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Where There's a Will...
George Will greeted 2012 with an upbeat look into the future of American conservatism. The heart of his thesis, namely that if American conservatives would just overcome their obsession with the presidency, they would see plenty of reasons for hopefulness on the horizon, would almost be convincing were the U.S. the constitutional republic its founders intended it to be. Will's optimism seems to be grounded in a view of America that might be found in a school primer on American Government written in 1907, rather than in any reality faced by conservatives today.
Here is Will's claim:
Let's delve into this argument. Is pointing out that a nation that is $16 trillion in debt has a problem that may be insoluble indicative of a weakness for "apocalyptic forebodings about the fragility of the nation's institutions and traditions"? Which institution is free of risk when the debt could not possibly be repaid without (a) a drastic and sustained increase in tax revenue, which would be impossible, as such levels of taxation would utterly destroy the economy, thus reducing tax revenues in short order; or (b) immediate and monumental cuts in federal programs that could not possibly be undertaken by any Congress likely to be able to stay in office long enough to carry them out?
Next, consider Will's use of the word "fragility" in his opening sentence. If a man fears that his house will fall down every time the wind blows, he can be accused of a false presumption of "fragility." Not so, however, if he feels the same fear as an earthquake splits open the ground in his backyard.
"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction," Ronald Reagan famously said. This is one of the starkest expressions of the never-ending vigilance required of a nation that wishes to remain free. Does it reveal an undue concern about "fragility," or simply a refusal to allow oneself to lose the gradually disappearing forest for the daily buzz of chainsaws? With the U.S. Federal Government currently employing some two million civilian workers, the number of societal trees felled is entirely a matter of managerial preference. And that preference, for a very long time now, has been in favor of buzzing away merrily. That once mighty forest -- the American republic -- is on the verge of being clear-cut, and an elder statesman of the Republican commentariat is telling everyone to relax and ignore Reagan's admonition.
Let us look next at Will's claim that the "fixation on the presidency" is "unconservative." In theory, of course, part of the genius of the U.S. Constitution is its severe restriction of the scope of presidential powers, which undermines the "Great Leader" notion of national governance, an essential moral principle in a republic of free citizens who are meant to see their elected government as hired contract workers, rather than as rulers.
However, can conservatives afford to look at the presidency this way today? The presidency, in part through the various departments within the executive branch that produce increased concentration of authority in specialized areas, has slipped its constitutional leash, exerting power in areas where its involvement ought to be minimal, at best. Why is there still a Department of Education? As long as it exists, the executive branch has supra-constitutional power over the single most important "institution" in any society. In this particular case, "fragility" does not begin to address the issue. A broken flower pot is no longer merely fragile. It is time to sweep up the pieces and buy a new pot. In the meantime, the flower that had been in that pot -- generations of American youth -- must be repotted, and it is far from obvious that this can be done well enough to salvage all of this plant that is the source of republican citizenship.
Even the legitimate federal departments, such as Treasury, have clearly run amok, pursuing courses of action that are not only constitutionally questionable, but perhaps directly anti-American. And on the trajectory of the past several decades -- namely that of increasing bureaucratization of every federal function -- these departments have gradually become unmoored from the elected executive, like robots that begin to see vested interests of their own, and thus seek to protect those interests, even against their masters.
And then, of course, we have the independent agencies, led by presidential appointees, and increasingly usurping the constitutionally-prescribed legislative powers of Congress. Consider everyone's favorite, the Environmental Protection Agency. Its website features an open letter to employees from the appointed head of this lunatic asylum with regulatory authority, Lisa Jackson. She outlines the seven priorities that constitute the EPA's core mission. First, naturally, is "Taking Action on Climate Change." Action, of course, means regulatory action. And lest one imagine that this list of seven priorities implies that, after climate change action, there are six other priorities, Ms. Jackson informs her underlings otherwise:
In other words, other priorities, including, but not limited to, air and water quality, must now be subsumed under the climate change umbrella. Saving the best for last, however, Jackson informs her charges that the sixth and seventh priorities are, respectively, "Expanding the Conversation on Environmentalism and Working for Environmental Justice," and "Building Strong State and Tribal Partnerships."
In case you are wondering what "Environmental Justice" is, Jackson tells us:
Not surprisingly, environmental justice means community organizing, i.e. class warfare, aka socialist rabble-rousing.
In such a climate, the presidency becomes extraordinarily important. Indeed, contra Will, this importance is especially pronounced for conservatives. This is the time to begin diminishing the executive branch, and reining in the federal agencies and bureaucracy. It is also the moment, as indicated above, to begin -- or rather to charge headlong into -- the process of drastically reducing federal expenditures, in ways that will be painful for many, and extremely controversial. In this predicament, a real leader is required; a moral leader who can speak to the American people above the heads of the media, and over the din of a rebellious government class that will make Wisconsin's recent tribulations look like a Fourth of July picnic. Who, among the post-Bachmann primary contenders, embodies the kind of principled, moral constitutionalism that could hope to inspire Americans in this fight for their future as, under present circumstances, only a president can? The answer, sadly, is obvious.
Finally, I draw your attention to Will's main argument for conservative optimism: "when Congress is controlled by one party, as it might be a year from now, it can stymie an overreaching executive."
Two words ought to leap out at you: "might" and "can." It is indeed possible that Republicans will win both houses of Congress in 2012. It "might" happen. And if it doesn't? How much more debt, aimless foreign policy, and bureaucratic stifling of freedom and economic growth, can America withstand? More importantly, while it is theoretically true that Congress "can" still stymie an overreaching executive in some regards, the only question that matters is: will it? Tea Party conservatives handed the Republicans a huge victory in 2010. And yet who controls the House? The Republican Establishment, the old guard, which remains more concerned with protecting its power and privilege than with saving a republic in ruins. Would the Senate be of much more use, were Mitch McConnell handed the leadership of a majority?
Will's bright conservative future is the kind of pleasant fantasy that allows one to avoid painful truths. He concludes his article with the philosophical remark that, "America had 43 presidencies before the current one and will have many more than that after the end of this one." Hopeful, to be sure, but once again Will deftly avoids the salient question: what kind of presidencies? Ones that look anything like the intention of the Founders? Does the current one look anything like that intention? Speculating that the republic will never be lost seems somewhat behind the times at this point, doesn't it?
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