My note about Newt yesterday excited a fair amount of comment, and watching the GOP debate last night on CNBC it seems to me that everything I said was vindicated: Newt has hit his stride, and was consistently the most impressive and forceful person on the stage—and forceful without saying a negative word about any of the other candidates. (Oh yeah, and Perry flubbed his lines badly. Again.) My favorite moment was when Newt responded to a typically tendentious question from Maria Bartiromo, CNBC’s chief anchor-skank, who asked Newt with a palpable sarcastic tone what aspect of the economy he thought the media was misreporting. Newt grinned and got off the best line of the night: “Ah, a moment of humor disguised as a question.”
A few people wrote in yesterday about a point on which I was conspicuously silent (on purpose): Newt may be a great idea man, and a great debater, but would he make a good chief executive? Legislative skill does not necessarily translate to executive skill, as Lyndon Johnson found out. Newt is always at his best as an insurgent, and it is not clear how good a Speaker of the House he was.
Let’s make a digression here. Over much of the last generation or two—more or less since Republicans started dominating the presidency starting with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968—conservatives have tended to be president-centric. This was especially true when Reagan was President, and there was a legitimate reason to resist the many ways in which Congress had aggrandized its power in the aftermath of Watergate.
But once upon a time, 50 years ago or so, many leading conservatives championed Congress as the pre-eminent branch of our government, as the Founders did. After All, there’s a reason the first article of the Constitution is about Congress, not the President. Partly this was a reasonable reaction to the liberals who championed the presidency as the institution for transforming America, following the teachings of Woodrow Wilson, the example of Franklin Roosevelt, and the orgasmic promise of John F. Kennedy. (You think I exaggerate? In 1961, Herman Finer, a leading political scientist of the time, wrote: “The presidency is the incarnation of the American people, in a sacrament resembling that in which the wafer and the wine are seen to be the body and blood of Christ.” I would think the ACLU would have a conniption fit over language like this today.)
In 1959, James Burnham, one of the great writers of that first generation of post-war conservatives (his best known book was Suicide of the West), published Congress and the American Tradition, which set out the argument that conservatives should champion a reinvigoration of Congress as a counterweight to the post-Wilson transformative “visionary” presidents. In making the case for legislative supremacy, Burnham was merely reprising one side of a debate that stretches back to the arguments over the legislative-executive balance of power from the time of the Founding. Among other things, Burnham argued, there is a difference between a strong president, and a strong presidency. He was in favor of the former, but skeptical of the latter, in part because he perceived the paradox that attempts to have a strong presidency will actually result in weakening the office. Cue Barack Obama, the frustrated miracle worker. (Burnham’s book also has a dead-on analysis of the problem of bureaucratic government—still in its relative infancy in 1959—and how it would grow worse in the current balance of executive and legislative branch power.)
This is relevant for two reasons. First, I’ve just finished writing a book (more on this in due course, closer to pub date) that argues that the best thing a prospective president could do these days was lower expectations for the office, which means, by implication, lowering expectations for the scope of things that politics can fix in modern life. (For starters, a genuinely transformative president might talk less. Maybe that’s an argument for Rick Perry, since it seems he can barely talk at all.) Such a president might also want to challenge Congress to step up and take more responsibility as a truly deliberative body, as the Founders intended, rather than being the ugly, degenerate stew of quasi-administrative, park-barrel management that it is today. Does that sound like a role for Newt?
On the surface, probably not. But second, I note that a new edition of Congress and the American Tradition was published in 1999, with a new introduction by . . . Newt Gingrich. He gives a remarkably able précis of the whole book in just two and a half pages, culminating with this:
Burnham arms us with the philosophical background for the conservative transformation—which, of course, is nothing more than a return to our first principles. Burnham longed for those halcyon days in the nineteenth century when the great issues were settled not in the courts or by executive fiat, but “in the halls of Congress.”
So do we all.
Hmmm. The prospect of a President Gingrich is looking more and more interesting.