When, in The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton writes that “energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” he refrains from asserting that energy in the executive is the leading character in the definition of good government. He is right to deploy the indefinite, rather than the definite, article. Had he chosen the latter, Thomas Jefferson’s accusations would have been on the mark: our first Secretary of the Treasury really would have been a monarchist of sorts.
What Hamilton had in mind, however, when he insisted on the necessity that the new nation be endowed with an energetic executive is the fact that a government in which the laws are not vigorously executed and in which emergencies are not confronted and handled with decision and dispatch is hardly a government at all. He knew that wisdom, prudence, and moderation are also required for a government to be good, and he recognized as well that the ends and sphere proper to government are limited. He was no less committed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence than was the man who had drafted it.
Hamilton was also aware that that Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell had been energetic executives, and to their number we can now add such luminaries as Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot. The executive temperament necessary for good government is not, alas, sufficient to guarantee its achievement.
If, as I argued in mid-June, it is now abundantly clear that Barack Obama lacks the temperament requisite in an executive, if, as I contended, he is inclined to shirk responsibility, shift the blame, dither, and punt, his administration is beyond question a government insufficient for our needs. This does not mean, however, that – merely by demonstrating energy, vigor, and dispatch in shouldering the responsibilities of executive office – Bobby Jindal of Lousiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Jeb Bush of Florida, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, or any of the other potential presidential aspirants in the Republican Party who have been effective governors has demonstrated that he possesses all of the qualities called for in the grave crisis we now face.
All of the individuals I have named are impressive – as are, for example, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. The moment has not yet arrived, however, for a thorough assessment of the qualities and outlook of each. There will be plenty of time for sorting through the candidates after the midterm elections.
At this point, however, it is proper that I reiterate the conclusion that I argued for in a series of posts – here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here – in the course of the last year: to wit, that we live in a time of grave danger and of unprecedented opportunity; that, by means of his healthcare reform and the other measures he has pursued, Barack Obama has both threatened what is left of our liberty and offered us the chance to recover it in full; that, by exposing the tyrannical character of the liberal, progressive project and by outing nearly all of his fellow Democrats, he has opened up for us the possibility of a return to first principles; and that, with the proper leadership and focus, we really can effect a realignment, roll back the administrative state, and escape what, with a nod to Alexis de Tocqueville, I called, in my recent book, soft despotism.
It is also now requisite that I say something about the other attributes, apart from executive temperament, that will be required if we are to wrest ourselves from modern democracy’s soft despotic drift.
Here is what is needed and what is likely to be sorely lacking in some, if not most, of the Republican presidential aspirants: an adequate understanding of the underpinnings of American republicanism, a firm and principled commitment to limited government, and a determination to put the limits back in place.
Most of the Republicans elected to the Presidency in the last century have been what I call “business” or “managerial progressives.” I do not doubt that Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush were preferable to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson, William Jefferson Clinton, and Barack Obama. But there is no indication that any of them understood what was at stake. They differed from their Democratic opponents in being considerably more favorable to business and the free market and considerably more hostile to tax increases, but – if there was no obvious economic price – they, too, welcomed government intrusiveness whenever they thought that encroaching upon our prerogatives or those of the state and local governments was necessary if they were to do us what they took to be good.
Here lies the danger. What is needed is a repeal of Obamacare; what is needed is a paring back and even a gradual elimination of the welfare state; what is needed is a constitutional amendment banning unfunded and partially-funded mandates; what is needed is a withdrawal of the federal government from spheres (such as education) left by the Constitution to individuals and the states; what is needed is a reinvigoration of local and state governments; what is need is a new spirit in Washington.
What we are likely to get, however, if we do not watch out, is more of the same.
I can easily imagine a Republican President thinking that what is really needed is what FDR called “enlightened administration.” I can easily imagine the Republicans thinking that Obamacare would be just fine if they were in charge. That is the spirit that guided Hoover, Nixon, Bush père, and Bush fils, and I fear that most of the men with gubernatorial experience whom I mentioned above would fit right in with these former Presidents. If our primary problem were Obama’s incompetence, that would be fine. Unfortunately, our problems go deeper – and if the Republicans muff the golden opportunity now in the offing, the game may be up.
For the last century, the administrative state has grown and grown – under Democrats and Republicans alike. Except in the 1920s, there were no reversals – not even under Ronald Reagan: the only Republican President since Calvin Coolidge to have articulated in a systematic fashion the argument for limited government.
This time, however, thanks to Barack Obama, the issue is clear. This time, the public is aroused. This time, the stakes are obvious to anyone with eyes to see. Is ours a government of limited powers? Or can our masters in Washington do anything at any time they wish? That is what is at stake. And if ours is a government of limited powers, we need to act decisively to insure that in the future the federal government is restricted to its proper sphere.
This imperative we should do everything possible to bring home to every Republican candidate. “Are you with us in this struggle?” we should ask. And if a candidate dodges the question or answers no, we should make sure that his political career comes to an ignominious end.
Think about it this way. Which outcome would be worse? The re-election of Barack Obama? Or the election of a Republican President who acquiesces in the transformation that Obama has carried out?
I would submit that, if the first of these two eventualities were the outcome in 2012, our situation would, indeed, be dire, but, if we were in control of Congress, all would not be lost. We could redouble our efforts, rally the troops, and look for a man or woman of executive temperament endowed with good principles who is able to defeat the next Democratic nominee.
If the second of these two eventualities were the outcome in 2012, however, we would not know where to turn. Conservatives know what it means to be betrayed. In our relations with the Republican Party, we have encountered perfidy time and again. The Republicans talk the talk but do not walk the walk. That must now stop.
Of course, there are times in which the best course is to temporize with evil. This is what conservatives did in this country during the Cold War vis-à-vis the champions of the progressive agenda, and, given what was at stake in foreign affairs, we were arguably right to keep our powder dry.
We are now no longer similarly situated. Now – before it is too late – is the time for us to confront and begin to dismantle the administrative state – and to that end we need to begin think about the Republicans who have demonstrated executive capacity. “Which of these men,” we must ask, “can we trust? Which of these men will toil night and day, using every available resource, to restore constitutional government in the United States? Which of these men has the wisdom and prudence to know how to proceed? In short, who can lead?”