Election 2016

Resolved: This Is Not an Election About Restraining the President

Candidates mostly ignore survey asking about limits on executive authority.


For the last two presidential election cycles Charlie Savage of The New York Times has sent a survey as the primaries approached to candidates from both parties. His goal was to get them on the record to express their positions on the extent of the authority of the president as chief executive. What are they legally permitted to do on their own without getting Congress' stamp of approval?

For the 2008 presidential election he got nine out of 12 campaigns to respond and answer the questions, including both then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominees. For the 2012 presidential election, five of the seven Republican primary candidates participated, including eventual nominee Mitt Romney. (Gene Healy wrote about that last survey here.)

So for the 2016 election Savage dusted off his survey, updated it, and sent it off to the candidates for both major parties:

The questions included: When can a president keep information secret from Congress or the public; detain or kill American terrorism suspects without trial; override statutes governing surveillance, torture and Guant√°namo detainee transfers; and attack another country without congressional authorization?

He sent the survey out in September, so they've had plenty of time to work out considered responses. This weekend Savage is reporting the results. Guess how many candidates participated in the survey this time?

Just one. Only one candidate was willing to fill out the survey detailing the limits of presidential authority. I'm not even going to ask you to guess which candidate it was because if you're reading Reason, you know full well who it was. You can read Sen. Rand Paul's responses here.

The only other candidate to even respond to the survey was Hillary Clinton, who gave a canned statement promoting her work for the Obama administration as secretary of state and didn't answer the questions, even though she did participate in Savage's survey back in the 2008 election cycle.

Nobody other than Paul was willing to go on the record to describe how the rule of law and United States Constitution would specifically limit their own authority as president.

Mind you, we're also seeing in this election cycle a significant rejection of the established media as gatekeepers of electoral information. It's easy to imagine several campaigns deciding it's just not worth the trouble to participate in a survey because of Savage's connection to the Times.

But that certainly wouldn't explain campaigns like Bernie Sanders or Martin O'Malley declining to participate, nor the lower-polling GOP candidates who desperately need any sort of publicity. The theories Savage considers for the lack of participation vary by the party. For the Republicans, they are most certainly being hemmed in partly by the popular and unpredictable Donald Trump campaign. Trump has no interest in acknowledging any sort of limitations to the power of the president and is promising to do anything he wants. For the Democrats, they may not regain control of Congress come fall, and so they may decide they want to follow in Obama's footsteps of trying to bypass Congress with executive orders.

Citizens United is just the tip of the iceberg.

It's a dismaying outcome that will not prompt significant outrage in a presidential cycle that is becoming increasingly full of authoritarian promises. No wonder the ultimate example of government as nanny, Michael Bloomberg, is considering a run. He fits right in. At the start of the week I took note of the authoritarian impulses driving the campaigns, partly because some people mistakenly think these impulses are confined only to Trump and his supporters. Sanders is his own form of authoritarian. Just this week his campaign tweeted "Any Supreme Court candidate of mine will make overturning Citizens United one of their first decisions," showing utter ignorance on how the Supreme Court actually takes cases but expressing a very common authoritarian impulse among those with presidential aspirations to try to nominate justice that are going to vote exactly how they want them to. Clinton wants the exact same thing as Sanders, though she's probably aware that she can't make the court take up a case.   

Clinton, of course, has her own problems with unaccountable authoritarian behavior, currently getting plenty of publicity in the scandal of her bypassing federal oversight and maintaining a private server for email correspondence. And she's as bad as Trump when it comes to respect for civil liberties. Be sure to check out Matt Welch's cover story in our upcoming March issue about Clinton's long, established war on free speech (you can read it right now if you're a Reason digital subscriber).

What Savage's failure should make clear is that Trump's campaign is not some anomaly and he doesn't represent just some sort of populist, nationalist angry surge on the right. Trump is the natural consequence of two decades of generally unrestrained, undisciplined executive authority.