Running the Country, Running the World?

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who imagines himself as Winston Churchill in temporary political exile, desperately wants to be president. He imagines himself running not just America, but the world.

Worse, he thinks that is what the American people want. In criticizing President George W. Bush, Gingrich opined: “You hire presidents, at a minimum, to run the country well enough that you don’t have to think about it.” But that’s not all. Gingrich blandly talks about international “leadership,” by which he means implementing a quasi-American empire, with Washington directing affairs in its many protectorates around the globe. Here, too, he apparently believes U.S. citizens want their president to “run” affairs well enough to avoid having to think about the consequences.

Gingrich is a curious character – bright, egotistical, and undisciplined, who thinks more than the average politician, but who also spouts more nonsense than the average politician. Anything he says should be heavily discounted, but in this case his views unfortunately reflect the conventional wisdom in Washington. The job of the president is to “run” America and the world.

It’s a silly, even dangerous, notion. There are more than 300 million Americans. They “run” the U.S. They work, providing food, housing, and clothes for themselves and their neighbors. They make available automobiles, computers, phones, and an endless variety of other goods to us. They offer banking services, provide health care, and handle retail sales across America.

These Americans also start and care for their own families. They go to school. They hold jobs. They attend churches. They start clubs. They begin small businesses. They manage large firms. They “run” America.

And they do a pretty good job, even though a horde of meddlesome government employees constantly gets in their way.

Contrast that with how well politicians, starting with the president, “run” America. They create massive bureaucracies which exacerbate social problems. They loot taxpayers to enrich special interests. They impose regulations which slow economic growth and discourage civil society. They give corruption and hypocrisy a bad name. They avoid confronting the most serious and most obvious problems: the looming insolvency of both Social Security and Medicare, for instance.

Even more so, the president shouldn’t be expected to “run” the world. The more than six billion residents of planet earth “run” the world.

They run their countries much as Americans run the U.S. The results often are worse – witness the horrors of the great death states of the 20th century, Nazi Germany and Communist China and Russia. But other people have little enthusiasm for allowing Washington to “run” their nations, irrespective of how badly mismanaged their own countries might be.

Obviously, evil men (and women) determined to enrich themselves, punish adversaries, and remold societies wreak enormous havoc in some countries. But well-intentioned men of zeal also can generate catastrophic damage. The flurry of New Deal and Great Society programs in the U.S. worsened the Depression, diminished individual liberty, redistributed trillions of dollars, and made far more people dependent on government. For instance, it took three decades, even after spending trillions of dollars, for Congress to rethink welfare programs which had been busting up families and communities.

The practical difficulties in social engineering grow exponentially as politicians attempt to “run” lands ever more distant – geographically, religiously, ethnically, culturally, economically, and politically. So much for the belief that Washington can transform societies around the world into liberal, pro-Western, U.S.-loving nations. The original American colonists didn’t like being bossed around by London, despite their many close connections to Great Britain. Even more so, foreign folks don’t like taking direction from Americans.

The idea that a little tutelage from Western elites will transform subject societies should have died with colonialism. The Europeans created a host of artificial nation states mixing tribal groups in Africa. Political institutions bequeathed by the West often lasted just one election, before countries fell into dictatorship, chaos, or war. The industrialized states, including the U.S., were no more able to “run” Africa from the outside through financial aid and military intervention.

A similar lesson should have been learned from the West’s experience in Asia and South America. Even the wealthiest and most powerful nations cannot “run” their poorer neighbors. Brute military force can work wonders in the short-term, but it takes imperial Roman levels of brutality and cruelty to keep one’s satrapies in line. The U.S. doesn’t, thankfully, have sufficient cold blood to follow such a course.

This reality might be frustrating for the Gingriches of the world, who believe they are destined to “run” national and global affairs. But recognition of this reality should help liberate the American people. In assessing candidate qualifications for president, they don’t have to find someone with the knowledge and competence to “run” their affairs, or those of some six billion foreigners. Americans just have to find someone able to manage the federal government.

That’s still a big job, of course. But it is very different from “running” the U.S. or the world. For instance, the president is Commander-in-Chief of the military, not of America. Those of us not in the military are not subject to his orders, absent legal authority granted by Congress as provided by the Constitution.

The president’s power thus is twice limited. First, as chief executive he is to “faithfully” fulfill his office, protecting the Constitution and administering the laws of the land. Only the Congress makes laws. President Bush and his aides have advanced outlandish claims of executive power, but the legislative branch is dominant. And conservatives, before they became enamored of the uses to which they could put expansive executive power, long liked it that way.

Second, Congress is constrained by the Constitution in what it can do itself, and in what it can authorize the president to do. As written, though no longer interpreted, the Constitution created a system of enumerated power. That is, Congress could legislate where authorized, and only where authorized. Under current interpretation, the section detailing congressional powers is largely redundant, since the Commerce and General Welfare clauses have swallowed up the whole, authorizing Congress to do essentially anything it desires. That’s not the way the Constitution was supposed to be.

Even more so, the president is not supposed to “run” the world. He is Commander-in-Chief of the military, but Congress creates that military and writes the rules under which it fights. Moreover, Congress is to decide when the nation goes to war.

There certainly is nothing in the Constitution about the president sending the military around the globe to micromanage allied nations and fix failed states. True, nothing in the Constitution bars the president’s appointees, most notably the Secretaries of Commerce, State, and Treasury, from acting as global nags – telling everyone else how to run their own economies, political systems, and entire societies. But such arrogance conflicts with the Constitution’s spirit. And the policy is remarkably imprudent, seldom working and always generating ill will in practice.

Understanding what the president is supposed to do and not do is critical in evaluating today’s presidential contenders. Few of the candidates are as explicit as Newt Gingrich in espousing grandiose ambitions. But all of the leading candidates have presented quasi-imperial foreign policies, actively meddling around the world for whatever reason seems most convenient at the moment. Only Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has explicitly rejected such an approach.

Which means that Americans, irrespective of their partisan preferences, must make clear that their votes will be determined by how candidates see their role in the U.S. and the world. There is much room for disagreement over appropriate government functions. However, all Americans should unite against any presidential wannabee who wants to “run” the U.S., the world, or even worse, both. Those activities simply aren’t part of the president’s job description.