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The presidential debates wasted too much time talking about stuff only Congress can do

The president has a lot of power — so why wouldn’t the candidates talk about it?

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris addressing one another on the Democratic debate stage from behind podiums.
Debate pardon power, not Medicare-for-all.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The president of the United States has a lot of power.

She can bomb and invade foreign countries, negotiate and implement new international agreements, impose sanctions and tariffs, pardon nonviolent drug offenders, change regulations of Wall Street and greenhouse gas emitters, break up corporate monopolies, set monetary policy through Federal Reserve appointments, and reshape the federal judiciary — all with limited or no involvement from Congress.

That said, the president isn’t omnipotent. She cannot pass laws, or even really do more than lobby Congress to prioritize laws she cares about. She cannot enact new social programs or raise taxes on her own. She cannot repeal past laws or provide new funding for underfunded programs.

So it was deeply frustrating, if ultimately unsurprising, that the second round of Democratic presidential debates focused overwhelmingly on the second set of actions, not the first. Both nights were dominated by discussion of health care, first with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren arguing with Medicare-for-all skeptics, and then with Joe Biden defending his public option plan against Kamala Harris’s more ambitious proposal.

Even the non-health care discussions were overwhelmingly focused on questions of legislation: whether or not to repeal Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, about the Hyde Amendment limiting funding for abortions, about taxing wealth as well as income, about passing a Green New Deal.

I noted this in our round-up on the first night of debates, and I was hardly alone:

This focus was an error, mostly on the part of the moderators but on the part of candidates, too. The presidency is a job with a specific set of responsibilities, and it’s time our debates devoted more attention to those responsibilities and not the responsibilities of Congress.

What a debate about the president’s actual powers would look like

The issues the debates revolved around — Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal, immigration law reform — are important, and there is certainly some role to be played by the president in lobbying for their passage. President Obama was, to say the least, involved in the passage of Obamacare.

But in the six years of Obama’s presidency during which he lacked a Democratic majority in the House, his most important actions all involved the exercise of executive power: the Iran deal, the Cuba deal, the Clean Power Plan, immigration protections for DREAMers, overtime pay requirements, and more.

You easily could have imagined a set of Democratic debates where those kinds of issues took center stage. Instead of being relegated to a few minutes at the end of the debate, discussions of nuclear first use and withdrawing from Afghanistan could have gotten a solid half hour or more, along with fuller discussion of returning to the Iran deal and the next stage of negotiations with North Korea.

Instead of asking about whether they support a Green New Deal, moderators could have asked candidates how they’d use existing EPA authority to promote renewable energy and crack down on emissions. Would they revive the Clean Power Plan? Go further? How? The moderators could have asked candidates how they’d staff the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division of the Department of Justice to tackle consolidation among hospitals and health insurers and bring down health care prices, or how they’d change FDA regulations to either control prescription drug prices or try to promote faster innovations.

The moderators could have asked if candidates supported the Fed’s decision to cut interest rates — did they agree that the economy has further to go to reach full employment? Or do we need to keep rates higher? Raising or cutting rates is not in the president’s power, obviously, but picking the people who make those choices is. Would candidates pick Fed appointees willing to take dramatic action, like much larger quantitative easing and new policy targets, to prevent the next recession, or do they think Obama’s picks were good enough?

In addition to interrogating Kamala Harris and Joe Biden’s past criminal justice records, the moderators could have asked candidates to explain how they planned to use the president’s pardon power to shrink the federal prison system. Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden have already made statements on that — where does the rest of the field stand?

You can talk about legislation, but talk about it correctly

The obvious objection to the above agenda is that it’s too limiting. American voters clearly care a lot about health care reform, for instance — are Democrats really not going to talk about their plans to achieve universal coverage? And while it’s quite unlikely that Democrats will retake the Senate in 2020, barring some kind of simultaneous miracle in Alabama, Maine, North Carolina, and Georgia, they should at least have some kind of plan for what they’re going to to do if they get lucky.

The problem is that a laundry list approach of having candidates debate each other on legislation issue by issue neglects that the most powerful tool the President has is agenda-setting. Obama was not able to get the exact legislation he wanted passed, but he was able to say that a stimulus package should come first, then a health care package, then a financial reform package. His allies in Congress came to those decisions with him and then did the hard part of rustling up votes and crafting legislation that could pass.

Many candidates have said what their first legislative priority would be. For Kamala Harris, it’s her LIFT Act to offer new refundable tax credits to the middle class and working poor. For Bernie Sanders, it’s Medicare-for-all. For Andrew Yang, it’s a universal basic income. For Jay Inslee, it’s a climate package. Elizabeth Warren wants to pass her anti-corruption plan, then a wealth tax.

But we haven’t seen a real debate about why each of these different priorities should come first. Both expanded health coverage and action to fight climate change have good cases for coming first — why not debate that? Why not ask Warren and Sanders to debate whether the corruption bill or Medicare-for-all is the best first step?

An even better debate would be about the kind of institutional prerequisites needed to pass these plans. Pete Buttigieg and Jay Inslee have done a solid job of bringing attention to filibuster abolition as a necessary prerequisite for any kind of meaningful Democratic legislating in the future. The president has no formal role in eliminating the filibuster, but without a Democratic president at least arguing forcefully for its abolition, the odds of the Senate votes being there are nil.

So why not ask all the other candidates if they’d abolish the filibuster, and have Cory Booker defend his skepticism against Inslee’s conviction that it has to go? Why not force Joe Biden to take a clear stance on filibuster abolition?

And why not have a real debate about admitting DC and Puerto Rico as states, not just as a matter of justice but as a practical requirement if Democrats ever want to have a shot at running the Senate again? If Democrats ease into an equilibrium where they have 40-45 Senate seats no matter what and cease to be competitive in places like Missouri or Indiana, discussions of the right kind of Medicare-for-all to pass will seem vaguely masturbatory. Adding new states, of course, requires Congress, too, but its ability to make the rest of the Democratic agenda politically viable makes it a natural candidate for discussions about what to prioritize legislatively.

Most of the blame, again, goes to the moderators, who wanted to stoke familiar fights rather than actually generate illuminating answers on the use of presidential power. But we have many more months of this, and a real debate on stuff the president can actually accomplish is well overdue.

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