Healy's talk criticized the expansion of executive power from the original description in the U.S. Constitution. While George Washington described himself as "chief magistrate" and refused to start wars with the Indians without Congressional approval, subsequent presidents have expanded their power. Academics of both conservative and liberal stripes have ranked as the "best presidents" those who have engaged in bold exercises of power, while those who have taken more limited roles in line with the Constitution are ranked among the worst (such as Warren G. Harding, whom Healy identified as the best president). Even William Henry Harrison, who served only 30 days as president, receives low poll rankings. By contrast, presidents such as Woodrow Wilson (whom Healy identified as the worst president, for actions such as throwing Eugene V. Debs in jail for criticizing the draft) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who put 110,000 Japanese into internment camps and attempted to subvert the U.S. Supreme Court by packing it with six additional appointees loyal to him) are identified as among the best presidents in polls.
And today, we have Hillary Clinton saying that she's prepared to be "commander-in-chief of our economy" from the moment she takes office, yet that's clearly not the job of the president described in the Constitution, where the only reference to CIC is "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States." Healy identified his first moment of apprehension that things had gotten ridiculous about public expectations of the role of the president as a 1992 presidential town hall debate, in which Denton Walthall said (p. 132 of Healy's book):
The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of children that I work with, by way of their parents, and not the wants of their parents. And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the two of you, the three of you to met our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it ... [emphasis in Healy]None of the candidates challenged Walthall's assumption that citizens of the United States should be treated "symbolically" as children of a president-father.
Healy also spoke about what he called "situational Constitutionalism," where Republicans oppose expansions of executive power when a Democrat is president, but are happy to expand it with a Republican president, and Democrats do the opposite. It occurred to me that the timing of his book could lead to such a criticism of his work, except that he has been a consistent critic of the Bush administration's abuses. It's too bad it didn't come out before Bush's re-election, though I doubt it would have made any more difference to the outcome than James Bovard's The Bush Betrayal, which came out in August 2004, just before that election.
In the Q&A, a self-identified liberal* asked if Healy thought that Bush was the worst abuser of executive power in light of his signing statements refusing to enforce, follow, or be bound by various laws. Healy answered that he didn't consider the signing statements to be the worst of Bush's actions, since at least they were written openly and not hidden. He said he considered the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII to be worse than anything Bush has done to date, and that he found other actions of Bush's to be worse than the signing statements, such as his warrantless wiretapping, his misuse of military commissions, elimination of habeas corpus, etc. He followed that up by saying that what he fears most from Bush's legacy is that by expanding executive power under a "time of war" doctrine for the "war on terror"--a war that will likely never end--he has effectively made the powers permanent. The similar abuses of the past were during wars that at least were temporary conditions.
I look forward to reading his book.
* There were a few liberals in attendance, including a member of the Green Party who asked me if it was considered gauche to go for seconds on the food provided--I said no, I was taking seconds myself.
UPDATE (May 6, 2008): Also see Mike Linksvayer's report on Healy's talk in San Francisco.