Panic button.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Jan. 20 2006 11:35 AM

Panic Button

At last, House Republicans learn to run for their lives.

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Yet even the opposition goes along. The nonfiction book atop the New York Times best-seller list is Our Endangered Values by Jimmy Carter. Carter is simply reprising the most successful role of his career: campaigning against the Nixonian excesses of Washington.

At every stop on the campaign trail in 1992, Al Gore would ask, "What time is it?" The answer then was, "It's time for them to go." The answer now is, "1974."

Executive Privilege: I was a teenage Nixon hater. But I can't help wishing Democrats could shed our Nixon reflex. Nixon and his followers committed a host of sins against democracy: Watergate, "Peace is at hand," the racist Southern strategy, and the first wedge issue, law and order. But perhaps the greatest harm Nixon did Democrats was to make our party lose faith in the presidency. We're still getting over it.

"Nixon's destiny was to carry the logic of the imperial presidency to the point of no return," Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in The Imperial Presidency, his 1973 treatise on the abuse of presidential power. The Nixon White House broke laws, kept secrets, obstructed justice, and trampled civil liberties. Most leaders wrestle with the tradeoff between the ends and the means. For Nixon, the ends and means were the same: his administration abused power simply to hold onto power. And for four years, he not only got away with it, but was rewarded with a 49-state victory.

The anguish of George W. Bush's re-election still pales in comparison to the liberal crisis of faith over watching a crook win the biggest Republican landslide in history. With nowhere else to turn, Democrats learned to love Congress, a branch of government liberals had largely despised well into the 1960s. Democrats also began to depend on the Supreme Court to check the White House, a dependence that would come back to haunt us as we discovered how losing one would eventually cost us the other.

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In the 1970s, Democrats passed a number of laws to rein in the executive branch, from campaign finance to CIA and FBI reforms to the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act that Bush skirted in the current flap over domestic spying. Even with Carter in the White House, Democrats were more comfortable with the role of congressional oversight than with presidential leadership. Our heroes were referees and whistle-blowers like Sam Ervin, John Dean, Judge Sirica, and Woodward and Bernstein, not rogues and swashbucklers in the great American tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

That was an understandable and necessary reaction to a constitutional crisis that had shaken public confidence in government to its core. But it had unfortunate side effects. Before Nixon came along, Democrats had controlled the White House for 28 of the previous 36 years. After Nixon, many Democrats came to wonder whether the presidency was worth having.

Despite landslide defeats in 1980, 1984, and 1988—or perhaps because of them—Democrats in Washington became far more concerned with holding onto Congress than with taking back the White House. As the first Democratic president to win re-election since FDR, Bill Clinton tried his best to transform Democrats into a presidential party. But to this day, most Democrats think of themselves first as the party that used to control Congress.

It's a paradox: The party with grand ambitions for government is suspicious of the office that could best achieve them, while the party broadly opposed to the use of government power wants to get its hands on as much of it as possible.

For that, we can blame Richard Nixon. By following in Nixon's footsteps, Bush seems determined to make Democrats hate the presidency for another generation. That would be a terrible shame. Under FDR, the Democratic Party virtually invented the sweeping, modern presidency. The success of Democratic presidents like Truman and Clinton was their determination to tame a rotten Congress, not submit to one.

I share Gore's opinion of the current administration and Congress. "The Congress we have today is structurally unrecognizable compared to the one in which my father served," he says. "The legislative branch of government, as a whole, under its current leadership now operates as if it were entirely subservient to the Executive branch."

But in my view, that's not a constitutional crisis—it's an argument for a new Congress. Gore worries that "we have for decades been witnessing the slow and steady accumulation of presidential power." But checks and balances don't have to be a zero-sum game. It is possible to have energy in the executive and energy in the legislative. Indeed, given the obstacles to progress in today's sclerotic political environment, we may need both branches to push the envelope before we can get anything done.

Now More than Ever: We could get by without a strong, assertive presidency in the '70s, but we desperately need one today. As Gore recognizes, we won't win the war on terror with congressional hearings. To win it, we need commanders in chief with panache and integrity, who can inspire confidence at home and abroad, win the respect of our allies, and instill fear in our foes.