An unfortunate fact of political debate is that one often feels compelled to state and restate what one thinks should be obvious, because a bunch of folks are apparently having success at pretending that something which seems obviously true is not true.
Right now, a bunch of people seem to be saying – and to all appearances, believing – that it doesn’t really matter for policy outcomes if Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton is elected president. The rough claim seems to be: Republicans are going to control the House anyway, if not the Senate, so a Democratic president won’t be able to do anything anyway.
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Of course, people can’t be prevented from saying whatever they want. They can say that green is red and night is day. It’s a free country. But the same people who are saying it doesn’t matter for policy if Sanders or Clinton wins are not saying that green is red and night is day. So presumably, even if they themselves don’t believe what they are saying, they must believe that saying it will work, that they won’t be laughed out of the saloon, and therefore it must likely be the case that a bunch of folks could benefit from a quick civics refresher on the fact that it does indeed matter greatly who the Democratic president of the United States is.
In Friday’s New York Times, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) took on a chunk of the task of insisting that it does indeed matter greatly who the Democratic president of the United States is. I say a “chunk” because she focused on one very important aspect of the question, leaving others untouched. She didn’t mention, for example, war and peace, the fact that the president of the United States has massive unilateral power over whether and to what extent we bomb, invade or occupy other people’s countries, or try to overthrow or dictate other people’s governments by other means. It’s no demerit. The topic of why the president’s unilateral power greatly matters is too huge and varied to be covered by a single op-ed, and there’s nothing wrong with focusing on one aspect.
Iran deal, Keystone XL pipeline, net neutrality. What did these huge political fights have in common? They were all about executive action without congressional action.
Here’s the aspect Senator Warren focused on: the massive, unilateral power of the president of the United States, in the absence of new congressional legislation, to shape government policy through executive branch agency rules, executive actions and enforcement decisions.
Here’s her opening paragraph:
While presidential candidates from both parties feverishly pitch their legislative agendas, voters should also consider what presidents can do without Congress. Agency rules, executive actions and decisions about how vigorously to enforce certain laws will have an impact on every American, without a single new bill introduced in Congress.
It would be a massive, inexcusable, institutional failure of democratic discourse, akin to the failure of the institutions to prevent the Iraq war, or the failure of the institutions to prevent the catastrophic bubble in the housing market, if the executive power denialist “it doesn’t matter” claim is allowed to proceed without being compelled to acknowledge and engage Senator Warren’s argument. But, as these institutional failures of democracy suggest, Senator Warren’s op-ed will not, in itself, prevent people from continuing to insist that it doesn’t matter. Journalists and members of the Democratic electorate will have to force Senator Warren’s argument to the center of the stage and keep it there until executive power denialism is marginalized.