Nigel Bowles on the unmaking of the President

With the broken bones of his foreign policy being publicly picked over by a joint House-Senate investigating committee, it was difficult to recall that Ronald Reagan was as recently as last autumn an asset to his party, and the source and symbol of the rebirth of the office he held. Now his administration is gravely damaged, and the old concerns about the office’s modern tendency to sweep aside Constitution and statutory restraint in pursuit of private policy have been reawakened. On the one hand, the fragmentation of American politics, the biennial participation of a fair proportion of its participants in elections, and the statutory restrictions which Congress placed on the Presidency in the wake of the abuse of Presidential power under Johnson and Nixon, set limits on government, just as the framers of the Constitution intended. On the other, this dense combination of constitutional order and regularity of election offers a permanent incentive for Presidents and their staff to find extra-constitutional ways of making government work for them.

In domestic policy, this is exceedingly difficult. But in foreign policy, while the constitutional reins on Presidents are looser – a position confirmed both by Supreme Court decisions and by the willingness of Congresses to delegate additional powers to the executive – all post-war Presidents have champed at the bit. Reagan has done so most spectacularly in respect of the Middle East and Central America – with consequences destructive for his administration, and damaging for the constitutional balance between the executive and the legislature. The President’s protestations of rectitude to the Democratic Congress and public alike have carried little authority and less conviction. The details of the involvement of the President and his staff in the sale of arms to the Iranians from 1985 onwards, of the ludicrously misconceived mission to Tehran by Robert McFarlane in May 1986, and of the use to which the profits of the sales were put, have been the subject of inquiries by the combined Senate and House Select Committee. The major questions were whether the President knew of the diversion of funds from the Iranian arms sales to the support of the Contras in Nicaragua, and whether he knew that his National Security staff were supervising the secret war in Nicaragua.

Whatever the committee’s report will be found to contain, there is more at stake than Reagan’s incapacity to shape a policy towards the Middle East and Central America which is both lawful and coherent, and to supervise its implementation. The essential problem is that the capacity of Presidents to abide by the requirements of constitutional law whilst defending the national interest (the nature of which is in any case far from being self-evident) is again in doubt.

It has all happened with great suddenness. Last year, Reagan’s mere presence before television cameras was eagerly sought by colleagues running for re-election to the House and Senate. In the weeks prior to the polls, he travelled back and forth across his uniquely large constituency in support of Republican candidates. In the event, most of the Republican Senators in danger of losing their seats duly lost them. Reagan’s energetic campaigning on behalf of the Congressional colleagues who had turned the aspirations of the 1980 election trail into legislative reality on Capitol Hill may have saved one Senator from defeat, but made no difference to the fate of others. The old man’s magic had faded. The Presidential coat-tails which many judged responsible for bringing fellow conservative Republicans into office in 1980 during the national rejection of Carter, enmeshed in the misery of Iran, now appeared painfully short. The rule that had governed Washington’s post-war politics, a rule temporarily broken between 1981 and 1986, was back in force: whichever party nominally controls the White House, the Democrats run Capitol Hill. In consequence, the politics of divided power provide the customary political condition for Republican Presidents. Reagan’s first six years were the exception to the rule of the last 32 – and even then the Democrats were still the majority party in the House.

The immediate consequence of the Republican defeats in the Senate was that Reagan’s aura of electoral invincibility was lost. The more important implication was that when the Democrats took formal control of the Senate, they, and not the President, would assume primary responsibility for shaping the political agenda in the eighteen months before the two parties held their conventions to nominate candidates for the Presidential contest in November 1988. American government is compressed by elections. Their frequency at the Federal level alone creates a peculiarly dense electoral setting for politicians to work in, offering little elbow-room; whether in Congress or the White House, the participants are hemmed in by elections or the prospect of them. It is not a system which gives much freedom to Presidents. Only in unusual times do they exercise a sway over Congress remotely comparable to the grip which party majorities have given Margaret Thatcher. The uncertainty which the absence of a Parliamentary majority caused James Callaghan in the last Labour government was of a kind and degree for which many an American President would gladly have settled.

