We’re not hearing enough from 2020 candidates about things they’d be able to do as president

The 2020 contenders.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

This week’s presidential town halls displayed the full range of Democratic Party thinking on the role of policy in a presidential campaign.

Elizabeth Warren has a vast stack of detailed specifics. Pete Buttigieg had an explicit defense of not having detailed policies. And Bernie Sanders elevated every specific discussion to the realm of abstract morality. It all revealed that Democrats not only have a range of ideas but a range of different ideas about the nature and value of ideas.

What we didn’t get much of, unfortunately, was discussion of the kind of policy ideas that really matter — an understanding of what potential presidents would do with the actual powers of office that the president possesses. The American constitutional system is, after all, a rather complicated and nuanced web of interlocking and partially overlapping spheres of authority.

The president’s powers, while vast and larger than those of any other single actor in the system, are in their way fairly limited. And in particular, the president’s powers don’t include the ability to unilaterally enact the kind of sweeping legislative change that often dominates what passes for policy discussion in the 2020 campaign.

Presidents influence legislation, of course, and hearing their opinions about legislative ideals can be an informative exercise about priorities and values. But we shouldn’t let this kind of discussion completely crowd out the basic reality that a president has specific powers — executive branch appointments, foreign policy, judicial appointments, and regulatory discretion — and it would be good to hear how wannabe presidents plan to use them.

Kamala Harris talks about policy the right way

The partial exception to this trend is Kamala Harris, who repeatedly got asked the same kinds of questions as everyone else but who answered with replies that are more attentive to the actual modalities of political authority.

Asked by a student whether we should legalize sex work, for example, Harris offered an answer about what she’d actually done as a district attorney.

My background, as you know, I was a prosecutor. When I was district attorney of San Francisco I instituted a number of policies that were focused on women and children and how they were treated frankly with bias in the criminal justice system where they were criminalized without really looking at the real offender and so often that case was the pimps and johns, so women were arrested as being prostitutes. I created policies saying we need to focus on the other folks and not just on the women. I was responsible for an initiative in San Francisco that was about recognizing that girls who are being trafficked were being called teenage prostitutes when, in fact, they were the victims of an incredible amount of abuse and had been trafficked. And so I created a whole policy in San Francisco that was, one, intended to stop calling them teenage prostitutes, but instead to call them sexually exploited youth. And because of the work that we did we then created a safe house for these young women so that instead of them being arrested and put in juvenile hall they would be in a safe house. And then we were responsible for actually getting legislation passed that said that when those johns and pimps are prosecuted they should be prosecuted in connection with the sale of a child, again looking at what we need to do to figure out who’s doing what.

Harris simply declines to say what she thinks an optimal legislative framework for regulating (or not) sex work would be. The district attorney of San Francisco has an important role in the operation of law enforcement in the city, but the role does not include the ability to unilaterally rewrite criminal statutes. She instead talks about what policy changes she made that were in the scope of her authority as DA and explicates at least some of her larger perspective on the issue — namely that the burden of enforcement should not fall on the sex workers themselves.

I don’t know anything about this issue and don’t really know if that’s a smart perspective, but it’s a smart kind of answer, because Harris is talking about how the practice of policymaking works. Specific people with specific authority do specific things. And while the president certainly has some ability to shape legislation and set the congressional agenda, fundamentally the main powers of office are elsewhere. The president vetoes bills, appoints judges, and runs the executive branch.

Later, asked a fairly vague question about gun control, she responded in a similar spirit, saying she favored new legislation but then detailing a specific course of action that she would take as president.

Upon being elected I will give the United States Congress 100 days to get their act together and have the courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws. And if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action. And specifically what I will do is put in place a requirement that for anyone who sells more than five guns a year they are required to do background checks when they sell those guns.

I will require that for any gun dealer that breaks the law the ATF take their license. And by the way, ATF — Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — they’ve been doing a lot of “A” and “T,” but not much of the “F.” We need to fix that. And then on the third piece, because none of us have been sleeping the last two years, part of what’s happened under the current administration is they take fugitives off the list of prohibited people. I put them back on the list, meaning that fugitives from justice should not be able to purchase a handgun or any kind of weapon. So that’s what I’d do.

There are some questions about whether a Harris administration could, in fact, really put this kind of regulatory mandate in place. But evidently Harris and her team think she could — or, at a minimum, they’d like to try it and see what happens in court. Either way, this was one of the most informative answers anyone has given at any 2020 town hall because it referred to something Harris could actually do if she became president.

