"The Case for the Strong Executive," Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2007, pp. 21-24, reprinted in the Wall Street Journal, 2 May 2007.
Complaints against the “imperial presidency” are back in vogue. With a view to President Bush, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., has expanded and reissued the book of the same name he wrote against Richard Nixon, and Bush critics have taken up the phrase in a chorus. In response John Yoo and Richard Posner (and others) have defended the war powers of the president.
This is not the first time that a strong executive has been attacked and defended, and it will not be the last. Our Constitution, as long as it continues, will suffer this debate—I would say, give rise to it, preside over, and encourage it. Though I want to defend the strong executive, I mainly intend to step back from that defense to show why the debate between the strong executive and its adversary, the rule of law, is necessary, good, and—under the Constitution—never-ending. In other circumstances I could see myself defending the rule of law. Americans are fortunate to have a Constitution that accommodates different circumstances. Its flexibility keeps it in its original form and spirit a “living constitution,” ready for change, and open to new necessities and opportunities. The “living constitution” conceived by the Progressives actually makes it a prisoner of ongoing events and perceived trends. To explain the constitutional debate between the strong executive and the rule of law I will concentrate on its sources in political philosophy and, for greater clarity, ignore the constitutional law emerging from it.
The case for a strong executive should begin from a study, on this occasion a quick survey, of the American republic. The American republic was the first to have a strong executive that was intended to be republican as well as strong, and the success, or long life, of America’s Constitution qualifies it as a possible model for other countries. Modern political science beginning from Machiavelli abandoned the best regime featured by classical political science because the best regime was utopian or imaginary. Modern political scientists wanted a practical solution, and by the time of Locke, followed by Montesquieu, they learned to substitute a model regime for the best regime; and this was the government of England. The model regime would not be applicable everywhere, no doubt, because it was not intended to be a lowest common denominator. But it would show what could be done in the best circumstances.
The American Founders had the ambition to make America the model regime, taking over from England. This is why they showed surprising respect for English government, the regime they had just rebelled against. America would not only make a republic for itself, but teach the world how to make a successful republic and thus improve republicanism and save the reputation of republics. For previous republics had suffered disastrous failure, alternating between anarchy and tyranny, seeming to force the conclusion that orderly government could come only from monarchy, the enemy of republics. Previous republics had put their faith in the rule of law as the best way to foil one-man rule. The rule of law would keep power in the hands of many, or at least a few, which was safer than in the hands of one. As the way to ensure the rule of law, Locke and Montesquieu fixed on the separation of powers. They were too realistic to put their faith in any sort of higher law; the rule of law would be maintained by a legislative process of institutions that both cooperated and competed.