Unchecked and Unbalanced
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The increasing authority of the president and the consequent imbalance of power threaten democracy, say Crenson and Ginsberg (both Political Science/Johns Hopkins Univ.).

Their book, which includes more than 40 pages of endnotes, is addressed to readers concerned with the political health of America and remains generally nonpartisan. The authors view the shift in balance as a crime and frame their argument using terms familiar to watchers of TV cop shows: motive, means, opportunity. An opening chapter provides outlines; the remaining ones examine factors more closely. Crenson and Ginsberg note numerous historical changes in the US method of selecting presidents. The early ones were Revolutionary heroes of several sorts; then powerful political parties emerged, and candidates became party animals; only fairly recently have we seen highly ambitious candidates use the mass media and the primary system to attract the spotlight. The authors describe an ever-expanding executive branch and the weapons at a president’s disposal: vetoes, executive orders, signing statements, regulations. Today’s presidents, they aver, possess “a capacity for unilateral action unforeseen in the Constitution.” Crenson and Ginsberg take a long look at the president’s increasing ability to make war, a power the Constitution specifically assigns to Congress. Near the end, they offer analyses of the decline of congressional power and the recent tendency of federal courts to support the executive branch when it scrapes against the legislative house. One reason they discern is that most federal judges used to have a legislative background; today, fewer than five percent do. As the authors demonstrate, the courts have consistently upheld the initiatives of the executive branch in matters of foreign policy and war and national emergency. They marvel at an apparent paradox: Even as a president’s popularity plummets, his power increases.

A comprehensive, judicious and even alarming view of a constitutional crisis.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-393-06488-9
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2007


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