Thursday, January 29, 2009

Reversal of principles

Here's a WSJ editorial that illustrates how completely many self-styled conservatives have reversed field on the all-important issue of executive-branch power. It deplores the fact that Dawn Johnsen, Obama's choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Dept., is not totally dedicated to an expansive vision of executive power. Ms. Johnsen has not only criticized the Bushies' power-grabs but written that it would be good if forces within the executive branch, mainly legal advisers, exercised constraint on the tendency of the executive branch to go for the gusto in the power-grab department. The Journal sniffs that this is like hiring your wife's divorce lawyer. The notion that a president or his advisers might have a slightly more modest view of their powers and that this might be good for America doesn't occur to them.

This is almost a complete reversal of the dominant conservative view of executive power back when the movement was younger. Russell Kirk used the term "the imperial presidency" before Arthur Schlesinger Jr. did. James Burnham, a senior editor of National Review, wrote a book, "Congress and the American Tradition," deploring the flow of power to the executive branch and away from Congress. But beginning in the Reagan administration increasing numbers of conservatives became Hamiltonian advocates of "energy in the executive," and most conservatives became uncritical fans of unlimited executive power during the Bush administration. You can check the process in Gene Healey's recent book, "The Cult of the Presidency."

Maybe with a Democrat in power they'll come to appreciate the original intent better. That's generally what dictates attitude rather than principle. When a Republican is in the White House conservatives worship executive power and liberals worry about imperial tendencies, and vice versa when a Democrat is there.

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