The President and Popular Opinion in a Republlic

In number 71 of The Federalist, Publius (Alexander Hamilton) makes an important point about the relationship between popular opinion and the executive. He argues that there is a difference between “the deliberate sense of the community” and “transient impulses.”

There are some who would be inclined to regard the servile pliancy of the Executive to a prevailing current, either in the community or in the legislature, as its best recommendation. But such men entertain very crude notions, as well of the purposes for which government was instituted, as of the true means by which the public happiness may be promoted. The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests. It is a just observation, that the people commonly INTEND the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always REASON RIGHT about the MEANS of promoting it. They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it.

Republican government requires that the actions of the president reflect the deliberate sense of the community rather than transient impulses because the former is in accordance with the interests of the community, properly understood. To ”deliberate” and thereby determine the “the deliberate sense of the community” means to free oneself from the passions

When occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection. Instances might be cited in which a conduct of this kind has saved the people from very fatal consequences of their own mistakes, and has procured lasting monuments of their gratitude to the men who had courage and magnanimity enough to serve them at the peril of their displeasure.

Over at The Remedy, the blog of the Claremont institute in California, Richard Reeb applies this reasoning to the war in Iraq. Here is the key passage:

Our government was not designed to fall prey to the most powerful faction or to be dominated by the most powerful branch. This is not a government by plebiscite but one of three separate branches, each as independent as possible of the others. Thus, Congress is free to pass any bills it wishes, the president is free conduct foreign policy and wage war as he determines, and the courts are free to decide cases on the merits.
This constitutional distribution of offices gives this government of, by and for the people its distinctive character. A large body like the Congress is best equipped for deliberation, a single executive for decisive action and a small number of supreme judges for jurisprudence. The object is not to cause deadlock but to enable each department to have a will of its own and to ensure that the actions the government takes are based on what the founders called the “deliberate sense of the people” rather than transient impulses.
More specifically, the health of our republic depends less on the popularity of decisions, although no policy can be maintained for long in the teeth of determined popular opposition (the recent immigration bill is a case in point), but on the wisdom of those decisions.
President Bush is not defying the will of the American people by prosecuting the war in Iraq but is following the consent he was given when he was re-elected in 2004. He was elected to exercise his best judgment for four years, not for four months or four weeks, or however long his political opposition believes, or professes, to be his limit.