The Constitution fragments political power by completely separating the executive from the legislature, and by separating both from the Federal Judiciary. The need for governance enforces co-operation on the first two elements. Conflict between a huge and diverse executive with just one elected member (the President), and a legislature with 535 members, is probable. Conflict between an executive with a national constituency, restricted to just one attempt at re-election, 100 Senators, representing the States and enjoying concurrent six-year terms, and 435 Representatives who have to endure two-year terms, is overwhelmingly likely. The absence of powerful parties in America has made this mixture still more fluid and still more resistant to leadership from the White House (or anywhere else). The United States Congress is not the executive’s creature; Presidents cannot command majorities through the whipped loyalty of cohesive parties. Presidents who find party colleagues in the majority on Capitol Hill are generally better-placed than those who do not, but in neither case is leadership of nation or Congress guaranteed. They may lead Congress, but only insofar as they show themselves able to craft majorities from unpromising political materials.

The examples of Presidents who have managed to give decisive leadership to the recalcitrant and disorganised bicameral body on Capitol Hill are so few as to be lodged in the minds of every American schoolchild. In the course of the 20th century only three have done so, and exerted a more than intermittent sway over Congress. Franklin Roosevelt did so (dramatically) in peacetime, but mostly at the outset of his administration when the banking crisis threatened the legitimacy of the political system. Lyndon Johnson, much the most gifted and insistent leader of Congress from the White House in modern American history, effected a transformation in public policy, but his influence lessened as Vietnam overwhelmed him. Reagan’s achievement in providing decisive leadership, if only for the first year of his first term, was remarkable. He inherited the office from Jimmy Carter in a condition and context which gave few grounds for thinking it might again be made the instrument of political change. Yet, by legitimate political manoeuvre, Reagan and his senior staff effected quick political change, exploiting the passing advantage conferred upon him by party superiority in the Senate, and by an ideological momentum in Congress and country alike. Later, the electoral processes ordained by the Constitution reduced his advantage: Republicans in Congress began to cast anxious eyes at their electorates, and the opportunity for leadership of Congress by the separated White House disappeared.

Reagan’s prospects of giving such leadership to Congress would not have been strong whatever the results of the November midterms: his chances of doing so following an unexpectedly large number of defeats were poor. They have been rendered negligible by the shambles and criminality revealed by the Iran/Contra scandal, and the resumption of Democratic control of Congress means that Reagan’s effective Presidency is finished. All Presidential ducks in the last two years of the second term tend to lameness: this President’s experiences among predators in the foreign policy pond have left him severely disabled.

In lending his name to the amendment constraining Presidential secret activity abroad around which so much of the discussion in the Joint Congressional Committee has been swirling, Edward Boland has ensured himself a place in American constitutional history. Boland is the former chairman of the House Select Committee in Intelligence. A year older than Reagan, he has represented the Second District of Massachusetts (Springfield and the surrounding communities) since 1952, and has developed a judicious voting record on defence and foreign affairs. He is trusted by his colleagues. Yet his considerable efforts at restraining the Administration are testimony both to the continuing conflict between the executive and legislative arms of American government and to the difficulties which Congress faces in setting the limits within which it decrees that the executive should work in the field of foreign policy.

Boland wrote the amendment in its four successive guises, setting out the statutory bounds for the policy of the United States towards Nicaragua. Ellipses in drafting offered irresistible opportunities to the President’s determined advisers. The first version, in force for twelve months from December 1982, prohibited US support for the overthrow of the Sandanista Government; the second set a limit of $24 million on military funds for the Contras, whilst the third prohibited official expenditure for the 1985 fiscal year by ‘the CIA, the Department of Defence, or any agency or entity of the United States Government involved in intelligence activity’ designed, directly or indirectly, to support insurgency in Nicaragua. The fourth maintained this position, but permitted the CIA to share intelligence with the Contras. Boland’s amendment expired on 1 October 1986.

