So it turns out that most of the Republican presidential candidates this year utterly loathe the notion of Constitutional democracy. They—and apparently their supporters—prefer presidential dictatorship.
Think about it. The heart of the theory of the Constitution is the system of checks and balances. Congress interferes with the President; Presidents interfere with the Congress; courts interfere with everybody … the theory is that, as frustrating as this infighting can be for getting things done, it’s the best way to ensure American liberty: so long as government is fighting with itself, it’s not robbing you of your rights and liberties.
However, most of the Republican candidates running for President this cycle have taken positions not simply critical of this Constitutional order, but downright hostile to it. Rick Perry, for example, wants Congress to meet part time, and only every other year—as the state legislature does in Texas. This line draws cheers at Republican debates—screwing Congress is a popular idea. Except, of course, that power will still be wielded in Washington while Congress is at home … and without a pesky Congress in the way! Which makes the president the power center of American government.
Especially when taken in combination with another set of Republican ideas out there aimed at undermining the Court’s power and authority in the system of checks and balances. Rick Perry, for example, wants term limits on Supreme Court Justices (18 years). Newt Gingrich wants to wipe out the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (based in San Francisco, it is far too liberal for most Republicans’ preferences), and has recently further suggested that it’s okay to have the Capitol Police or Justice Department arrest judges who make rulings out of touch with public opinion. Michele Bachmann has argued that Congress should (in its brief sessions) wildly constrict both the court’s jurisdiction and its discretion. Collectively, such moves would gut the court’s power, and remove it as a component of the system of checks and balances.
Meanwhile, presidential power would grow unchecked: no legislature, no courts … presidents would be free to act as they wished.
And note that Gingrich is not some kook candidate from the fringes of society. He is the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives (the only Constitutionally-listed office in Congress), a PhD in History (about which he apparently knows very, very little), and the leading contender for the Republican nomination for President—an office from which he would have the opportunity to act on his anti-Constitutional principles. Similarly, Michele Bachmann is an attorney who presumably went to the occasional con law class and learned that judges are supposed to be significantly free of public pressure when they make their rulings.
To be fair, Ron Paul has opposed these ideas … but his pledge, in a recent commercial, to eliminate vast numbers of federal agencies and their associated budgets IN HIS FIRST YEAR has the remarkable taint of authoritarianism to it: does Congress get no say in these matters?
It’s perfectly fine to believe the current Constitutional order is broken and needs reform—indeed, I think I can make a stronger case that the system is broken these days than I can a case that all is hunky-dory. But that’s an entirely different matter than asserting presidential authority to act however the president wants … so long as “it’s the right thing to do.”
That’s dictatorship, and it is most decidedly not “the American way.” It is, however, what many of the Republican candidates are promising in their campaigns … and it is the rhetoric that draws some of the biggest applause during the debates. Which ought to scare the bejeezus out of anyone who actually claims to love the Constitution—including Republicans.