I dropped by my old haunts at AEI in Washington last week, and stuck my head in Norm Ornstein’s office with the intent of exchanging a few of our ritual jeers and heckles, but he was deep in phone conversation with his bookie or someone. Too bad, as he’s done it again with his National Journal article on “The Myth of Presidential Leadership.”
Ornstein writes in a typically clever way to defend Obama from the charge, popular among many liberals right now, that Obama is proving to be a poor leader. There is a large amount of schadenfreude to be had from the spectacle of liberals comparing Obama unfavorably to Lyndon Johnson, who, of course, liberals despised in the 1960s despite the fact that he delivered so much of their domestic policy wish list. But he “knew how to work the levers of Congress,” or, in the words of one liberal on a recent TV talk show, LBJ knew how to back people up against the wall, while Obama (only belatedly) takes congresscritters for a round of golf. Lyndon we hardly knew ye! Talk about situational ethics.
On the surface, Ornstein would appear to be confirming a long held conservative critique of liberals as presidential hero-worshippers, as the primary reason too many Americans come to believe in the president as a miracle worker who will sooth our souls. It is from liberals that we hear Obama compared to “a God” (Evan Thomas) or described as a “lightworker.”
This is not brand new to our time, of course; it has its roots back in the FDR to JFK era when leading liberals came to champion executive power as the prime motive force in American politics. My all-time favorite example of liberal president-worship comes from Herman Finer, an eminent political scientist in the Kennedy era at the University of Chicago, who wrote that “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.” It is liberals who swoon before the vague slogan of “hope and change,” all the while inflating the expectations of citizens of what they can and should expect from government, and especially the preisdent. I like to call it “fail-safe” liberalism, for even when a politician disappoints, the liberal mind sees the failure as a reason for still more political exertions and expansion of government.
Ornstein, as a devoted fan of Congress who has never quite drunk the liberal presidential Kool-Aid, might appear to be aligning himself with older conservative champions of Congress against the executive branch like James Burnham in his neglected classic Congress and the American Tradition, or Willmoore Kendall (especially his “Two Majorities” thesis). Kendall argued that what I call “executivism” in American politics has contributed to the decline in congressional deliberation; John Alvis gives a nice summary of this part of Kendall’s argument here. Conservatives would do well to reacquaint themselves with Kendall’s argument before they exaggerate their hopes for a lightworking knight of their own in 2016.
But naturally a closer reading—and really, you don’t even need your glasses to see this—of Ornstein’s latest shows that he is defending Obama against his liberal critics as yet another way of attacking those mean old Republicans in Congress who are thwarting Obama on every front:
I have grown increasingly frustrated with how the mythology of leadership has been spread in recent weeks. I have yelled at the television set, “Didn’t any of you ever read Richard Neustadt’s classic Presidential Leadership? Haven’t any of you taken Politics 101 and read about the limits of presidential power in a separation-of-powers system?”
Comment: First of all—Ornstein watches TV? More to the point: Hasn’t Ornstein taken note of how liberals, starting with Woodrow Wilson, expressed their hatred and contempt for the separation of powers, and done their best to dilute the principle for a century now with the rise of the administrative state that enfeebles Congress and weakens presidents? No wonder liberals (and the media, but I repeat. . .) are politico-constitutional illiterates when confronted with the Lightworker’s shortcomings, or more generally just can’t take it when they don’t get their way every time the New York Times editorial page snaps its fingers. Anyway, to continue with the Norm Narrative:
But the issue goes beyond that, to a willful ignorance of history. No one schmoozed more or better with legislators in both parties than Clinton. How many Republican votes did it get him on his signature initial priority, an economic plan? Zero in both houses. And it took eight months to get enough Democrats to limp over the finish line. How did things work out on his health care plan? How about his impeachment in the House?
It seems to me the willful ignorance of history here is the omission of the fact that Clinton’s “signal initial priority”—a tax increase—was not the one he advertised in his 1992 campaign, when he promised to cut middle class taxes rather than raise them. In the campaign, to the contrary, he promised to “end welfare as we know it,” and when it came time finally to do that, he got lots of Republican votes. Ditto the NAFTA treaty, where Republican votes put it over the top. I still recall the outrage when then GOP House minority leader Dick Armey said at the NAFTA signing press conference, “So much for all this talk of ‘gridlock.’”
Conversely, where was Ornstein when virtually no Democrats were willing even to discuss Bush’s “signal initial priority” of his second term—entitlement reform? Or when almost no Democrat was willing to support his enactment of Medicare Part D in the first term, even though Democrats said they favored the goal of this effort?
Somewhere under that enormous pile of papers that the DC fire marshall hasn’t cleared out on Ornstein’s desk I’d like to think he has a copy of Kendall’s “Two Majorities” essay from the early 1960s (collected in The Conservative Affirmation in America). If he does his remedial reading, he’ll see why virtually none of his complaint about mean obstructionist Republicans is brand new. Such as Kendall’s statement of what he calls
the unexplained mystery of our politics: the fact that one and the same electorate maintains in Washington, year after year, a President devoted to high principle and enlightenment, and a Congress that gives short shrift to both; that, even at one and the same election, they elect to the White House a man devoted to the application of high principle to the most important problems of national policy, and to the Hill men who constantly frustrate him. More concretely: the voters give an apparent majority mandate to the President to apply principles “x, y, and z,” and a simultaneous (demonstrable) majority-mandate to Congress to keep him from applying them. And the question arises, Why, at the end of a newly-elected President’s first two years, do the voters not “punish” the congressmen? Are the voters simply “irrational”? Our political science has, it seems to me, no adequate or convincing answer to these (and many kindred) questions. (Emphasis Kendall’s.)
Nor has Ornstein got one here. I’m going to break my rule of jargon and suggest we have a “Normative” problem here (heh.) In other words, Republicans in Congress are doing what the Founders had in mind with the separation of powers and countervailing ambition. When you strip away the clever posturing, Norm’s argument reduces to this: Just think what a great leader Obama would be if Republicans would just roll over and become Democrats! This is base-stealing that would amaze Rickey Henderson. Strong letter to follow.
P.S. Special bonus Kendall immigration debate edition. Here’s Kendall, from the same early essay, with a short squib on immigration policy that also shows there’s nothing new under the sun right now:
The Legislature insists upon perpetuating the general type of immigration policy we have had in recent decades. The Executive would apparently like to bring our immigration legislation under, so to speak, the all-men-are-created-equal clause of the Declaration of Independence.