Oy, Bob Woodward:

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward attacked President Barack Obama on Wednesday, saying the commander-in-chief’s decision not to deploy an aircraft carrier because of budget cuts is “a kind of madness.Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying ‘Oh, by the way, I can’t do this because of some budget document?’” Woodward said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

I’ve seen multiple reactions blaming Woodward for suggesting that Barack Obama should, basically, ignore the law — but so far, none that have actually called him out on the “Reagan” part of this.

Because Ronald Reagan wasn’t just told by Congress not to deploy a ship; he was told by Congress to shut down a proxy war. And when he didn’t listen, it became a full-blown disaster.

This is the story of the Boland Amendment, in which Congress to shut down a US proxy war in Nicaragua. The US had not only been funding the anti-government “Contras,” but the CIA had taken direct action (mining harbors, for example) against Nicaragua. The history of this stuff is pretty complicated, but I think it’s fair to say three things. First, the Boland Amendment had a real effect.  In some real and important ways, he followed the law, Woodward’s hypothetical Reagan notwithstanding.

On the other hand, he also did attempt to get around the law. The law said that no US money could be spent, so Reagan had the National Security Council staff solicit private and third-country funds for the Contras. The third-party  funding was clearly legal, since it was beyond the scope of Congress. However, the use of NSC staff was not necessarily legal; it was based on a supposed loophole in the law since the NSC wasn’t specifically mentioned. Third, however, the Reagan team clearly went beyond the law in the “Iran-Contra” affair by selling arms to the Iranians with the intent of sending the profits to the Contras.

When Iran-Contra was revealed, it was a total disaster for Reagan. His approval ratings suffered a severe and long-lasting hit (about 15 points, basically lasting from late fall 1986 through mid-1988). He lost his Chief of Staff and National Security Adviser. He suffered through major televised hearings exposing various embarrassing Administration details. And a special prosecutor was appointed, who wound up (for better or worse) hounding the administration up until George H.W. Bush issued pardons in 1992.

Now, I usually think about Iran-Contra in the context of “imperial presidency” discussions and argue that the lesson of Iran-Contra is the same as the lesson of Watergate: it is extremely dangerous to a presidency to attempt to act within the Presidential Branch — in this case, the National Security Council — instead of through the properly equipped and authorized departments and agencies of the Executive Branch proper.

But of course the more obvious lesson is: Presidents who defy the laws that Congress has passed risk big trouble!

In other words, its not just that Bob Woodward’s (current) view of presidential supremacy is both historical and Constitutional nonsense; it’s that it’s a really, really, really bad idea for presidents who are interested in their own continued influence. For Woodward to blithely assert that presidents should be like Reagan and get around the will of Congress is, well, about as misguided as it gets.

[Originally posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.