George Washington, the first President of the United States, and the man who presided over the Constitutional Convention, was very mindful of the express powers delegated to the Chief Executive. Lest we forget the atmosphere of those early days, the role of President was considered by many of the founders to be more like "first among equals". The powers granted to the President were very specific and limited. The founders were attempting to ameliorate two great fears: that the President would become the elected king of a nation that had revolted against the very idea that some "…men are born booted and spurred…."; that the new national government would consume the power and rights of the very states that had combined to form the more perfect union. States would become administrative entities, extensions of power; puppets dancing on a federal string.
Washington was a flawed human, but he was very aware of the importance of his role as the First President. Every action and activity that flowed from the Chief Executive would set a precedent. Washington was determined to be a model of republican rectitude and act in accord with both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. One thing we have been reminded of is Washington’s opinion on the use of his veto power. In Washington’s view, the President should not exercise the veto unless it was his belief that a proposed law was unconstitutional. Unlike many of Washington’s precedents, this one did not survive beyond his term of office. Since the Adams’ administration the veto has been used as a weapon in the struggle between the executive and legislative branches. It is clear from the record that every President (with perhaps the exception of Zachary Taylor) has signed laws of dubious constitutionality. But no President in our history has ever been impeached for signing or vetoing a law based on it’s fealty to constitutional principles.
The question as to why Bush has signed this particular bill will remain speculative. Leaks and spin from the White House will never tell the full story because they are self serving. I have not drunk enough Kool Aid to describe this as a brilliant strategic move. The truth is that it could be just a bad decision. Presidents do make bad choices. My chief criticism of his decision is that it subjects this issue to the law of unintended consequences. As I noted previously, the US Supreme Court has not exactly covered itself in legal glory for 200 years, so punting the hard choices to 9 lawyer-priests puts us into unknowable territory.
Is the perfect the enemy of the good? Usually true. Presidents have to balance the competing interests of the nation, the President of the American Conservative Union does not. I believe that the reformists in Congress thought they had a perfect storm brewing over this issue. From their perspective they had nothing to loose. If the President vetoed the bill then they had a political stick to beat the Republicans with in November. Plus, they get to continue to collect millions of dollars in soft money. Remember, it’s not the details of the bill but the top line that gets all the coverage. Just yesterday the stories about Bush signing the bill were conflated with stories about Bush raising money for congressional candidates. I searched in vain but could not find one story that noted that the money Bush was raising was hard money, a commodity already controlled by law.
For those interested in checking conservative credentials, consider the following:
- Scuttled Kyoto
- Scuttled ABM Treaty
- Scuttled US participation in International Criminal Court
- Restated in no uncertain terms our support for Taiwan
- Identified an Axis of Evil, much to the chagrin of weak kneed allies
- Refused to join the rush to legitimize stem cell research and restricted federal research to existing stem cell lines
- Passed his $1.3 billion tax cut, including elimination of the estate tax
- Development of an energy policy which emphasizes production and efficiency, including drilling in ANWR
- Appointment of strong experienced people to key cabinet posts (Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Powell)
- Nomination of conservative judges
- Balance those against the issues where his position is less than conservative immigration
- compromising "too much" on education
- CFR signature
- steel tariffs
Some would add the judicial appointments to the con list because of the defeat of Pickering and the stalling on the other nominations. But that implies the President has ultimate power in the process. Realistically, a President who faces a Senate controlled by the other party or one where his party lacks an absolute majority of 60, has limited ability to influence the outcome. He could of course nominate more liberal judges and they would likely pass, but that would be a pyretic victory.
I submit these comments with an idea to broadening my thesis of 3/27, that Bush deserves to be judged in context and that a realistic appraisal can only be done when his term is more complete. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to draw a line in the sand but if we do let the perfect become the enemy of the good then we miss the chance to influence the administration in the future.