Politics

George Will: Unfortunate SOTU metaphors and the “unfettered executive”

By  | 

Will no one rid me of these meddlesome legislators?

When George Will is not wasting his WaPo column singing praises for the latest long-shot GOP candidate in the media spotlight, he can lyrically voice the truth of a matter like few other pundits. His latest column is a pitch perfect observation on how President Obama’s State of the Union address betrays a longing for an “unfettered executive” branch by his administration and among his supporters:

“Obama, an unfettered executive wielding a swollen state, began and ended his address by celebrating the armed forces. They are not “consumed with personal ambition,” they “work together” and “focus on the mission at hand” and do not “obsess over their differences.” Americans should emulate troops “marching into battle,” who “rise or fall as one unit.

Well. The armed services’ ethos, although noble, is not a template for civilian society, unless the aspiration is to extinguish politics. People marching in serried ranks, fused into a solid mass by the heat of martial ardor, proceeding in lock step, shoulder to shoulder, obedient to orders from a commanding officer — this is a recurring dream of progressives eager to dispense with tiresome persuasion and untidy dissension in a free, tumultuous society…

To enact and execute federal laws under Madison’s institutional architecture requires three, and sometimes more, such majorities. There must be majorities in the House and Senate, each body having distinctive constituencies and electoral rhythms. The law must be affirmed by the president, who has a distinctive electoral base and election schedule. Supermajorities in both houses of Congress are required to override presidential vetoes. And a Supreme Court majority is required to sustain laws against constitutional challenges…

Like other progressive presidents fond of military metaphors, he rejects the patience of politics required by the Constitution he has sworn to uphold.”




Will’s column is not without false notes.  He implies by omission that the desire for an unfettered executive branch is unique to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.  Not so. The executive privilege, unitary executive definition and war power assertions of the Bush/Cheney Presidency is still fresh in my mind, even if forgotten or minimized by Mr. Will. The single greatest disappointment of the Obama Presidency has been his willingness to use the Bush/Cheney Unitary Executive definition as a jumping off point to further expand the power of the presidency.

This appetite for expanded executive authority is also clearly evident in all of the current batch of Republican Presidential hopefuls save Ron Paul.  None more so than “Big Government Conservative” Newt Gingrich,  who would also like to remove any judicial constraints on both the executive and legislative branch. I am not sure which is more frightening…

New Gingrich claiming authority to disregard or dismantle the judicial branch:

“I decided that if you had judges that were so radically anti-American that they thought ‘one nation under God’ was wrong, they shouldn’t be on the court.”

– or –

President Obama dismissing the joint session of congress in his SOTU address:  with “You won’t act, so I am.”  

Both sentiments represent a depressing prospect for all but closet monarchists.

Today, the Republican House of Representatives, divided government, and the Supreme Court are the only meaningful constraints on the Democratic executive branch. This election cycle the GOP is likely to maintain their majority in the House and take majority control of the Senate. Senate control will add one more fetter to a Democratic president but, if recent history is a guide, will put no additional limitation on the power of a Republican president. This should give pause to George Will and anyone else who purports to care about Madisonian democracy and the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution.

There is a real risk that we will return to One Party Rule under the Republicans in 2013. If that still looks likely in the fall, I would hope that anyone as concerned about executive branch overreach as George Will would endorse the re-election of Barack Obama. At least this would prevent loosening the remaining tenuous legislative fetters still constraining the expanding executive branch beast.

While ever hopeful, I will not be holding my breath.

Cross-posted from The Dividist Papers