Learning to Love the Imperial Presidency: How Conservatives Made Peace with Executive Power

By Healy, Gene | Reason, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Learning to Love the Imperial Presidency: How Conservatives Made Peace with Executive Power


Healy, Gene, Reason


"I TOOK AN oath, and I take that oath to the president very seriously," former White House aide Sara Taylor told the Senate Judiciary Committee during the summer hearings on the U.S. attorneys purge. Taylor's statement prompted an indignant clarification from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.): "No, the oath says that you take an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States!"

Leahy was right, of course. But it's not surprising that the 32-year-old Taylor, born the month after Nixon's resignation, had some trouble locating the object of her sworn fealty. For as long as she's been alive, the conservative movement has prioritized the expansion of presidential power, often at the expense of the Constitution.

It wasn't always that way. Almost to a man, the conservatives who coalesced around William F. Buckley's National Review in 1955 associated executive power with liberal activism and viewed Congress as the conservative branch. In 1967 the right-wing intellectuals Russell Kirk and James McClellan praised the late Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, "Mr. Conservative," for warning that an overly aggressive foreign policy threatened to "make the American President a virtual dictator." During his 1964 presidential bid, Barry Goldwater called the celebration of presidential power "a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers."

Yet Goldwater's distrust of presidential power fit uneasily with his embrace of a hyper-aggressive posture in the struggle against the Soviet Union. When conservatives did support the expansion of presidential power, it was almost always in the context of foreign policy. Even so, postwar, pre-Watergate conservatives in Congress voted against the expansion of presidential power more consistently than did liberals.

That began to change with Nixon. Prominent conservatives began to see the executive as the conservative branch and set to work developing a conservative case for the imperial presidency. Right-wing ressentiment over Nixon's downfall helped drive the shift. As the right-wing writer M. Stanton Evans quipped, "I didn't like Nixon until Watergate. …

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