On the basis of advice received from a senior lawyer within the Administration, Colonel North acted on the assumption that, by omitting to mention the National Security Council or its staff, the Boland Amendment did not apply to him or his colleagues. There can be no question that the Amendment was imprecisely drafted, although it is difficult to see how, as a seconded officer in the Marine Corps, he could escape Boland’s prohibition on Defence Department involvement. The President has since echoed the narrow interpretation espoused by North, despite having agreed in public, during the currency of the third version of Boland, that the prohibition on United States government activity was complete. Robert McFarlane, the former National Security adviser to the President, is in no doubt that the Boland Amendment prohibited any official US support for the Contras. That was certainly Representative Boland’s intention, and it reflected the wishes of the House, which, throughout Reagan’s period as President, has been in the control of the Democrats. (Limited though the effectiveness of party control of Congress often is, it has counted for something: in the case of policy towards Central America the Senate, under the control of the Republicans until November 1986, was throughout the period much more sympathetic to the Administration’s view.)

America’s misconceived and misdirected relations with Iran undid Jimmy Carter. Now Ronald Reagan has been undone by his subordinates’ (and probably his own) policy towards that country. US dealings with the Soviet Union preoccupy Washington observers and Presidents alike, but it is in the contorted and deceitful direction of relations with the two utterly dissimilar states of Iran and Nicaragua that Reagan’s intellectual, political and organisational incapacities have been fatally exposed. The great majority of Americans believe he is lying in claiming that he did not know that profits from the selling of arms to Iran (which he admits to having known about from January of 1986) were diverted to support the Contra guerrillas, and it is certainly hard to believe that the President did not know of the financial support to the guerrillas or of the backing given by the Director of the CIA, William Casey. What is no longer in doubt (because the President has finally admitted it) is that he knew very well that a course of action to which he was passionately committed was privately-funded. Thus the foreign policy which Boland thought that he and his colleagues had prevented the President from executing was in hand. It is not just in economic and industrial matters that Reagan’s adherence to free-market principles is exercised. In foreign policy, too, private enterprise has a prominent place even when (or, in the case of Irangate, because) constitutional procedures restrict his freedom of manoeuvre. Like his post-war predecessors, he has viewed Congressional restraints as obstacles to be circumvented.

There is no way out for the President from the imbroglio that has arisen. If he knew, he is guilty of lying on a grand scale; if he did not, he is guilty of gross incompetence. It is not his staff’s Presidency: it is his and his alone. The plaudits were his when the going was good; the responsibility is his until January 1989.

The damage which he and certain irresponsible members of his staff have done to his administration and to his office does not diminish his political achievements early in his first term. By giving firm direction to his Presidency through a combination of astute political manoeuvre, creative use of Congressional procedures, and an assiduous preparation of the ideological ground, he persuaded Congress to cut taxes, to reduce the funding for some domestic programmes and to eliminate others, and, in the course of his first four years, to increase defence spending by 38 per cent in real terms. The substance of this policy mix has had damaging fiscal consequences, has borne down very hard on those millions of poverty-stricken Americans least able to bear it, and has done less to increase national security than its advocates claim. Yet Reagan’s lobbying of the necessary legislation through Congress was an impressive demonstration of how the latent power of the Presidency could be made manifest. By the standards of his predecessors, Ford and Carter, it was a political tour de force.

Reagan was re-elected in 1984 – only the third President since Franklin Roosevelt to have been awarded more than one term – and by a huge plurality. But the years of his second term have brought frustration. The calculations of his party colleagues in Congress, welded to Reagan’s during his first term, have now diverged as the more prominent of these colleagues set their sights on the White House while others try to assess the cost in re-election terms of supporting the President’s requests for a further increase in defence spending and support for the Contras. One consequence for domestic policy is that Reagan has no more been able to offer a coherent policy for the reduction of the budget or trading deficits than Congress has. The world has been stuck with the damage done by the fiscal package Reagan persuaded Congress to implement in 1981. Last year’s tax bill apart – which did nothing to alleviate the underlying fiscal problem – Reagan has been left with foreign affairs as the one field in which he might attempt to make an impact. Frustrated by Congressional constraints, however, he has pursued deficient private policies in Central America and in the Middle East, where he has embroiled the United States in the hideously complicated and dangerous politics of the Gulf in ways which have already cost American lives.