by Glenn Harlan Reynolds
May 26, 2016
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Media watchdogs snoozed while Obama expanded executive power. They'll wake up and bite when it's Trump.
The press has done a lousy job of protecting American freedoms in recent years. But I have a modest proposal for improving press performance: Elect a white male Republican.
When Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president, actor Ron Silver, then a Democrat, was there. And when fighter jets flew over the Lincoln Memorial, he was reportedly at first upset at the military symbolism, but then reminded himself that since Democrat Clinton was being sworn in, ”those are our planes now.”
We’re seeing something of a reverse-version of this phenomenon as large swathes of the commentariat realize that we might wind up with a President Trump. Suddenly, sweeping executive power (fine with many under President Obama) is being portrayed as a possible threat to the republic. Which, to be fair, it is. But only now do they care.
At National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke poses this question to folks on the left: “Has Donald Trump’s remarkable rise done anything to change your mind as to the ideal strength of the state?”
A sensible view is that we might not want the government as a whole, and the president in particular, to possess more power in general than we would be willing to allow when our political enemies were in power. Because experience demonstrates that, just as for Ron Silver “their planes” became “our planes” when the White House changed hands, so too “our president” becomes “their president” when it changes in the other direction.
But while that view might be sensible, it doesn’t seem especially common. Though a few people are evenhanded on executive power — law professor John Yoo, for example, who supported sweeping antiterror policies under both President Bush and President Obama — most seem to regard stretched authority as necessary and proper when a president of their party does it, and as an imperial presidency when the other party does.
Here’s a hint: It’s the imperial presidency pretty much all the time.
But it’s nice to see the prospect of a Trump administration reminding folks on the left of this, particularly as the journalist and pundit classes are dominated by lefties. It’s terrible, we’re told, that Trump is issuing veiled threats to journalists — though Obama joked about auditing his enemies, seized journalist phone records and threatened a journalist who refused to reveal sources with imprisonment. Trump would be a warmonger, we’re told, although in fact Barack Obama has been at war longer than any other U.S. president, if without any particular success. Trump would arrogantly ride roughshod over any opposition, though Barack Obama famously used “I won” as an excuse to ignore opponents and bragged that he had a “pen (and) a phone” to bypass congressional disagreement. (And he’s used them a lot.)
Many of the journalists and pundits who see Trump as the next imperial president were silent over these Obama actions. Like Ron Silver with his fighter jets, they saw Obama’s envelope-pushing as fine because it was by their own president.
I’d like to think that pointing this kind of thing out would address the problem, but my faith in our political classes is pretty low right now. So, given the realities, I have a suggestion for limiting the imperial presidency that will probably work: Only elect straight, white male Republicans.
In our current system, the biggest check on presidential power is public criticism, and despite the rise of niche media such as Fox News and talk radio, the kind of public criticism that actually has an impact mostly comes from the left-controlled “mainstream media.”
With a black Democrat in the White House, those organs have often been loath to criticize the president themselves, and swift to assume that anyone who does offer criticism is partisan, and probably a racist to boot. But with a white male Republican in the White House, all criticisms will be presumed valid.
Every president has some wiggle room, but white male Republicans have less in our system. So if you want the imperial presidency to wiggle less, that’s whom we should elect. And if that’s what it takes to get the press to do its job of scrutinizing and criticizing power, then that’s what we need.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.