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 Hitler at Munich? The strength of the counterfactual approach is that it requires us to reverse our “winner take all” view of events and 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 were neutral. This raises what I call the Problems of the Presidency.
For presidential scholars, George W. Bush’s tanglings with Congress and the Supreme Court over how and where he can use his executive branch powers to conduct the global war on terror is just the latest version of what used to be called the imperial presidency.
A term coined by historian William E. Leuchtenberg in the 1960s and used by him and others to explain the growing powers of the presidency in years leading up to and following Watergate, scholars began viewing the powers of the presidency less as the policy of the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and more the culmination of policies and programs developed in the years following the Second World War.
The central bases for the imperial presidency were the exigencies created by two events: Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States did not have the international surveillance and response capacity that Harry Truman created with his signing of the National Security Act in 1947.
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 bureacracy to guarantee that the United States never got caught with its shorts down again. Thus, the president had at his disposal covert military and intelligence assetts in the field that he could use without consulting anyone, arguing that exigencies of the circumstances gave him that power.
Historians know that every president from Truman on down used these powers, often for personal political gain. Thus, the outrage over Richard Nixon was largely directed at the person while overlooking the powers of the office: Everyone knew that LBJ, Kennedy and even Ike used the intelligence community for political purposes — heck, even Clinton had a bunch of FBI files on people.
For most of the 20th century, the powers of the imperial presidency grew, to be trimmed only once, 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 in 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 toward action, regardless of which party’s guy 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 the 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.