Here is the whole thing:
Victory in the War Depends on Our Nation’s Character
Deliberate Sense of the People v. Transient Impulses
A nation’s character, like that of a human being, is clearest when hard decisions must be made. The present moment, when the United States is committed to winning the war against Islamo-fascists at home and abroad, may well be the occasion for making or breaking us. We must prevail in Iraq or we will face fearful consequences.
Following the 2006 congressional elections, President Bush abandoned the soft footprint strategy that limited us to winning back regions held by the enemy without holding them, and replaced it with what has been called a “surge.” This entailed increasing substantially the number of troops and authorizing them to seek out and destroy al-Qaeda terrorists, die-hard Baathists from the old regime, and sectarian militias.
Our object remains to facilitate self government by the Iraqi people, be they Shiite, Sunni or Kurd, not only to defeat their most dangerous enemies but to demonstrate that success depends ultimately on their accepting more of the responsibility, as policemen and soldiers, yes, but also as loyal citizens, in that effort.
The most encouraging developments have included clearing out Baghdad and provincial areas and winning over the suspicious and the wary elements of the population. Our forces have routed the enemy more than once, but the greatest challenge has been to prevent them from returning or simply moving on and terrorizing another region.
The key to holding areas taken is local support, which entails Iraqis alerting coalition forces to the identity and/or location of hostile forces, followed by the movement to the coalition side of militias that had formed to fill the void left by departing Iraqi or coalition forces.
It strikes critics of the war effort as odd, if not shameful, that people who once opposed us are now fighting with us on the same side, but surely it is wise to accept support from wherever it comes. The more Iraqis turn against those who terrorize them and join forces with their liberators, the better off they are and the more likely that our combined efforts will be successful.
However much progress we make in Iraq, none of it counts for anything unless our nation supports the effort. Even though the evidence is growing that the surge is working, the vast majority of Democrats in Congress are writing it off as hopeless, regarding defeat as inevitable, if not desirable. That a few Republicans have joined them makes the situation more perilous because the Democrats may thereby override presidential policy or overturn presidential vetoes of congressional restrictions, deadlines or funding cutoffs.
Our government was not designed to fall prey to the most powerful faction or to be dominated by the most powerful branch. This is not a government by plebiscite but one of three separate branches, each as independent as possible of the others. Thus, Congress is free to pass any bills it wishes, the president is free conduct foreign policy and wage war as he determines, and the courts are free to decide cases on the merits.
This constitutional distribution of offices gives this government of, by and for the people its distinctive character. A large body like the Congress is best equipped for deliberation, a single executive for decisive action and a small number of supreme judges for jurisprudence. The object is not to cause deadlock but to enable each department to have a will of its own and to ensure that the actions the government takes are based on what the founders called the “deliberate sense of the people” rather than transient impulses.
More specifically, the health of our republic depends less on the popularity of decisions, although no policy can be maintained for long in the teeth of determined popular opposition (the recent immigration bill is a case in point), but on the wisdom of those decisions.
President Bush is not defying the will of the American people by prosecuting the war in Iraq but is following the consent he was given when he was re-elected in 2004. He was elected to exercise his best judgment for four years, not for four months or four weeks, or however long his political opposition believes, or professes, to be his limit.
The unpopularity of the Iraq war with Democrats and others has not made it any less in our national interest to have allies in the heart of the Middle East in the war against Islamo-fascism. Nor does it make any less likely the consequences of our defeat.
However tragic the loss of even one American life in that effort truly is, we must keep our perspective, remembering that thousands more were lost in Vietnam and Korea, not to mention the two world wars. The news media, more than any other institution in America, magnifies the costs of the war and caters to the “transient impulses” rather than the deliberate sense of the American people.
It has taken, and will take, longer to defeat the enemy in Iraq and elsewhere than anyone imagined, but that is no reason to give up. The American nation grew to prominence, both moral and political, because of the character our people. As long as we love liberty and appreciate the virtues of self government, we will prevail. But if we permit ourselves to be misled by demagogues and narrow partisans, we will reap the whirlwind.

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Thomas
Thomas
13 years ago

I hate to see a juicy post like this pass by without comment, either pro or con, so here goes…. I have no interest in debating the Iraq war. I do, however, have an interest in presidential power, which is the subject of the post. Starting with Hamilton is pretty much a give-away for what’s coming. Hamilton was almost kicked out of the Constitutional Convention for his views on the executive. He was the only person (I’m pretty sure) who believed in a “president for life”. His position on this almost certainly assured that he himself would never be given that office. I have great gratitude for him for what he did for our economic system (he was, recall, an ardent nationalist who was not fond at all of “state’s rights”) but his views on the executive were far, far out of the “mainstream” of the framers. It’s clear that the framers worried about “transient impulses” of the public and tried to design a government that would protect against them. The executive, however, was hardly the only mechanism for this. The Senate, with election by the state legislature and even longer terms than the president, also had this role. Funny, then, that Mr. Reeb does not mention that body. Mr. (Dr.? I’m not sure, but he is listed as an instructor rather than professor) Reeb’s position is in explicit contradiction to the Constitutional structure. He says, for instance, that “Congress is free to pass any bills it wishes, the president is free conduct foreign policy and wage war as he determines..” Start with the Constitution itself to see how flawed this is. The president is not “free” to conduct foreign policy, because the Senate must ratify any and all treaties and must approve of any appointments of both ambassadors and… Read more »

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