views on social issues.

If you want, you can play this game with Barack Obama circa 2008. Anyone who looked at the Democratic coalition at the time, and thought Obama wouldn’t try to pursue health care reform, or support our involvement in Afghanistan, is fooling themselves.


(in all cases, emphasis mine)

I first came across this voting in the 2010 midterms. I went into it thinking that I would research the candidates and choose whoever I thought would best represent my views. I ended up voting straight Democrat, which wasn’t big surprise, but it did get me thinking. Who the candidates are exactly, only mattered on the margins. More important was what there positions were. Which is driven by who has a voice within the party.

As the three articles say, candidates don’t exist in a vacuum.