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The Angry Economist

Problems of the Presidency: It's Not Just George W. Bush
Posted by William P. McGowan, Ph.D. on Jul 23, 2006 - 9:14:00 PM

UNITED STATES— One of the great academic exercises in economic history is the counterfactual argument, or the "what if" approach to events.  What if Lincoln lost the election of 1861?  What if we used the riverboats instead of the railroad engines to push West?   What if we stood up to Hilter at Munich?  The strengths of the counterfactual approach is that it requires us to appreciate the intellectual strengths of those whose viewpoint was in the minority.

I raise this because of the rising level of ferocity and outrage in the press and public discourse over the Bush administration�s methods of prosecuting the Global War on Terror (GWOT).  Too many people who should know better are getting away with attributing the executive branch intrusiveness over the last six years to one man, as if the office itself was neutral.  This raises what I call the Problems of the Presidency.

For presidential scholars, George W. Bushs' tanglings with Congress and the Supreme Court is just the latest version in what used to be called the Imperial Presidency. A term coined by historian William E. Leuchtenberg to explain the growing powers of the presidency in years leading up to and following Watergate, scholars view the powers of the presidency as the culmination of policies and programs developed in the years following the Second World War.

The central basis for the Imperial Presidency were the exigencies created by two events: Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.  Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Recognizing that the speed and lethality of a nuclear war could necessarily preclude Congress from having the time it needs to declare one, Truman and his successors developed a huge new intelligence and response bureaucracy to guarantee that the United States never got caught with its shorts down again. For most of the twentieth century, the powers of the Imperial Presidency grew, only to be trimmed after Watergate.  Sure, Reagan and the Democrats in Congress tussled a bit, but he left office with its powers largely intact. 

My ultimate point here is that all of these programs that Bush is using in the Global War on Terror are not something he and his minions just thought up on the 12th of September, 2001.  Nor are they the products of a long-held Republican plan to seize power. They are instead powers inherent to the office of the Presidency, not the current occupant. 

The counterfactual argument process supports this view, for the question I pose is what would a President Al Gore or John Kerry do differently in the days and weeks following 9-11?  Would they invade Iraq?  Probably.  Why?  Because the executive branch is where the rubber hits the road.  Congress and the Supreme Court can hide behind theory and debate, without being held accountable for results, whereas the Executive Branch can't.  It therefore has a bias towards action, regardless of which party is sitting in the Oval Office.

Americans are famous for forgetting their history, particularly context. People forget the hysteria for action in the days and weeks that followed, and the Congressional pressure for same.  Had Al Gore won and the terrorist attacks occurred on that same fateful day in 2001,  I believe that his actions would not have been much different in the years that followed simply because he would have no choice. Doing nothing was (and remains) a non-option for the American Presidency.


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