Debate is heating up in the punditocracy on the following question: Should Democrats appeal to the center to win over disaffected Republicans and moderate independents (as many moderate Democratic congressional candidates did successfully in 2018), or should they go bold and go left to pump up their base? To that, my answer is “yes.”
It need not be an either/or proposition. Agreement can be found on the left and among anti-Trump non-leftists on issues such as ethics reform, the undesirability of fawning over dictators, the defense of an independent press here and abroad, and the need to curtail the use of acting secretaries and directors in Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions. The Democrats have a fantastic opportunity to forge common ground from the center-non-Trump right to the left on a host of issues.
None should be more attractive that the right-sizing of executive power, which has ballooned under both parties. President Trump’s tenure has prompted the founders’ greatest fear, namely the rise of an authoritarian executive. Until Trump came along, Republicans were horrified by sweeping executive orders, rule by administrative directive (e.g. modifying the Affordable Care Act without Congress), international executive agreements instead of treaties (e.g. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and executive-branch hubris in the face of congressional oversight (e.g. Operation Fast and Furious).
In that vein, Democratic contenders should consider a pledge to restore constitutional balance and remove temptations that all presidents before Trump were able to resist. The pledge would include promises to:
- Retract and reconsider the Office of Legal Counsel memo barring indictment of a sitting president;
- Repudiate the “absolute immunity” hokum that the Trump administration uses as an all-purpose excuse for ignoring congressional subpoenas;
- Assure that unless executive privilege is formally invoked by the president or national security is at risk, administration officials will respond in a timely matter to and comply with subpoenas and Freedom of Information Act requests;
- Pledge that for any significant use of military force for any prolonged period of time, the administration will, except in emergencies, seek congressional authorization for use of force and, if that is not possible, at a bare minimum brief the Gang of Eight;
- Require the president, vice president and all Cabinet members to release tax returns, liquidate their ownership in active businesses (employing a legitimate blind trust) and refrain from hiring relatives;
- Reaffirm the legislative branch’s power of the purse and cooperate with Congress in repealing and/or revising “emergency” legislation that gives the president wide discretion to declare an “emergency” and act unilaterally;
- Report to the House and Senate intelligence committees deviations from the normal security-clearance process on behalf of senior officials;
- Repudiate use of executive orders designed to sidestep or avoid court rulings;
- Develop guidelines to prohibit White House politicization of Justice Department investigations and enforcement matters;
- Eliminate pardons that do not adhere to Justice guidelines;
- Agree to fill in a timely manner and keep staffed all inspectors general positions;
- Enforce and develop financial penalties for Hatch Act violations;
- Insist the president reimburse taxpayers for travel costs for any adult children and other presidential relatives except the first spouse; and
- Disqualify judicial candidates who do not receive a “qualified" or "well qualified” rating from the American Bar Association.
In short, the next Democratic president, depending on their ideology, might have real and substantive differences with those on the right or even in the center. However, the bonds forged in the Trump years in defense of democratic norms and constitutional separation of powers could be enhanced and expanded without damaging any Democrat’s progressive credentials. In the long run, these things will be much more critical than progressive taxes or spending and other policy proposals that will be shaped (in some instances, pared back or eliminated altogether) by negotiations between Congress and the White House.