Saturday, December 26, 2015

Donald Trump and the Department of Duh!

Hat tip Kevin Drum: This recent column by Rich Lowery expressing that he is shocked -- shocked -- that the Tea Party's alarm over an out-of-control executive depends on who that executive is -- or aspires to be.

After the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush and the earmark-happy excesses of congressional Republicans in the Bush years, the tea party rebaptized the GOP in the faith of limited government and constitutional constraints. If you weren’t down with the 10th Amendment, you weren’t down with the tea party. Glenn Beck earnestly explored the Founding Fathers with his audience. It was a time of first principles. 
Rand Paul, who sells autographed copies of the Constitution, is a libertarian distillation of these concerns. He makes constitutional persnicketiness a high art. Obamacare, the National Security Agency surveillance program, the Violence Against Women Act, President Barack Obama’s war in Libya and intervention in Syria are just a few things he considers unconstitutional (and don’t even get him started on Obama’s tax information treaties).
. . . . . . . .
Trump exists in a plane where there isn’t a Congress or a Constitution. There are no trade-offs or limits. There is only his will and his team of experts who will figure out how to do whatever he wants to do, no matter how seemingly impossible. . . . . You can be forgiven for thinking that in Trump’s world, constitutional niceties—indeed any constraints whatsoever—are for losers. It’s only strength that matters. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he expresses admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a “powerful leader” who is “highly respected within his own country and beyond.” Trump’s calls to steal Iraq’s oil and kill the families of terrorists are in a Putinesque key. 
For some on the right, clearly, the Constitution was an instrument rather than a principle. It was a means to stop Obama, and has been found lacking.
To which I can only answer, well, duh!  The right's concern about an out-of-control executive (along with its concern about deficits and debt) began some time between November 4, 2008 (the day Obama was elected) and January 20, 2009 (the day Obama was inaugurated).  Before that were the days of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, and the "unitary executive." The President had the power to do anything he wanted so long as he said the words "national security."  Neither statutes nor treaties could constrain him.  His warrantless surveillance was in flat violation of federal statute.  (Obama's surveillance was approved by the FISA court and therefore did not technically break the law; it merely stretched it beyond all recognition).

Bush's theories of the "unitary executive" were an extreme example, but they were by no means unique.  What about Reagan's Iran-Contra attempt to circumvent Congress cutting off funding by creating a covert source of funding outside legislative control?  What about Nixon harassing opponents with IRS audits?  Attempted impoundment of Congressional appropriations?  What about Watergate?  Etc. etc etc.

Well, Lowry may say, these are  not uniquely conservative sins.  Such liberal heroes as FDR, Kennedy and Johnson were just as guilty, if not more.  To which I can only say, granted!  Power tends to be abused, and the temptations of abuse transcend ideology.  But there is a significant civil libertarian movement on the left that opposes such things regardless of who holds power.  The ACLU opposed the liberal Woodrow Wilson's infringements on civil liberties during WWI.  It opposed Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.  And it stood largely alone in these things.  It has opposed the extensive surveillance by Bush and Obama.  So have liberal Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall.  So (I admit) have Ron Paul and Rand Paul.  But they are decidedly unusual among Republicans.

Well, Lowry may say, there are libertarians who have opposed such measures regardless of party in charge.  Look at the Cato Institute, the Koch Brothers, etc.  And they define liberty more broadly than liberal civil libertarians, extending to government in its mommy functions as well as its daddy functions.  To which I would say, such concerns had a whole lot less influence on the Republican Party during the Bush years than they have had on the Democrats in the Obama years.  And it isn't just Trump.  Republicans may have been alarmed at the surveillance Obama has been doing, but after a terrorist attack or two they are seeking to expand it.

Besides, there was ample evidence even when Obama was in office that the Tea Party's concern about an out-of-control executive was rather more political than principled.  I refer to the debt ceiling showdowns.  First of all, if Obama had really been the dictator his opponents accused him of being, he would have simply done what many supporters were urging him to do, declared the debt ceiling unconstitutional, and continued spending as before.*  But worse, when Republicans were warned that refusal to raise the debt ceiling would mean cutting spending overnight by a third, and asked what they wanted to cut, many said they would leave that to Obama.  Hot news flash.  If you want to reign in an out-of-control executive, calling on him to cut the budget by a third overnight and then giving him complete discretion as to how to cut is not the way to do it.

And can we face facts?  Very few people have strong procedural principles about government. Procedural arguments are almost always offered opportunistically and inconsistently.  Few people have any real understanding of the limits on the President's power.  At lot of the loss of respect Obama is experiencing among low information voters is not because he seems overbearing and is acting as a dictator, but because of his inability to get anything done in the face of a hostile Congress. (I was surprised   Most people really want a dictator to cut through all that tiresome red tape imposed by the rule of law and get things done.  They just don't want the wrong dictator to cut through the red tape and get the wrong things done.  Democracy, constitutionalism, and separation of powers are just uneasy compromises in which all parties give up the opportunity to have their dictator in power in exchange for the other guys making the same renunciation.

What is so scary today is that that uneasy compromise is breaking down.

*He probably would not have minted the platinum coins, at least if he had been a smart dictator.  Yes, he could have minted trillion dollar platinum coins.  It would probably even have been technically legal.  (Congress had passed a law allowing the executive to mint platinum coins.  It clearly meant commemorative coins rather than legal tender, but it never exactly said so).  But he would never be able to get the financial system to take the US seriously after that, so it is not anything a smart dictator would do.  But a lot of dictators become so arrogantly self-confident as to do really, really stupid things.  

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