On Friday, I emailed numerous presidential primary campaigns an invitation to participate in a New York Times survey project on executive power. Our intent is to publish the full answers of each participating candidate, alongside notations indicating which others were unwilling or unable to answer the questions. We gave the campaigns a one-month deadline of July 19. You can read the questionnaire below.
The idea is to ask would-be presidents to talk about their understanding of the scope and limits of the powers they would wield if elected – before voters decide whom to entrust with the presidency. One section also asks the candidates to reflect on how they would handle issues raised by what may turn out to be a reform era, in which Congress may pass bills seeking to curb executive power in response to Donald Trump’s serial violations of previous norms of presidential self-restraint, and the next president will have to decide whether to sign them into law even though that would mean constraining his or her own authority.
This is the fourth iteration of this project. It traces back to late 2007, when I was a Boston Globe reporter and had just written my first book, Takeover, about the Bush-Cheney administration’s efforts to expand executive power. Some of the most important controversies of that period had made clear that in the post-9/11 era, the constitutional views of a president and his or her legal team can be crucial – and yet nobody was asking the candidates about them in televised debates. After listening to me complain about that one too many times, my wife Luiza suggested I ask such questions myself, so I did so, leveraging the Globe’s window of outsized influence ahead of the New Hampshire primary. After moving to The New York Times, I repeated the project in late 2011 and in early 2016, each time updating the survey to cull some questions and add others addressing more recent disputes.
We got responses from nearly all the significant 2008 and 2012 primary candidates, including each of the eventual party nominees — then-Senators Barack Obama and John McCain (as well as then-Senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton), and then-Governor Mitt Romney and most of his 2012 GOP rivals. Four years ago, the results revealed a rare commonality between the two nominees, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: neither wanted to talk about what limits on their powers they would respect if elected. My hope is that the dynamics of the 2020 cycle will mean that serious primary candidates will see engaging with these types of questions as valuable and important to American democracy — and that voters will judge them accordingly.