Concord Monitor: The candidates want to fix our democracy, but they’re missing a critical piece

Last month, presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke unveiled a suite of policies to “realize the full potential of our democracy” focused on securing and expanding access to our elections. A few weeks later, Sen. Michael Bennet rolled out a proposal to “strengthen our democracy” by reforming the way we fund campaigns, draw districts and lobby Congress. Then, Sen. Elizabeth Warren posted her plan to “Protect our Democracy” by expanding voting rights and securing elections. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has a democracy plan focused on ethics and transparency. Mayor Pete Buttigieg says democracy is the first issue he would tackle as president and has a plan for voter suppression. Joe Biden called for an international summit of democracies. On July 4, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced her plan to “protect our democracy” and tackle corruption.

There is now a healthy and much-needed competition of ideas underway to fix our democracy.

This should come as no surprise. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 53% of Americans believe that the country is not “able to overcome political divisions to solve problems.” Furthermore, 49% of all adults and 56% of Democrats believe that our democracy needs a “total overhaul” or “major changes.

The solutions these candidates have offered – from stopping voter suppression, to increasing government and campaign transparency, to securing our elections – are critical. Landmark legislation passed this year by the House of Representatives, HR 1, would address these issues. But there’s an additional set of reforms that must also be a part of plans for strengthening our democracy, and that’s restoring and strengthening the checks and balances that keep our democracy from sliding toward authoritarianism. We need to hear more on how the candidates will do that.

Every day, the current president shows us how an aspiring autocrat can rattle the constraints we place on power, sometimes breaking them while almost always weakening them. Around the world, democracies are being overtaken by authoritarian populists at an alarming rate, highlighting the need to take this threat seriously. The American people care about this too – a 2018 survey from the George W. Bush Institute, the Penn Biden Center and Freedom House found that over half of all Americans believe the United States is “in real danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country.” Indeed, we formed an organization, Protect Democracy, specifically dedicated to ensuring that does not happen.

So as part of their reform proposals, candidates need to share plans for protecting our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government. And a big part of that solution will be to restrict the office of the president from abusing its power – for the next president and for their successors. Because, sadly, if global trends are any indication, Trump will not be the last candidate for the office who aspires to unchecked power.

Candidates can demonstrate their commitment to checks and balances in two ways: first, by supporting new laws to guard against presidential abuses of power, and second, by making public pledges about how they will conduct themselves once in office.

As to the first commitment, the candidates should embrace a comprehensive set of legislative reforms to harden guardrails that prevent against presidential abuse of power. Several of these measures have already been introduced in this Congress, including bills that would prohibit improper interference with the fair administration of justice, deter abuse of the pardon power, and provide a bulwark against legal claims by presidents seeking to place themselves above the law. It’s now time for 2020 candidates to go on record pledging to enact these bills as the next president.

The second way candidates can demonstrate their commitment to our checks and balances is to lay out what limits on their own executive power they’ll adhere to. Because the temptation will be great for a future president to see Trump’s extensions of executive power not as cautionary tales but as precedents justifying their own use of similar tools. But that kind of race to the bottom is where democracies go to die. Our organization has put out 11 red lines candidates should publicly commit to observe. And they should answer candidate questionnaires, like the one from the New York Times telling voters their views on the limits of executive power.

It’s true that Sen. Mitch McConnell has already broadcast that if he controls the majority, he’ll stonewall Democrats’ legislative proposals – as he did to President Barack Obama. So there’s an understandable instinct among the candidates to lay out what they can achieve through the use of executive power – and to be hesitant about handcuffing that power. But there’s a difference between lawfully exercising the power that Congress has delegated to the executive or setting general enforcement priorities, on the one hand, and using extreme claims of executive power to ignore or rewrite the laws, on the other.

At the end of the day, the solution to our political dysfunction is political reform of the sort many of the candidates have proposed, not an ever increasing one-way ratchet in which presidents become kings. Because tempting as it may be to seek king-like powers for a president whose agenda one might support and we expect to govern in good faith, history tells another story: that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.


This piece was originally published by the Concord Monitor.