David Brooks: What America needs now is a stronger presidency with “unified authority”
posted at 1:54 pm on December 13, 2013 by Allahpundit
Besides Ross Douthat, is there anyone left on the New York Times op-ed page who doesn’t support benign dictatorship in the name of reducing congressional gridlock? Brooks evidently does. Tom Friedman, who’s been drooling on himself for years over China’s can-do model of government, certainly does. I don’t know if Timothy Egan’s ever squarely addressed the issue but a guy who thinks O’s big problem is that his speeches aren’t flowery enough must be open to persuasion.
As for Dowd, we’re one charming Hollywood romcom about a president with kingly powers away from total commitment.
This is a good moment to advocate greater executive branch power because we’ve just seen a monumental example of executive branch incompetence: the botched Obamacare rollout. It’s important to advocate greater executive branch power in a chastened mood. It’s not that the executive branch is trustworthy; it’s just that we’re better off when the presidency is strong than we are when the rentier groups are strong, or when Congress, which is now completely captured by the rentier groups, is strong.
Here are the advantages. First, it is possible to mobilize the executive branch to come to policy conclusion on something like immigration reform. It’s nearly impossible for Congress to lead us to a conclusion about anything. Second, executive branch officials are more sheltered from the interest groups than Congressional officials. Third, executive branch officials usually have more specialized knowledge than staffers on Capitol Hill and longer historical memories. Fourth, Congressional deliberations, to the extent they exist at all, are rooted in rigid political frameworks. Some agencies, especially places like the Office of Management and Budget, are reasonably removed from excessive partisanship. Fifth, executive branch officials, if they were liberated from rigid Congressional strictures, would have more discretion to respond to their screw-ups, like the Obamacare implementation. Finally, the nation can take it out on a president’s party when a president’s laws don’t work. That doesn’t happen in Congressional elections, where most have safe seats…
We don’t need bigger government. We need more unified authority. Take power away from the rentier groups who dominate the process. Allow people in those authorities to exercise discretion. Find a president who can both rally a majority, and execute a policy process.
I’m … not sure that we’re necessarily better off when the presidency is strong than when special interests are strong. That depends on two things — first, how much stronger we’re willing to make the former in the name of weakening the latter, and two, whether the president himself is highly susceptible to being influenced by what Brooks calls “rentier groups.” Jay Cost wrote about that last year in his piece on the Democrats’ “clientelist” model of governance:
The problem, though, is that once the door was opened to this brand of clientelism, it could never again be closed. Over the decades, the Democrats have added scores of clients to their operation: trade and industrial unions, African Americans, environmentalists, feminists, government unions, consumer rights advocates, big business, and big city bosses and their lieutenants. All of them are with the Democratic party in part because of the special benefits it promises them when in office, and all have a major say in how the party behaves in government. With more and more clients who needed constant tending, it became harder and harder for subsequent Democratic leaders to focus on the public good. Thus, in the years since FDR’s tenure, the Democratic agenda has looked less like republican liberalism and more like clientele liberalism—big government activism not for the sake of the whole country, but for the sake of the voters whom the Democrats privilege.
And under the Obama administration, clientele liberalism has achieved a kind of apotheosis. The stimulus, the health care bill, cap and trade, and the financial reform package were all designed with heavy input from the party’s clients, and ultimately each reflects their priorities, so much so that any kind of national purpose the legislation might have served was totally undermined.
This isn’t really an “Obama problem.” It’s a bipartisan problem, although more pronounced under Democrats — which, ironically, is the one party of the two that the NYT op-ed section would doubtless prefer to have the “unified authority” that Brooks images. If it were true that the executive was relatively insulated from special interests, that would at least be the makings of an argument for more executive authority. But it’s not true. And it’s a terrible argument even if it was. It’s a rare rentier group that’s so powerful and malevolent that holding it in check is worth gifting new powers to an already increasingly powerful presidency. (Watch Jonathan Turley on that if you haven’t already.) But it’s also typical of the “banal authoritarianism of do-something punditry,” of which Brooks is a leading practitioner, that the idea of gridlock horrifies him more than extending the imbalance of power among the three branches. If only we acquiesced in Obama’s power grabs more than we already do — and we already do, almost entirely! — he might enact immigration reform himself. Which is important because if we’re stuck waiting for John Boehner and the House to do it, we might be waiting … what? Another four, maybe five months? Seems to me if you’re worried about special interests capturing government, you’re better off empowering Congress so that those interests hold each other in check to some extent than you are empowering a single government official who’ll end up serving the particular interests that have captured him.
Say what you want about bad lefty initiatives like McCain/Feingold that seek to rein in “rentier groups,” at least they try to handcuff the groups themselves rather than eliminate some of the few remaining constitutional limits on the presidency. Irony of ironies, 30 members of the House are announcing a resolution today that would direct the leadership to sue Obama for his various unconstitutional ObamaCare power grabs. That’s less than seven percent of all Representatives who are interested in challenging the president on separation of powers. And Brooks thinks the problem is that O doesn’t have enough “unified authority.”