We get too many irrelevant questions

Across the five-candidate event, however, almost no questions were directed at those areas actually under the president’s control. Instead, CNN hosts asked a variety of contenders whether they think felons currently serving jail time should be allowed to vote. Sanders said yes, Buttigieg said no, Harris initially seemed open to it and then backtracked.

This is a moderately interesting question of abstract political philosophy, but it’s a state-level issue that the president has no control over.

Meanwhile, essentially every candidate appearance these days ends up spending a fair amount of time on candidates’ utopian visions for health care policy. Sanders, famously, supports moving to a Canadian-style system in which everyone would have a government insurance plan and competing private offerings would be barred. Most other Democrats seem less sure.

This is a fine topic to talk about, but realistically the odds of a Sanders-style bill (or anything like it) passing are minimal. It might be more interesting to hear whether Sanders (or any other candidate) is so hard-line that he’d actually refuse to sign some more incremental legislation. Presidents, after all, have a fair amount of agenda-setting power, but they don’t actually write bills on health care or anything else. What they do is veto bills.

But the vast majority of questions completely ignore these institutional realities. Buttigieg even veered off into talking about constitutional amendments at one point, a process over which the president has no authority whatsoever.

Citizens interested in trying to understand how an Elizabeth Warren presidency might differ from an Amy Klobuchar presidency can get at least some sense from the fact that Warren has put her name behind a huge number of ambitious legislative proposals and Klobuchar hasn’t. But in concrete terms, it might be more informative to ask them about the things the president specifically does.

Presidents have a lot of specific powers

Donald Trump has done a lot of things as president.

Some of that has been signing legislation (a tax cut, a couple of appropriations deals, a bipartisan criminal justice reform overhaul). But legislation really only emerges in one of two ways. You have partisan bills like the Trump tax cut that leadership in Congress crafts and then negotiates with the most moderate members to pass, and you have bipartisan bills that are written by groups in Congress working across the aisle.

The White House can and does alter the course of this process around the margins — and certainly the White House can blow up a potential compromise by coming out in opposition — but the president simply can’t define the frontiers of the possible.

What Trump has done instead is appoint a lot of pro-business people to head regulatory agencies, and made it clear to them that he wants them to proceed in a maximally aggressive way with regard to how much deregulation it is legally possible to get away with.

Any Democrat will tilt in the opposite direction, but the parties are not mirror images of each other, and it would be unusual for a Democratic administration to choose a program of maximum regulatory aggression on every front. So the question of what particular areas a given president thinks it’s wise to regulate harshly on is very interesting and significant.

The next president almost certainly won’t rewrite antitrust law. But she will appoint a head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division and a head of the Federal Trade Commission. Those agencies’ activities will be bounded by the courts, but she’ll appoint judges too.

On immigration, too, almost everything Trump has done has been through the use of discretionary presidential power. President Obama also made use of discretionary authority, first to establish DACA and then later in a more sweeping effort that ended up in court. Continuing the pursuit of some kind of comprehensive legislative deal is a no-brainer, but from day one the next president will face a series of urgent questions about how to use executive discretion over immigration policy.

Beyond appointments and regulatory policy, the other really big thing the president does is foreign policy. Some of that involves military deployments, some of it is more diplomatic in nature, and, as Trump has dramatized a fair amount, some of it involves the president’s discretionary authority over various aspects of tariff policy. The foreign and national security domain is where the president faces the fewest institutional constraints, but it’s been almost entirely absent from the 2020 primary thus far.

Policy is important, but we should focus on the important part

At the end of the day, the kind of policy proposals that Warren has been making — or the vaguer ones from Sanders — don’t actually amount to anything that’s very different from Buttigieg’s statements of values or Beto standing on tables. And values, to be clear, are important. Sanders’s decades-long support for implementing a Canadian-style health care system in the United States tells us something important about him.

What it doesn’t tell us, however, is what is likely to actually happen with health policy under a Sanders administration. And that’s a topic people have good reason to be interested in.

To get at that, you’d need to ask presidential candidates about the things that are actually under the White House’s control: appointments at the Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA, the regulatory process, Medicaid waivers, and so on. That’s all a little bit less exciting than sweeping visions of human betterment.

But the whole reason politics matters is because the political process drives policy outcomes. And the specific way in which presidential politics drives policy outcomes is that presidents exercise their constitutional powers of office. The American people deserve to hear more about how the candidates plan to do that.

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