Later this year, Louisiana voters will elect a governor. It’s a decision that carries special weight because the state’s chief executive, by tradition and statute, is given more power than most of America’s governors in running the government.
Louisiana has a long history of strong chief executives, of which the biggest example is Huey Long, whose statue — and legacy — dominate the Capitol grounds.
But as Long centralized power in the governor’s office in the 1930s, the American presidency was undergoing something similar. Emboldened by the vastly expanded role granted to him through the Depression-era New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt “settled the central government’s supremacy and the sufficiency of its powers for national purposes.”
Or so George Will writes in his new book, “The Conservative Sensibility.” It’s a big doorstopper of a volume from Will, the longtime syndicated Washington Post columnist whose work appears regularly in our newspaper. At some 600 pages, it’s perhaps not the best beach book, threatening to herniate any vacationer brave enough to lug it through the sand.
“The Conservative Sensibility” is huge because it touches on myriad topics in its study of how American political institutions were formed. Will’s loyal Advocate readers know that his mind moves in many places, but a continuing preoccupation of his new book is the growth of executive power.
Will notes that FDR’s optimism, the thing that made him great, was also his biggest challenge. “He lacked the capacity even to imagine that things might turn out badly,” Will writes of Roosevelt. “He had a Christian’s faith that the universe is well constituted and an American’s faith that history is a rising road. In this, FDR was very like his cousin Teddy.”
The iconic image of this class of legislators who finished their last session Thursday evening was how they finished their first: charging the…
Such noble sentiments could be a plus, Will suggests, but they also tended to blind both Roosevelts to the more troubling implications of giving one chief executive so much power.
When TR “sat at the presidential desk,” Will tells readers, “he naturally thought, as even less egocentric presidents have thought, that the president should be the sun in the constitutional solar system.”
Whether voters like all that centralized power depends a great deal, of course, on what they think of the sitting president. Many of the same people who decried President Barack Obama’s penchant for executive orders now cheer President Donald Trump for using the same authority.
Is Donald Trump the modern-day Earl Long?
Congress, which is supposed to be a check on presidential powers, is essentially paralyzed these days, something of which Will is of course aware.
Will admits that his book “does not contain a comprehensive agenda for political reform and social improvement,” being long on diagnosis and short on prescriptions. Even so, it should give Americans much to think about in this eventful summer, as the prospect of coming elections makes a hot season seem even hotter.