Columns

Meyer ’17: Opting out of campaign season narcissism

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, February 17, 2016

This presidential campaign has taken place under the collective illusion that the winner will be able to do what he or she says. During election season, mass amnesia blocks out the importance of the other two branches of government. Every candidate goes through the ritual of releasing a series of detailed policy plans as though the winner will get to enact his or her scheme. That never happens.

Even when a president manages to deliver on a campaign promise, the legislative process usually alters it far beyond its embryonic form. Take Obamacare: In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama attacked Hillary Clinton for including an individual mandate in her plan. But after running the gauntlet of bill-to-law politics, things changed.

The fixation on the White House has been momentarily interrupted by Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing. But the effects of the conservative jurist’s replacement will be one of many ways that the policies of the next four years will hinge on activities on Capitol Hill and at the Supreme Court. Voters should evaluate presidential candidates based on their likely relationships with their judicial and legislative colleagues and opt out of the illusion that the winner will be able to deliver autonomously on most of  his or her promises.

The Supreme Court already draws the boundaries of the President’s power. In Scalia’s final announced vote, the Justices blocked sweeping executive actions on climate change. Regardless of whether Scalia is replaced by January, the next president will probably have to replace some combination of the aging trio of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer. The next president’s selection will shape the bench for a long time, possibly ending four decades of a conservative majority.

In the meantime, the biggest beneficiary of Scalia’s death will be Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX. After the news broke, he quickly tweeted a promise to obstruct any nominee and is well-positioned to take up that cause in the Senate. Cruz is happiest when tilting at liberal windmills like defunding Planned Parenthood or repealing Obamacare. By taking up long-shot or obstructionist causes, Cruz can enjoy the status of a conservative martyr without dealing with the consequences of real change.

If he and his Senate colleagues succeed in deferring an appointment, and he manages to get elected, Cruz would inevitably appoint another doctrinaire conservative, restoring Kennedy’s status as the all-important swing vote on major rulings. It would be hard to select someone more conservative than Scalia, so as far as the Court is impacted, a vote for Cruz would be a vote for the old status quo.

The new president’s relationship with Congress will be complex. Both Houses will almost certainly stay in GOP control, though the Democrats will probably pick up a couple of seats to make a more moderate Senate. The insurgencies of Bernie Sanders, D-VT, Donald Trump and Cruz have scared Congressional leaders away from catering to extremes. Congress would probably be willing to work with a moderate President of either party.

Since becoming Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, R-WI, has pushed his party to return to normal governing procedures, most recently encouraging them to follow the conventional budget process and avoid another stalemate. Under a so-called establishment Republican like John Kasich, R-OH, or Gov. Jeb Bush, the two branches would work together to shed the GOP’s obstructionist mantle.

But the results of electing an outsider candidate would be wild. Though Trump and Cruz are of the party, both are extremely unpopular within the GOP. Voters considering either candidate should expect a White House-Capitol Hill dynamic that is caustic and unpredictable. Representatives fearing a midterm backlash against such radical figures would be tempted to break ranks to protect their seats. Then again, unpredictability doesn’t seem to bother Trump supporters.

As many observers have argued, the radical possibilities of a Sanders administration would be neutered by Republican opposition. “Those areas in which a Democratic Executive branch has no power are those in which Sanders demands aggressive action, and the areas in which the Executive branch still has power now are precisely those in which Sanders has the least to say,” the influential liberal columnist Jonathan Chait argues. Single-payer health care and free college would require an extraordinarily friendly Congress. Sanders asserts that his election would be accompanied by a grassroots revolution that would uproot the GOP’s grip on Congress, but the advantages of incumbency and safe seats throw shade on that grass-will-be-greener promise.

The winner of this interminable election will have far less control over the outcomes of the next four years than it feels like. Wall-to-wall coverage of the presidential campaign drowns out exposure for the other two branches except in extreme events like Scalia’s death, exaggerating the power of the executive branch. Voters should resist this trick as they decide who to support during the primary season and in November, instead maintaining a holistic view of our government that imagines an interdependent presidency, not an autonomous one.

Daniel Meyer can be reached at daniel_meyer@brown.edu.

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