The Dangerous Fantasies of Would-Be Presidents
Dear Reader (including all of the retiring Republican congressmen who got tired of all the winning),
There’s an old joke that goes something like this:
An engineer and an economist are on a hike in the forest. They fall down a deep hole. The engineer, looking at the sheer walls and the distant opening way above, says: “We’re going to die down here. We can’t climb out and there’s no one to hear us cry for help.”
“We’ll be fine,” the economist confidently replies, calmly brushing the dirt from his pants. There’s an easy way out. First, assume a ladder.”
Hey, I didn’t say it was an on good joke. But I have seen D.C. wonks bend over with laughter at it.
I bring this up because the Democrats have become a “First, assume a ladder” party. (This is not to say that the Republican Party is firmly planted in reality these days either. More on that in a bit.)
Pundits across the ideological spectrum praised the debate for dealing with “substance.” Fine, fine. Wonky substance is good, I guess. But it was a conversation wildly detached from the reality of the moment. I’m not trying to go all Flight 93 on you, but imagine if you’re in a life raft and everyone is debating how to signal for help and the bulk of the conversation were dedicated to the question of how to build a shortwave radio you have no parts for.
“No, no, the vacuum tube diodes won’t work! We need solid state diodes!”
“I for one will not sit here and let you besmirch the value of vacuum diodes!”
During the first debate, Rep. John Delaney made the monstrous suggestion that Democrats should try to do possible things. “Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics.”
Warren responded: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
It was like Delaney was in the life raft saying, “Maybe we can find a signal flare,” and Warren, Sanders, and co. were saying, “Don’t you understand how much better it would be if we used a shortwave radio?”
Warren’s rejoinder was greeted by the audience and much of the progressive punditocracy as if it were the rhetorical equivalent of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. “Poor Delaney doesn’t even realize he’s already dead!”
Never mind that this was deeply unfair to Delaney, who actually wants to do all sorts of ambitious things. He just has this weird fetish for doing possible things and not destroying capitalism.
The whole debate was premised on three pernicious fictions: one mathematical, one political, and one philosophical. Let’s take them in order.
Math, Horrible Math
Now, we have a rule in this “news”letter to keep math—or, as the British creepily say, “maths”—to a minimum. So if you want the Walter White Blue Sky meth of wonkiness, you can read Brian Riedl on all of these plans (or listen to our recent conversation).
The basic point you need to keep in mind is that, even if we put Bane in the White House and he and his minions literally confiscated all—I mean all—of the top one percent’s wealth, relegating Bezos, Buffett, and Gates to living under a highway fighting over the wet detritus in a cat food tin, it still wouldn’t come close to paying for the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. (The one-percenters have about $25 trillion; the bidding for these programs starts at $32 trillion.) And this all assumes that rich people don’t react to confiscatory taxes, that socialized medicine works great, and that the Democrats have the expertise to eliminate fossil fuels, retrofit every building in America, and within twelve years, solve every climate problem save for cow farts. It also works on the assumption that the American people want what they’re selling. (All of this stuff polls terribly. Most people are happy with their healthcare.) It also assumes that it all can get through Congress. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My point is: What the Hell are we talking about? It’s like everyone on the life raft agrees to assume all of the diodes into existence, but there’s still the problem of having no place to plug in the damn radio—which, again, doesn’t exist.
Parliamentary America, Again
I know I’ve been hammering this nail until the wood is mush, but we don’t live in a parliamentary system, but a presidential one. That doesn’t mean the president is—or should be—
more powerful. It just means that the president is elected by the people, and he or she executes the laws passed by Congress, a separate branch. In parliamentary systems, the people elect a party, and the party elects a prime minister to lead the effort of enacting their agenda into law. The problem is that everyone—voters, politicians, journalists—is increasingly acting as if we do live in a parliamentary system.
Look, I take no offense when people say they prefer the parliamentary system, in much the same way I take no offense when the economist at the bottom of the pit says he prefers to assume an aluminum ladder rather than a wood one. But the fact remains: The economist at the bottom of the hole doesn’t have a ladder, and we don’t have a parliamentary system. So could everyone please stop acting like we do?
Yes, yes, I understand that presidents have long run on a legislative agenda. But I also know that that the actual legislative agenda gets written by—wait for it!—the legislature. And Congress ain’t doing this stuff. Put aside the fact that when I hear these candidates get super specific about the details of the Warren plan versus the Sanders plan, I feel like I’m watching the exhumation and desecration of Friedrich Hayek’s corpse. None of these finer points matters. Electing a president doesn’t put any of this crap into effect. In the first NBC debate, Elizabeth Warren was asked how she would deal with a Mitch McConnell and a Republican Senate. She said something like “Well, he will have to respect the will of the people?” He will? Why? Moreover, because we don’t live in a parliamentary system, if he wins reelection promising to thwart the Democrats and socialism, he would be respecting the will of the people—in Kentucky.
I ask again, What the Hell are we talking about?
What’s a President For?
Saying “Marianne Williamson is right” feels as weird to me as saying “Ronald McDonald has an interesting idea about cold fusion,” but that’s where we are in this strange timeline. And she did get to an important truth.
