Can a Constitutional Conservative Promise to Create Jobs?

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The presidency has changed since the founding. Even so, America's ability to confront its problems may remain in the hands of the legislative branch.

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The conceit among Republican presidential candidates, especially Tea Party favorites like Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann, is that they're "constitutional conservatives" -- men and women who strictly adhere to an originalist's understanding of our founding document. But that's just a self-serving mythology, and last night's debate helps to demonstrate why. The subject was the economy, and as in previous campaign events, the contenders competed to assure us that they'd be best at job creation, making it a top priority if elected president.

As envisioned by the Framers, however, the president wouldn't spend his time crafting economic policy, drawing up legislation, or championing 9-9-9 plans. Congress would do those things, while POTUS served as Commander-in-Chief, executed the nation's laws, sought the opinions of cabinet officials, made appointments, and provided Congress with information on the state of the union.

"The modern vision of the presidency couldn't be further from the Framers' view of the chief executive's role," Gene Healy writes in The Cult of the Presidency. "In an age long before distrust of power was condemned as cynicism, the Founding Fathers designed a presidency of modest authority and limited responsibilities. The Constitution's architects never conceived of the president as the man in charge of national destiny. They worked amid the living memory of monarchy, and for them the very notion of 'national leadership' raised the possibility of authoritarian rule by a demagogue ready to create an atmosphere of crisis in order to enhance his power." Healy goes on to complain that "the chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer... He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise... It wasn't supposed to be this way."

Cut to Tuesday night.

"I'd be prepared to be a leader," Mitt Romney said. "You can't get the country to go in the right direction and get Washington to work if you don't have a president that's a leader."

Is that true?

Perhaps. The United States is a lot different today than it was in 1789. Maybe Republicans and Democrats alike are right to abandon governance as the Framers imagined it (even as the GOP persists in pretending that it holds fast to their vision).

But I suspect that a competent, prudent president could run the executive branch of a country "moving in the right direction" even if he or she wasn't "a leader" -- so long as Congress reacquainted itself to leadership in the realms where the Framers intended it. Perhaps we'd be better off if the citizenry demanded less leadership of presidents and more from Congress; if it refocused its attention on the branch the composition of which it has a greater capacity to affect, and stopped behaving as if the answer to every problem is electing a president bold enough to fix it. 


What if America's ability to confront its problems depends much more on strong legislative leadership? As far as I can tell, we unconsciously presume otherwise without any good reason for doing so.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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