Williamson said: “If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”
Now, I’m not referring to the stuff about Dark Psychic Forces (which I think must be capitalized), though she does have a point there. I’m referring to the fact that, even though the presidency was never intended to be an avatar for our metaphysical aspirations, that’s what it’s become. I lament it, deeply, but on both the left and the right, the Oval Office is the throne the various culture war factions crave. We have monarchical expectations of the job, not merely in our belief that the president ‘runs the society the way a father runs a family’—as traditional monarchists might put it – but as an expression of who we are.
Williamson sees this more clearly than Warren and to a lesser extent Sanders, who says he will also be a Mobilizer-in-Chief. I don’t know if Trump understands this intellectually, but he gets it emotionally. Make America Great Again was not a policy program; it was an emotionally-charged marketing slogan. The problem for Warren is that she is so besotted by scientism that she invests a kind of theological importance to planning. She’s a deacon in the Church of Technocracy.
That’s the philosophical underpinning of Warren’s comeback to Delaney. For her, the only legitimate reason to run for president is to do huge things. And she’s hardly alone. Progressives—and a great many conservatives these days—think the job of president is to transform the country.
This points to the weird overlap behind some of the new nationalists on the right and the New Agey politics of meaning crowd on the left. They’re descendants of Thomas Paine, not Edmund Burke. In the Burkean formulation, the state serves to protect the liberty of the people and their institutions to find their own way. In Paine’s view, the people are a collective entity that must be molded and moved in a specific direction. One side wants more traditional understandings of “social cohesion” and morality. The other side wants a more secular “spiritual but not religious” vision. But they both want everyone to swallow their vision—good and hard. And they think the president is the guy to get the pill down our throats.
I know it’s a Remnanty thing to say, but that’s not what I’m looking for in a president.
Calvin Coolidge—praise be upon him—came to national office, first as Vice President, then as President, riding the tide of a return to normalcy. Woodrow Wilson [insert spitting sound] wanted to fundamentally transform the United States of America. And he succeeded, to some extent. In the process, he threw dissidents in jail, created a propaganda agency, censored magazines and newspapers, and generally treated the Constitution like toilet paper. Americans, sick of the food rationing, the gestapo tactics, and “war socialism,” threw the Democrats out.
At the end of his presidency, Coolidge said, “perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.”
Now, that’s my kind of president.
I’m not saying America doesn’t have problems or that government doesn’t have any role in addressing them. But the desire to fundamentally transform the country has always struck me as a fundamentally unpatriotic desire. If patriotism is defined simply as loving your country, wanting to fundamentally transform it isn’t an act of love. As I used to say during the Obama years, try telling your wife or husband, “Look I love you, I just want to fundamentally transform you into something very different.”
The presidential oath of office has a job description built right into it:
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
That’s good enough for me.
Various & Sundry
My column today is on the ongoing unpersoning of Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries. It really is one of the most amazing political stories—the phenomenon, not my column—of recent times. Obama perfectly captured the point I was making above about the president being an avatar of the culture war and the desire for social transformation, and until very recently he was seen as a success by the left. Now he’s like the guy no one invited to the party—even though he remains generally popular.
I’ll be on ABC’s “This Week” this Sunday.
The latest Remnant is out. My friend and business partner Steve Hayes, finally returned from Spain, came on to update folks on what he’s been up to—and what we’re up to.
Canine Update: I wish I had gotten video this morning, but we had one of the perfect illustrations of Zoë and Pippa’s job descriptions. I was playing fetch with Pippa on the softball field at our usual park. Zoë was searching the perimeter for rabbits. Suddenly I heard her barking. She encountered a construction worker having his breakfast and a Red Bull on a bench. Zoë started was shouting: “Show me your papers!” “What is your authorization?” “This is not your post!” and similar stuff. I wasn’t particularly concerned. She barks at people but never shows aggression. But I apologized to the guy all the same, explaining that she thinks this is her park. I called for Zoë to give it up, explaining he’s okay. And the moment Zoë left, her duty fulfilled, Pippa ran over to the guy and dropped her tennis ball at his feet. “Try it! This thing is great!” she told him. He picked it up and threw it, because you can’t refuse such a request and not do damage to your soul.
Anyway, the doggers are good. Alas, they don’t realize that the Goldbergs are leaving town on Monday and, alas, this year they’re not coming with us on our cross country drive. Jack Butler will be adding to his already voluminous duties some dog- and housesitting while I’m gone. He promises to provide ample proof of life pictures. Also our dogwalker will handle the midday adventures during the week, so there will be plenty of canine content on Twitter. They’ll be well-cared for, but we still feel very guilty leaving them behind. I will miss them terribly. They’re good girls.
This week’s firs Remnant, with Scott Lincicome
The pointless impeachment debacle
GLoP, the movie
Why Democrats are running away from Obama
This week's second Remnant, with Steve Hayes
And now, the weird stuff.
My God, it's full of cat...
Even more justice
Alabama meth gators?
The future is now
Indy doesn't get tenure
Real life puppet masters
Living the dream
Decline is a choice
The Church of Centralia
A guide to 60s TV Batman villains
There goes my hero...
How Pepsi got a Navy
Show me the lie
Jonathan Frakes interrogates you
The world's first virtual-reality soccer game
That's All, Folks!